The question for the Indianapolis Colts now is who learns from this season and who doesn't. I'm confident quarterback Andrew Luck will. The coaching staff? Jury's still out.
Luck immediately took his share of the blame – more than his share, to be honest – after the New England Patriots beat the Colts 43-22 in their AFC divisional-round playoff game Saturday in Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
There was Luck, beamed live to all of us watching the postgame reaction on ESPN, stepping up to the microphone, facing the pressure and accepting his role in the loss.
“I didn't do a good enough job,” Luck said, then repeated, “I didn't do a good enough job.”
Luck threw an interception, on a forced pass, on the Colts' first possession of the game and it led to the first of four LeGarrette Blount touchdown runs. He threw a couple other bad picks, too, and finished with four interceptions. It was not his best game. And, yet, he also found a way to bring the Colts within 29-22 entering the fourth quarter, more than close enough for a win.
“We had our chances when we pulled within a score,” Luck said. “We had big stops from the defense, but offensively, we couldn't get over that final hump and we paid for it.”
The Patriots aren't the Chiefs. They kept pushing the running game – something everyone thought they would try to do – and when Blount broke free for a 73-yard score to make it 36-22, they were on the verge of a technical knockout. But there was 12:55 left, more than enough for the Colts. Luck threw deep, perhaps bolstered by big passes to T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill, right into coverage, and right into an interception.
It was that kind of night for Luck: Bad play, good play, great play, lousy play.
“We just couldn't get a rhythm going early,” Luck said. “First series, the interception, putting our defense in that position is inexcusable and that's on me. They did a good job keeping us out of our rhythm.”
If you look at Luck's two years in the league, he always seems to rebound from his mistakes and lesser games and use the experience to improve. There's little doubt that will continue. In many ways, this might have been a natural rite of passage – facing a couple masters, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady – and taking a lesson in confident, strategic play.
I expect Luck to learn from the humbling experience, but will the Colts coaching staff?
It still feels a bit like coach Chuck Pagano is a great day-to-day motivator and encourager, a decent halftime adjuster but a hesitant “in-the-moment” coach.
There's no satisfying explanation for punting on 4th-and-1, trailing by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Yes, the Colts were deep in their own territory. But they needed three scores on a night when their defense had been gouged several times. Time was not on their side. It's way past a strategic punting moment. Pagano made a similar call in the regular-season loss to San Diego. It's conservative at best, timid at worst. It's 4th-and-1 late in a one-and-done. The moment called for boldness. Pagano declined.
The Colts punted. New England ate up the clock until it didn't matter. That's a bad call every time.
Granted, even the greatest coaches make dumb decisions to punt (Belichick's at midfield turned into a snapping fiasco and a safety), but Pagano hasn't shown that he's willing to reconsider strategy after failed moments.
The other issue was Luck's interception that bounced off fullback Stanley Havili's shoulder pads, after slipping through Havili's hands. You could give Luck some of the blame. The pass was a hair behind. Still, it hit Havili's hands.
Here again is an example of the Colts not learning from the past. Pep Hamilton has pushed the use of the fullback this season. Yet the last few games, when the Colts' offense was its most productive, the fullback wasn't an integral part. When they pulled within seven points Saturday, on Luck's 46-yard and 35-yard completions to Hilton and Brazill, they followed up the next two series with four running plays in eight snaps and essentially got nowhere.
The Colts earlier settled for a field goal after reaching a 1st-and-goal at the 4-yard line. That was set up by a great Marvin Harrison-style catch by Hilton and a nice fastball strike from Luck to Coby Fleener. It fizzled with “power runs” by Donald Brown, who's not a power runner, and Trent Richardson, who has a power outage.
I'm not sure where to even start with the defense, which knew the Patriots would rely on the running game, yet could do nothing to slow it. Some of Blount's success (he finished with 166 yards) could be blamed on the Colts' offense for handing over field position. The Colts have allegedly been building a defense that will stop the run. To take the most optimistic viewpoint: It's not built yet. They might be still searching for a contractor.
The Colts gave up 43 points without Brady throwing a touchdown pass. (The previous sentence contains no typographical errors.)
Was this season a step forward for the Colts in Year Two of the post-Peyton Manning era? The answer is yes. Two straight playoff berths, a playoff win this year and some big wins despite personnel losses is progress.
Year Three will require that the Colts learn from these past two years and make the necessary changes. Luck will. Who else?