The sudden decline in Colts’ offensive production isn’t a ‘fluke’ as Frank Reich claims

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 02: Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 02: Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) /

The Indianapolis Colts offense has stopped producing and it may seem random, but this offensive decline has been years in the making.

Head Coach Frank Reich has admittedly put together a top-half scoring offense, every year since he was anointed head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2018.  Why has the league-renowned “best first 15 play-caller” seemingly lost his touch? I aim to explain how and why via a structure that is threefold. First and foremost, some context.

Through eight weeks in the 2022 season, the Colts are sitting at the bottom of the league in terms of scoring offenses. At third-worst in the league with a scoring average of 16.1 points per game, the current-day Colts have found themselves completely disheveled. Once a team that would score with calculation, more than at will, this team has lost all sense of efficiency— especially early on in games. Indy’s offensive scoring ranks by season in the Reich-era go as followed:

Year | Rank | Points/Game

  • 2018 – 5th – 27.1
  • 2019 – 16th – 22.6 (Luck retirement; Jacoby Brissett spot start for the season)
  • 2020 – 9th – 28.2
  • 2021 – 9th – 26.5
  • 2022 – 30th – 16.1

Not particularly by design, but as we all know, Reich has had to deal with a new starting QB every single year since he was brought in. The consistent offensive production is additionally impressive considering said revolving door is in regard to the most important position on a football field at any given time, let alone an offense. However, fast forward to year five of the Frank Reich experience, to a point in time where all hope seems lost. Not only have the Colts lost their offensive identity, but now they’re losing important contributors to the offense by the day (i.e., the Matt Ryan benching, the Marcus Brady firing, and the Nyheim Hines trade). Whether or not the reasoning for these losses is self-inflicting, in the end, it shows just how dysfunctional the offense has become.

Where does the regression begin for the Colts?

It’s nearly indisputable at this point that the origin of said regression begins with the offensive line. The struggles within that group have only been exacerbated due to the fact the Colts have the NFL’s highest-paid offensive line, and as the IndyStar’s Joel Erickson so simply put it, “a unit that is supposed to be the foundation of everything that happens on offense.”

It would be one thing if the highly-paid players on said OL was at the very least holding their own, but they’re not, and quite frankly they look bad. The longest-tenured Colt in center Ryan Kelly has seen a regression unlike any other when it comes to the OL. Once a mainstay who was always one step ahead, is now fighting to keep his job from a second-year G/C out of Ball State, Danny Pinter.

Right tackle, Braden Smith and left guard, Quenton Nelson are the other proprietors of this rich OL, and they too have found themselves in the midst of a questionable regression, or maybe it’s simply a down year. Down years, however, are not an acceptable excuse for these two who wield such mammoth-sized contracts. Quenton Nelson has arguably been the best interior offensive lineman ever since his welcoming to the league in 2018, earning four consecutive all-pro nods, and he was certainly compensated fairly with his four-year, $80M extension contract extension— making him the highest-paid guard in NFL history. Nelson’s regression certainly will be magnified due to his contract and dominant reputation, but as nobody ever is in the team sport that is football, this isn’t all on him.

Ever since the culmination of a reliable OL was formed amidst the 2018 season, this team, and more so its offensive line has been known to be a strong rushing team. No matter what passing game struggles would ensue with each new QB, one thing was a constant, and that is an efficient rushing attack. Aside from the poor play of the remaining linemen of the past, when it comes to the 2022 Colts’ rush game, there are three players whom the offense misses dearly. The absence of these three is both reasoning for the overall regression of the OL but also for who is ultimately responsible for that happening— general manager Chris Ballard.

Do the Colts have too much internal trust?

GM Chris Ballard is as much responsible for composing a trustworthy, yet also dominant line as he is for the downfall of the 2022 Colts’ OL. There have been times when Ballard has managed to make ends meet and get the job done in light of some of these starters going down. For example, in 2020 when longtime Colt and LT Anthony Castonzo went down for the year in a Thursday practice right before a playoff push, Ballard convinced retired veteran Jared Veldheer to unretire and provide the Colts some tackle help for the remainder of the season. Veldheer was able to fill in and help the Colts clinch a Wild Card berth, but Ballard’s moves regarding the OL would soon become questionable after a crushing loss to the Bills in that Wild Card weeks later.

After the 2020 season, Anthony Castonzo would this time go through with retirement, hanging his cleats up for good. This is merely where the regression begins, whereas after 2021 is when the regression was established. After Jack Doyle’s retirement in the 2021 offseason, Ballard and the Colts would also let longtime right guard Mark Glowinski walk in free agency, where he would then join the New York Giants on a three-year deal. As Frank Reich has mentioned, Doyle was an unsung hero within the offensive gameplan, and further, “it takes all 11 in the run game…if you count Jack Doyle, you’re losing probably the best blocking tight end in the NFL.” This doesn’t excuse Ballard from failing to find a replacement for the Doyle role, but rather it proves how important a blocking tight end is/was to the Colts’ offense.

There were certainly struggles early on for the Colts’ OL in 2021, given there was a new member of the starting OL to incorporate (LT Eric Fisher) but those struggles turned into dominance, at least in the run game, slowly but surely as the season progressed. Fisher, in particular, struggled in pass pro but was able to find a groove within the run game as the main six (OL + TE) were able to mesh into the best rushing attack in the NFL.

This isn’t to say the Colts’ offense was doomed from the start after losing any of the three aforementioned players (Castonzo, Doyle, Glowinski), but Chris Ballard’s inability to fill any of these roles with a serviceable replacement is the underlying issue of this modern-day collapse.

How important was Nick Sirianni to the Colts?

So in the case where a head coach is also the offensive play-caller, as is Frank Reich with the Colts and (presumably) both Nick Sirianni and Marcus Brady, what exactly is the offensive coordinator responsible for? In his media availability on Wednesday, Frank Reich said that aside from calling plays, the HC and OC share a collective responsibility so far as the game plan goes. It’s no secret by now that Frank Reich is the sole play-caller for the Indianapolis Colts, and has been that way since his hiring in 2018.

Something Reich has taken pride in over the years has been his ability to come out of the gates swinging, as he is solely responsible for scripting each game’s first 15 plays. Through the first four years under Reich, the Colts’ offense has had a track record of being one of the best teams on an opening drive. Through eight weeks in the 2022 season, however, the Colts have yet to score a single point. Reich claimed this is a fluke during his media availability, yet, it doesn’t feel as such.

Aside from the 2019 season in which Jacoby Brissett filled in for the unforeseen retirement of Andrew Luck (the team still managed a 16th-best scoring offense), a team that employs Nick Sirianni to be a focal point of the offense (meaning OC or HC) has seen no worse than a top-12 scoring offense in return. As a first-year head coach in Philly, and especially as someone who never officially called plays for an NFL offense before, Sirianni took a team with unappealing weapons and a young QB to the 12th-best scoring offense en route to a Wild Card berth. Fast forward to 2022 and Sirianni and Co. are cruising through eight weeks, as they are the only undefeated team in the NFL while sporting the third-best scoring offense.

This direct correlation is only 1.5 years in the making, however, it appears that Nick Sirianni is as important to an offense as Reich once claimed. Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni truly seem like they are two peas in a pod, as their metaphorical mindsets often are the first things we think of when deciphering their similarities. Both offensive-minded individuals, their on-the-field similarities were just as strong. Reich even said that Sirianni was, “a driving force in everything we did as the coordinator,” proving just how integral Sirianni was to the Colts’ everyday success.

Ultimately, the overall regression of offensive production and efficiency is less about the loss of now Eagles HC Nick Sirianni and more due to the failures of GM Chris Ballard in replicating a reliable offensive line of recent memory. Though, the loss of Sirianni is certainly a factor altogether. Frank Reich certainly doesn’t get a pass in all of this either, as he too is responsible for said deterioration.

Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni surely were a dynamic duo when it comes to running NFL offenses, however, it seems clear more than ever that Reich needed Sirianni more than Sirianni ever needed him.