Indianapolis Colts jerseys head coach Chuck Pagano said all the right things on Wednesday afternoon. Charlie Whitehurst, the third-string quarterback who might be playing in the biggest game of the Colts’ season did the same. It felt as if they were following the typical script that embattled teams stick to when their odds of success become bleaker by the minute. We still like our chances, the Colts seemed to be saying. We still believe this can end well.
The problem the Colts have is that it’s increasingly harder to buy into such thinking. This team was in disarray when this season kicked off so it’s fitting that chaos surrounds it as the playoff race winds down. The Colts are about to play a huge AFC South game against the Houston Texans this week that will be critical to determining which of those squads wins the division. Indianapolis will go into that contest with a quarterback situation bordering on disastrous.
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Pagano said Luck’s lacerated kidney — the same injury that has sidelined the quarterback for six games — hasn’t healed enough to allow the Colts star to play this week. Second-string quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is nursing a rib and neck injury that might limit him as well. That left Whitehurst preparing on Wednesday as if he could be Sunday’s starter.
“We know what we have to do,” said Colts running back Frank Gore. “We have to rally together and play as one. We have to make plays when they’re there. Everybody has to go out there and get the job done.”
The Colts are doing what every team does in these situations. They’re convincing themselves that circumstances really aren’t as bad as they appear. They remember what life was like when they opened the season with an 0-2 record. Indianapolis bounced back from that disappointing start because it possessed the pride that came with winning two consecutive AFC South titles and making three straight playoff appearances.
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This situation, however, will require far more than simple mental toughness. The Colts have been careening down a perilous path for months, one that is all the more surprising because they were a trendy pick to reach this year’s Super Bowl. They haven’t been able to protect Luck. They haven’t been able to quash rumors about a tumultuous relationship between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson (one that may ultimately end with at least Pagano losing his job). Worst of all, they haven’t been able to rise up at a time when they need to be thriving.
The Colts are currently tied with Houston for first place in the AFC South — both possess 6-7 records — but Indianapolis has lost two straight by a combined score of 96-26. The Colts’ most recent defeat was a 51-16 laugher at Jacksonville, which said plenty about how quickly things are changing in arguably the worst division in football. The Colts had won 15 straight games against AFC South opponents. Now, with Houston coming to town this week and Tennessee still on the schedule, it looks like all these teams are eager to exact their own respective pound of flesh.
The meeting with Houston became all the more interesting when Pagano announced that Luck won’t play. The most the Pro Bowl quarterback could do on Wednesday was participate in individual drills while Hasselbeck needed a day off before his scheduled return to practice on Thursday.
“I feel very fortunate that we’ve got Matt Hasselbeck,” Pagano said. “We need to keep him healthy. Need to keep him upright. Got to protect him, do a better job of that. It wasn’t just a couple weeks ago (that the headlines were) ‘4-0 at 40′ or ’40 and 4-0’ (a reference to the 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck winning his first four starts), so he’s won games. He can play at a winning level, and he will play again at a winning level. He’s just a little banged up right now.”
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It is true to say that Hasselbeck did a masterful job of leading the Colts in an emergency situation. It’s also accurate to note that his play was declining even before his own health became an issue. The Colts simply have too many flaws, particularly within their offensive line and defense, to keep winning consistently. The problems at quarterback are reaching a point where it’s hard to see how they stay alive in this playoff race.
Whitehurst — whom the Colts claimed off waivers on Nov. 12 — took all the practice reps with the first team on Wednesday. The upside for him is that he’s been trustworthy enough as a backup that he’s lasted 10 seasons in the league and that Luck and Hasselbeck have been getting him up to speed.
“How I deal with it is you just do it,” said Whitehurst, who has completed 195 career passes during a career that includes stints in San Diego, Seattle and Tennessee. “You don’t have a choice. If you go out there and you play well and you win, then you were part of something pretty cool. So, that’s how I approach it.”
If there is good news in this, the Colts are facing a Texans team that has never won in Indianapolis. Even when Indianapolis finished 2-14 in 2011, one of those victories came against a Houston squad that won the AFC South that year. That’s 13 straight losses the Texans have endured in this town. To make matters worse for Houston, they have their own quarterback issues: Backup T.J. Yates will be filling in for injured starter Brian Hoyer.
Normally, that would be reason enough to worry about Houston’s chances. The Texans did lose a critical game in Buffalo two weeks ago and their offense has struggled without a consistent running game. They’re the epitome of a team trying to grind out wins any way possible. That approach has been good enough to bring them back from a 2-5 start.
Of course, Yates has helped the Texans win two games this season. Houston also has a defense led by Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt jersey. The odds of Whitehurst playing against that unit and playing well aren’t encouraging. If anything, that scenario might lead to a repeat of what happened in Jacksonville.
This is where the Colts find themselves in a season that has left many people shaking their heads at the state of this franchise. This was once a team that was brimming with potential, as they had the dual blessings of young talent and weak competition within their division. Indianapolis had never missed the postseason during Luck’s time in the NFL. In fact, a loss to New England in last year’s AFC title game left many people believing this would be the year the Colts returned to the Super Bowl.
That feels like premature thinking today. The Colts were good enough to excite us but not strong enough to overcome the types of problems that can derail most teams. Their flaws and their misfortune have plagued them throughout most of this season. On Sunday, with a shot at controlling their own destiny, those two factors may be enough to end whatever hope they have left.
A would-be comeback sputtered down the stretch as the Indianapolis Colts jerseys fell 30-27 to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars in London.
The come-from-behind victory could have been Andrew Luck’s third of the season. Instead, his team fell to 1-3, losing two of those contests by fewer than five points.
“We gotta be more professional as players, in a sense, and understand our role, our job and do our job,” Luck said, via the Indy Star.
He added: “A lot of almosts, and almosts are never good enough in this league. I’m tired of almost. I want to win. The Colts are a winning culture. We expect wins. And it just doesn’t happen if you trot out on the field. It starts at practice, it starts in the work hours, and I think we can go back, improve and make that happen.”
It’s difficult to read Luck’s frustrated words and not consider it an indictment of the coaching staff — a Chuck Pagano-led band that continues to find the ire of the fan base. In London, the Colts were again a sloppy, mistake-prone group.
Owner Jim Irsay’s kumbaya session with Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson this offseason, in which he gave each a contract extension, now seems lost in the wilderness of ages past.
The Colts are a flawed team with a talent-poor roster that blows plays and lacks consistency on both sides of the ball.
As more losses like Sunday pile up, Irsay might have no choice but to make changes. Otherwise, he risks squandering Luck’s prime wallowing in almosts.