The Colts are an Illusion

After winning last night, the Colts are 6-3.  A year after going 2-14, they appear to be headed toward a playoff spot.  People are starting to talk about Andrew Luck as a possible MVP candidate.  In short, everything’s coming up Milhouse.  But I am here to tell you, beloved readers, that things aren’t going to stay like this for long. 

Let’s start out with an oddity.  The Colts are 6-3, putting them something like 6th in the league by win percentage, depending on how you feel about ties.  Yet my power rankings say they’re a below-average team.  How can this happen?  It’s probably because my rankings are crap, right?  But let’s look elsewhere.  Brian Burke says they’re the 26th-best team in the league, which is the nice way of saying they’re the 7th-worse team in the league.  The football-reference guys have the Colts’ SRS (a measure that combines margin of victory with strength of schedule) at -4.7; 0 would be average.  Only seven teams are rated worse.  But the Colts are 6-3!  They must be good.

Maybe we’ll learn more by looking at who the Colts have played.  They’ve now played Jacksonville twice (losing once), Tennessee, Cleveland, the Jets (getting shellacked), Minnesota, Miami, Green Bay, and Chicago (losing handily).  That isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents.  Five of those games have come against teams I have ranked as below-average, and Minnesota hasn’t been looking so hot recently.  Perhaps this is why their F-R strength of schedule is -2.9, also known as second-easiest in the league (behind the Chargers).

Maybe the Colts have had an easy road, but they’re just taking advantage of it?  Well, the Colts also manage to have a negative point differential; they’ve been outscored on the season.  How do you do that while playing an easy schedule and winning two thirds of your games?  Well, before last night, the Colts hadn’t won a game by more than 6 points.  That win, as it turns out, came in an overtime victory; the Colts were tied but managed to get an overtime touchdown for their second-largest margin of victory all year.  Their other four wins are by 3, 3, 3, and 4 (in each of those games, the Colts scored last; it isn’t like the losing teams are getting meaningless scores to keep the margin low).  In contrast, their losses are by 5, 20, and 26.  Winning is obviously nice, but isn’t directly a sign of a good team.  Good teams also tend to win in certain ways.  They beat bad teams by a lot, mediocre teams by some, and other good teams by a little (and are outscored by better teams).  A good team given the Colts’ schedule should have a pretty solidly positive margin of victory; even an average team should be racking up points against the Jaguars (twice!), Browns, Titans, and even the Jets.

Ok, maybe you don’t like the points argument.  Let’s ask, what do the Colts do well?  Well, they have Andrew Luck, so maybe they pass well.  But they’re only 8th in the league in passing yards per game, which isn’t as high as you might guess for a potentially elite passing team.  They also get there by just passing a lot; they lead the league in passing attempts, and even if you take away a hearty 40 passes (their per-game average) they would be 11th, behind four other teams that have already played nine games.  If you switch from per-game to per-attempt numbers, things get worse.  The Colts have been sacked 21 times this season, an above-average number, and if you include the yards lost there and add the sacks in as a drop-back, the Colts are only 15th in yards per attempt, just above average.  If you use F-R’s adjustment for touchdowns and interceptions, the Colts fall to 17th, dead average.  Now, average isn’t bad, but it isn’t what you would think is driving a 6-3 team.

Rushing tells a similar story.  The Colts are 6th in rushing attempts but only 12th in yards; that makes them 19th for yards per attempt.  They do seem to run in the right spots though; Brian’s site has the Colts at 6th in expected points per run play, 9th in run success, and 3rd in total run win probability added.  Of course, when you have a lot of plays happen when the game is close, you have more of an opportunity to pump up your win probability.  By EPA and success rate the Colts run just as well as the Rams (and worse by yards per attempt), but the Rams don’t have nearly the win probability because they’re typically losing.  So the Colts are probably a bit above average at the run, all in all, but no great shakes.

How about defense?  The Colts have an average sack-adjusted yards per pass against, but are 7th-worst when you factor in touchdowns and interceptions (they only have 4 picks on the year, good for a tie for second-worst in the league).  They’ve also been fourth-most-generous at opponent rushing yards per attempt, complemented by fourth-worst expected points per run (although they are average at success rate).  Overall, the Colts give up an above-average number of yards per play, and Brian has them rated at 6th-worst at expected points per play.  All these numbers are pretty bad when you add in the fact that they’ve come against offensively-challenged teams like the Jags, Browns, Jets, Titans, and Dolphins.

Perhaps none of that convinces you.  The Colts are 6-3, and that’s what’s important.  But who do they play in the future?  Well, they haven’t played either of their games against the Texans yet.  Houston is one of the for-real teams in the league; the Colts might only be spared two losses because the second game is in the last week of the season and the Texans could be resting players.  Next weekend they play the Patriots, which will not be easy.  They’ll play in Detroit, which will be a challenge.  That’s potentially four losses in their final seven games.  The rest are certainly winnable; hosting Tennessee and at Kansas City, and against the Bills who are in their usual mid-and-late-season swoon.  So a double-digit win season is not out of the question.  Even then, however, the Colts will have gotten there by skating by on a ridiculously easy schedule.  They won’t have home field advantage in the playoffs, if they get there, because they’re behind the Texans in the division.  That means in the first round of the playoffs they’ll play on the road against one of (probably) the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, or Broncos.  That will not be a good thing for the Colts.  Oh, it’ll be great compared to being 2-14, but the game probably won’t go well.

So let’s sum up.  Yes, the Colts are 6-3.  But they have played a very easy schedule, possibly the easiest in the league if the Chargers hadn’t happened to play the Chiefs twice already.  Their offensive and defensive stats, both of the typical and more advanced variety, are essentially average despite having played so many crummy teams.  When you put the numbers together (either mine, Advanced NFL Stats’, or football-reference’s), they tell you the Colts are below average.  It might not matter, since they still have three very winnable games to play and obviously have some chance at winning in the other four; a playoff spot would not be a crazy outcome at this point.  But unless the Colts put in a really good game against either the Pats or the Texans (or, to a lesser extent, the Lions or Bills), I’m not going to buy in just yet.

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24 Responses to The Colts are an Illusion

  1. pianow says:

    Two other respected power-ranking sources are down on the Colts: Massey-Peabody and Football Outsiders. This team doesn’t pass the “under the hood” examination.

  2. I love this write up, and I’m a Colts fan.

    You didn’t include third down efficiency. (why doesn’t pro football reference have third down efficiency stats?). According to TeamRankings.com, Colts are 8th in third down conversation percentage. Also we rank No. 2 in the league in third downs per game. And we rank No. 3 in 4th down conversion %.

    I agree our schedule has been cake.

    • Alex says:

      It’s a little funny; after I did the post I used my predictions and the nfl-forecast tool and I have the Colts with a pretty solid chance at a playoff spot, even a bit higher than advancednflstats. So I think the Colts, especially Luck, are going to be super-hyped next year.

      I don’t usually look at third (or fourth) down conversions because I like the advancednflstats idea that conversions are just a product of moving the ball well. If a team generally moves the ball well, they should convert third down just fine but they also won’t get there especially often since they’ll pick up new downs on first or second down. So for the Colts to be 8th at conversion rate is nice, but to be 2nd in number of attempts is maybe bad. I don’t both with fourth down hardly at all because there’s so few in general, and of those most are unusual plays (teams trying to run out the clock, or teams trying to catch up late, etc). But again, better to be high than low either way.

  3. EVLGNUS says:

    I am an avid Colts fan who watches the team very closely and I would say this analysis is spot on. They certainly have the potential to be very good in 2-3 years but what we’re experiencing right now is merely surprise at the instant improvement from the dumpster fire of last year’s team. Couple that with the mediocrity that is this year’s AFC and you have a mirage of competitiveness.

  4. Mike says:

    I’ll throw in my own (not-so-respected) rankings in as another data point here.

    http://bettingmarketanalytics.blogspot.com/p/ticker-nfl0.html

    My approach just tries to figure out how Vegas ranks the teams by running a regression analysis off the point spreads. Vegas has the Colts ranked 23rd as of Nov. 9, consistent with the other rankings mentioned (although they are on the rise – having been ranked 30-32 for most of the season).

    I’m a Colts fan too and while enjoying the ride so far, I know we’re no where near what our record says. The only thing that gives me hope is that Luck continue to improve and that the Andrew Luck of weeks 1-4 is an “illusion” too.

    • Alex says:

      Nice to keep seeing other agreement out there. And none of it is to say that Luck won’t improve or that good things aren’t ahead; running an average offense with a rookie QB is pretty good. But he’s still only going to be a second-year QB next year, and they’ll pretty much have to have a tougher schedule, so I think expectations will be a bit too high.

      • Mike says:

        Agreed on expectations being too high. But we still get to play the Jaguars and the Titans twice next year. But we really lucked out this year by getting the Texans in week 15 and 17. Week 15 gets Luck the maximum time to prepare and I’m hoping the Texans may be resting starters by week 17.

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  7. Steve says:

    None of this is a surprise, and I even predicted this. Last place teams often benifit from an east schedule that with decent coaching and a little ‘luck’ could mean the playoffs. The colts went from 1-15 in 1991(worst team I’ve ever seen) to 9-7 and just missing the playoffs in 92. They went from 3-13 in 98 to 13-2 in 99… but we also had a cupcake schedule in 98, and only managed 3 wins with Manning, Faulk, Harrison, Dilger. What I don’t thinl that Alex is account for is that no one thinks the Colts are an elite team.. they just aren’t… but non elite teams can still make the playoffs, what’s more is that teams such as this years Colts get better each weak as players lean and buy into the system, and the rookies gain experience. The Colts are much better than they were in week one against Chicago, and better with more confidence than against the Jets. Now I’ll throw out a few other names. The 2002 Patriots were supposed to be fighitng for the #1 draft pick, they manages to win the Super Bowl.. how? They played together for a team, had good coaching, and a first year starter named Brady. They eeked into the playoffs. They were NOT the most talented team they just won. I’ll also throw in 1995 Colts. Coing off a 4-12 94 season, the eeked in with a 9-7 record as a wild card and darn near made it to the Super Bowl. The only Superstar on that team was Faulk and he was injured during the run. I”ll also name the past two Giant Super Bowls. Call them underachievers but both those teams had 9-7 records. The 07 Giants were no where near the talent of the Patriots team, but they won. My point is… it doesn’t matter if you’re elite. The Colts have a very real shot to go 10-6, that may have a lot to do with their schedule, but that means NOTHING. If you make it to the playoffs, and the team gels, injuries heal, and the team believes, you don’t know what might happen. With a littel Luck, they could win a playoff game or two. I’ll leave you one more reference…. 7-9 Seahawks made the playoffs a couple years back and won a game. They were terrible. The difference is that The Colts are only going ot get better. If they can somehow knock off New England, their confidence will be sky high.

  8. Dan says:

    This article acts on the assumption that people are treating the Colts as an equal to other 6-3 teams like Broncos and Patriots which is absurd. Everybody knows the Colts aren’t that good, the hype around them is because they’re doing far better than expected. Most Colts fans predicted between 4 and 6 wins for the whole year, so to be there already is surprising everybody. I’m sure you can’t deny that there’s reason for Colts to be very excited with how things have gone so far – Andrew Luck has been exceptional and there are certainly plenty of building blocks for the season. The 6-3 record is very flattering but you write with a tone to suggest the fans shouldn’t be pleased with it.

    • Alex says:

      I’m not trying to say that fans shouldn’t be happy; fans should always be happy with a playoff run (at least, that’s how I feel as a Lions fan). More my point is that they shouldn’t get hopes too high, and that maybe the people that are thinking about sneaking Luck onto their MVP lists should tone it back a little.

  9. Shane says:

    This article is spot on, but as a home town Colts fan, you can’t help but feel excited at this feel good story that the Colts have going on right now and for the forseeable future. There is strength and determination in these guys and that may be enough to win us a chance at the AFC Championship. That alone will be enough to satisfy even the toughest of critics.

    • Alex says:

      Definitely; if the Lions were playing the Chiefs and Jaguars and Browns, I’d be laughing all the way to the playoffs too. You can only beat who you play, and it’s better than losing. Just saying that I think things are going to take a turn when the Colts do have to play some decent teams. But maybe I’m wrong; we’ll see how the Patriots and Texans games go.

  10. m says:

    I love how at no point in this article does he bother to mention about how the Colts beat the Packers.

    • Alex says:

      It was a good win, no doubt, but sometimes good teams lose to worse teams. Did I mention that the Colts lost to the Jaguars? Let’s call it a tie.

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  12. Chingling says:

    the Texans, the NFC NORTH and AFC EAST arent exactly easy dumbfuck

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  14. Travis says:

    Guess you were wrong huh?

    • Alex says:

      Let me know which part I was wrong about (as a side note, if I was wrong, so was every other even somewhat numerically-inclined NFL guy). The Colts had an easy schedule, they took advantage of it, they have below-average numbers. They lost to the Patriots, struggled against the Lions (winning on the last play, which doesn’t look very impressive given the Lions’ season), beat the other nobodies, and managed a split with the Texans. I guess I was wrong that they would beat the Texans in week 17. I even called that they would be on the road in the playoffs and they could play the Ravens. I’d say I was pretty right.

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