The Indianapolis Colts' performance in their blowout loss to the New York Jets looked suspiciously like a return to Square One.
The confidence, precocious game-day mind and throwing accuracy of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck? Interrupted by some overthrows, forced throws and a sudden inclination not to use his great running instinct.
Running game? As immobile as Donald Brown's knee.
Defensive sharpness? Special teams? Asleep at the Tebow wheel.
Attacking, aggressive play-calling from interim coach Bruce Arians? Transformed into “play-it-safe” calling.
In short, the Colts' 35-9 loss to the Jets on the road Sunday showed a team with the look of an expansion team or, at best, a team rebuilding in all aspects. I had only the CBS telecast by which to judge. I'm guessing it looked like as big a regression in person, too.
I figured Luck would have days like this in his first NFL season. I just assumed the bad Luck days would come against the Patriots or Texans or some big-time contender, not the dysfunctional Jets. But no rookie quarterback – not even the great Peyton Manning – has avoided looking sometimes like a rookie. After all his great moments this season, Luck couldn't avoid a glitch.
Luck's streak of games with touchdown passes ended at four. His best chance Sunday, in the fourth quarter, failed when he attempted to force a pass in the end zone to Donnie Avery with two defenders in the way. A deft touch on the pass might have produced a better result. Luck's touch betrayed him all day.
Luck's numbers captured his play: 22 of 44 for 280 yards and two interceptions.
The Jets did a nice job of disrupting Luck's dependence on wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Antonio Cromartie's assignment was, essentially, stop Wayne at any cost. It had a cost, as Cromartie drew pass interference calls, including on a would-be pick-six. But it also threw Wayne off a hair. Wayne caught five passes for 87 yards. Decent but not dominating numbers.
Luck's passes seemed too high, too long and sometimes too hurried for effectiveness. He missed Coby Fleener in the end zone. He missed Avery on a pass that, to be fair, Avery dived for and could have caught.
The Colts' running game, without the injured Brown, stalled. The backs were a combined 17 carries for 41 yards. Arians also displayed no confidence in the run game, opting to pass on short third-down plays, including a telling first drive that ended with a chip-shot Adam Vinatieri field goal. Arians went for a field goal early, and another one late, that seemed way too conservative – especially the second one when the Colts were way down and needed a momentum swing.
As for the Colts defense, the old Achilles heel – weak run defense – resurfaced. This is an issue that predates the current coaching staff, with roots in an entirely different system. But some of the root causes (poor tackling, poor angles, and an inability to make a first hit stick) came across as a Greatest Hits (Misses) of the 2000s. It also allowed Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to manage the game (82 yards passing) without pressing, putting the ball in Shonn Greene's hands (161 yards, three touchdowns) as the Jets rushed for 252 yards.
I have no explanation for the Colts allowing Tim Tebow to convert a fake-punt pass for a first down. That's almost all Tebow gets paid to do. Everyone knew it might be coming. The Colts reacted as if they'd been stranded on an uncharted Island (off the coast of Revis, no doubt) for two years.
So now the Colts are 2-3 and at an early crossroads.
It's not so bad that they lost a road game. That happens frequently in the NFL. It's the fact they were beaten in all phases of the game. Any sense of building and improving feels stunted at best. Perhaps it was an inevitable letdown after the emotional Packers game, inspired by the ailing coach Chuck Pagano. The Jets were a desperate team, too, and that can be the most dangerous team.
The Colts return home to play the Cleveland Browns next Sunday. It's far from a sure win, considering the Browns finally won their game over the Bengals on Sunday. They have a run game, and with Colts defensive leaders Robert Mathis and Cory Redding (injured again Sunday) out, it could be another tough day against the run.
Luck has played much better at home than in his two road games (Chicago and New York), and so have the Colts. Maybe home, sweet, home is the necessary elixir to the Colts' sick performance in New York. Maybe.
The Colts returned to Square One on Sunday. At the risk of being too reactionary over one lousy game, it looks like they might visit that location a time or two this season.