13 carries for 4 total rushing yards.
That was the statistical line for Indianapolis Colts running backs in last Sunday night’s game against the New England Patriots. A statistic that’s equally as disturbing as the 201 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns that were surrendered to Patriots running back Jonas Gray on the defensive side of the ball.
As much talk as the defense has gotten this week, it’s time to address the current situation of the offensive line, and whether the Colts are truly putting their best product on the field. The left side of the line is doing just fine with starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo and rookie left guard Jack Mewhort both playing at a high level, but it’s the rest of the offensive line that may be underperforming. Consequently, it may be time for a change at some of the remaining starting spots:
In Week 5 against the Baltimore Ravens, the Indianapolis Colts made the decision to sit then filling-in starting center A.Q. Shipley for undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison. There was no real explanation given for the move, other than that Harrison was “the better option” and potentially viewed as the long-term future center of the organization.
Sep 28, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts center A.Q. Shipley (63) against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Flash-forward to Week 12, and while Harrison initially showed promise, he hasn’t played all that well in recent games. With 6 starts under his belt, he now has a large enough sample size of games, where he can be fairly and objectively evaluated. It’s not just simply that Harrison hasn’t played well either, it’s the starting center that he effectively replaced, A.Q. Shipley, was seemingly playing at a high level before his benching.
It’s not the first time this has happened either for Shipley, who in 2012 with the Colts, was benched for then-Colts’ starting center Samson Satele. During 2012, in his 5 games starting as Satele’s replacement, Shipley had played pretty well. According to the advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus (PFF), Shipley had an overall grade of +8.1, ranking him as the 17th best starting center in the NFL.
To put that in perspective, the incumbent, the underperforming Satele, had a PFF grade of -5.7 in his 11 starts, ranking him as the 33rd best starting center in the NFL among active qualifiers. Satele returned from injury, and Shipley was relegated back to the bench despite clearly outplaying the former in his brief stint as the starting center. The money committed to Satele, a 3-year contract of $10.8M (including $5M guaranteed) signed in March of 2012 may have clouded better judgment among the Colts’ braintrust.
Oct 19, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) drops back to pass, while his center Jonotthan Harrison (72) blocks, during the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
However, Shipley’s most recent benching is perplexing because there’s neither big money nor a high draft pick at stake here to save face on for any of the parties involved. The Colts really have nothing to gain here from a “politics” standpoint; rather, the emphasis should be clearly on putting the best offensive line on the field. With Harrison being signed as an undrafted rookie free agent, the Colts have very little invested in him right now at a meager $427,500 rookie salary and no draft pick attached to his name.
What’s the hold-up then? If the Colts are truly wanting to contend, then why not put your best product on the field? There should be no problem with Harrison being potentially viewed as the long-term center for the Colts, but if he’s not ready, he’s not ready. It’s awfully hard to both contend and develop, yet the Colts continuously insist on trying to do both, and one could make a relatively strong argument that it’s hurting the team’s performance:
According to ProFootballFocus, Shipley has beeen much more effective this season as the starting center for the Colts. While these grades aren’t the “all-be” of player evaluation, they do provide a useful tool of objective evaluation. Offensive lineman are particuarly hard to objectively evaluate because there aren’t many relevant statistics like tackles, sacks, etc. are for defensive lineman; and a lot of the heralded ones conversely live off reputation rather than performance.
The Colts’ brass also has to look at the toll Harrison’s insertion into the starting lineup has done to their franchise quarterback in #12, QB Andrew Luck. The above are sacks, hits, and hurries that have been credited as individually allowed by each of A.Q. Shipley and Jonotthan Harrison respectively this season by PFF. He’s been hit more than double the amount of times with Harrison manning the middle (0.40 to 0.83), as well as hurried nearly 5x as much (0.40 to 1.83) than with Shipley under center.
Starting right guard Hugh Thornton was benched in Week 9 against the New York Giants because of disciplinary reasons; however, it might be time for the Colts to consider benching him again for poor performance. Only this time, it shouldn’t be for journeyman guard Lance Louis. Rather, the Colts should look at inserting 4th-year veteran Joe Reitz back into the starting lineup.
Oct 9, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Indianapolis Colts guard Joe Reitz (76) against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
While he’s listed as the 2nd-string back-up at left tackle behind Castonzo, at a listed 6’7″ and 325 pounds, Reitz has always been more of a natural guard, and it’s a testament to his athleticism that he can play both positions effectively. He was a former collegiate basketball player afterall.
As you may recall, Reitz had 3 starts for the Colts in 2013. In those aforementioned starts, PFF gave him a positive overall grade of +5.5, the highest grade any Colts’ offensive guard received during all of last season.
It’s like deja blue all over again for Reitz this season. In his one start against the Houston Texans in Week 6, Reitz had a positive overall grade of +3.8, playing in all 87 of the offense’s snaps that week, as he filled in for then injured starting left guard Jack Mewhort. His +3.8 grade overall has him once again as the highest graded guard on the team this season. Perhaps, most impressive though, is that this was accomplished while occasionally lining up against All-Pro Texans’ defensive lineman J.J. Watt.
In comparison to Thornton, Reitz appears to be the better option right now. As a former 3rd round pick of the Colts in 2013, Thornton has shown flashes of being a quality starting offensive lineman, but has been plagued by up-and-down play throughout this 2-year NFL career. Unfortunately, as indicated by last weekend’s performance, it’s gotten to the point where the Colts may not be able to continue to develop Thornton at the expense of the offense, as it’s starting to cost the team the ability to win football games.
If the Colts truly consider themselves as contenders, then they are running a very risky proposition right now as far as their offensive line is concerned. As mentioned, it’s incredibly difficult to both develop while contend, and it may be starting to hurt the offense with the Colts currently attempting to do both. It realistically may have to be one or the other, but it doesn’t look like the Colts have any plans to budge on their duel approach anytime soon.
However, based on the advanced statistics as well as clear on-the-field performance, one could make a strong argument that change is needed. Fortunately for the Colts, the team might already have two upgrades already on their roster, if they’d just be willing to Reitz the Ship-ley and use them.
Nov 16, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) gestures at the line of scrimmage during a game against the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports