Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator caused mass uproar two weeks ago when he announced that the Colts offense would be moving to a new offensive system in 2014.
The fundamental change? The Colts will be a "score-first" team in 2014, according to Mike Wells of ESPN.com.
Now, if you haven't picked up on it, there's some facetiousness laced into those sentences. It should be the goal of every NFL offense to score as many points as possible. However, there were times last season when the Colts didn't seem to do everything they could to most efficiently move the ball, opting instead on philosophical approach bent on wearing out a defense based on running the ball.
One look at the Colts roster and it can easily be ascertained that this wasn't going to be the best plan. In the run game, the Colts featured a mediocre group of running backs and a weak offensive line, while the passing game featured Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne (for a time) and other young, explosive targets.
It seemed, at times, that the Colts were more worried about "wearing down the defense" and winning the time of possession battle than they were actually putting points on the board. Whether this was an actual, conscious action or not is largely irrelevant, that was the sense gathered from some play-calling.
In the end, Hamilton's words about the offense's focus in 2014 mean little. Being "score-first" in words means little. What matters is what we'll see in September.
The first step in compiling expectations for 2014 is looking back at 2013 for hints at Hamilton's evolution throughout his first NFL season as an offensive coordinator.
It was a season willed with adversity for the offense, which lost five starters (including a future Hall of Fame receiver) by Week 7 and was forced to rely on rookies and inexperienced second-year players for far more snaps than expected. Not to completely absolve Hamilton and the rest of the coaching staff for some of the offense's issues (Playing Darrius Heyward-Bey over T.Y. Hilton for the first half of the season is unforgivable), but there were certainly trying circumstances.
But Hamilton's trends didn't really change as much as some would have you believe as the season went on, at least, not from a basic number standpoint. The amount of runs compared to passes, for example, stayed roughly the same.
|Colts Run vs. Pass Splits, 2013|
|Pro Football Focus, Kyle J. Rodriguez|
We saw just as much running, heavy sets and the like. It's a common misconception that the Colts ran less two-tight end sets as the season went on, but that's really not true. Jack Doyle and Weslye Saunders, for example, averaged 43 offensive snaps per game between the two of them over the final five games of the season. Counting Dwayne Allen as the "second" tight end in the Colts' win over Oakland, the Colts' second and third tight end in that game combined for 35 offensive snaps.
One thing that did change was the use of fullback Stanley Havili. He was used heavily in the first half of the season, but he was watered down as the season went on. Havili averaged over 28 snaps per game before the bye, but averaged just 18 snaps per game post-bye. In fact, Havili had more than 22 snaps just twice: 43 and 34-snap outings in the Colts' two games against Tennessee. In the postseason Havili had just 16 total offensive snaps.
Now, the fact that the Colts trailed more often in the second half of the season does play into the declining fullback use, but it didn't as much with the tight ends. This is likely because tight ends offer more flexibility, something on which Hamilton puts a high premium.
That tight end usage could be impacted by the hiring of former Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski, a noted tight end guru. Obviously, the return of Dwayne Allen will be a boost as well. With the level of tight end usage likely to stay the same, one can only imagine that the fullback snaps will be closer to what we saw at the end of the season than the beginning. With a healthy Reggie Wayne, an emerging T.Y. Hilton, the addition of Hakeem Nicks and a slew of developmental receivers, there simply won't be enough snaps for a guy like Havili to be on the field a third of the time.
One philosophical shift that we did see as the season evolved was a more effective use of deep passing plays.
From Weeks 1-7, the Colts had just six passing plays gaining 30-plus yards. They picked up 18 such plays after the bye, including seven in the Colts' two playoff games as Hamilton really let Luck loose.
Those plays prior to the bye were not the traditional, over-the-top plays we think of when we think deep throws either. Four of the six were mid-level throws to Wayne or Fleener with some yards added after the catch, such as this catch by Wayne against Jacksonville:
T.Y. Hilton did have two long catches, including this fantastic catch against Miami, but he was largely under utilized. He went on to have eight catches of 30-plus yards during the second half of the season, while Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill contributed five more.
Luck, despite the "concerns" about arm strength coming out of college has been a very good passer on deep passes so far in his career. Over the last two years, he's put together a grade of plus-44.3 on throws that have traveled at least 10 yards, while grading out at -16.8 on throws that travel less than 10 yards, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In 2013, he had a positive grade in every zone over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and a negative grade in all zones prior to the 10-yard mark.
Part of that issue in 2013 was the void of a possession receiver. With Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen hurt, there was nobody to win in those small spaces. With Wayne, Nicks and Allen on board for 2014, the short passes should be better.
But that doesn't mean the Colts should go back to emphasizing the short passes. Luck and these young, explosive receivers have been lethal with the long ball when schemed properly, and that threat is an irreplaceable chess piece against defenses.
While the Colts will continue to feature, and even stress, the running game, Hamilton did make some subtle changes in play design and concepts as the season went on. If he can combine those changes with a healthy roster in 2014, there's no reason why the offense can't be one of the five best in the league.
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