Developing young talent vital if struggles continue

Everyone remembers the Colts’ 2011 regular season.

Media speculation about the timing on a possible return for injured quarterback Peyton Manning dominated much of that year. But Manning, despite his high hopes and intense rehabilitation, wound up being sidelined all 16 games after undergoing several offseason neck surgeries. And the Colts, without their four-time league MVP, struggled to a 2-14 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

The ensuing offseason started as a mess. Colts owner Jim Irsay cleaned house, firing head coach Jim Caldwell, team president Bill Polian and general manager Chris Polian. Then in April, Indianapolis drafted Stanford sensation Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL Draft.

Fast forward to 2017. The Colts already have matched the win total from the 2011 season, but media speculation about Luck’s bad right shoulder has been a major topic in Indianapolis as well as the entire NFL since last winter.

Yes, the Colts play in the AFC South, and anything can happen in that division. But with the most recent news on their $140 million quarterback and the fact that Indy melts down weekly in the fourth quarter, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that the Colts are looking at another sub-.500 season and another postseason at home, watching teams like the Patriots and Eagles chase NFL supremacy.

Luck’s recent setback takes place 10 months after his surgery. He received a cortisone shot earlier in the week to ease the soreness he’s been battling recently, first-year general manager Chris Ballard announced Wednesday. Luck practiced for the first time in 2017 on Oct. 4 and was throwing 40-yard passes about 10 days ago.

“It’s natural there’s going to be some pain and soreness when you’re rehabbing an injury,” Ballard recently told The Associated Press. “And it’s been kinda coming along the whole time; (the soreness) is just one thing that hasn’t gone away. We’re going to shut down (Luck practicing) and calm it down for awhile.”

Could the Colts’ three-time Pro Bowl quarterback miss the entire season?

“Understand this,” Ballard said, “every player is different, every rehab is different, every surgery is different. That’s why we’ve never put a timeline on this. Every guy is different. The good news is Andrew is very in-tuned with his body and he’s being honest about what’s going on, and that’s what we want, that’s what we need.”

Jacoby Brissett, who was traded to Indy right before the start of the season, has done an adequate job of moving the sticks. He’s even led the Colts to their two victories, albeit against the Browns and 49ers, two teams that remain winless.

Even with the Colts still in the hunt for the AFC South title, speculation and hindsight continue on some of the team’s decisions. Should the Colts have cut head coach Chuck Pagano loose after they hired Ballard? Indy’s worst offseason decision may have been not bringing in Ballard’s choice as head coach.

Blaming the entire mess on Pagano isn’t completely fair. But poor clock management, no noticeable halftime adjustments and defensive meltdowns late in games (remember, Pagano is a former defensive coordinator who actually won a Super Bowl with the Ravens) might lead to him being the Colts’ scapegoat. Indy gets outcoached at halftime about as consistently as temperatures dropping in the fall and winter.

“It’s a recurring thing, I know that,” Pagano said during a recent news conference, referring to the Colts’ second-half struggles.

Ballard has high hopes for rookies such as Marlon Mack, Quincy Wilson and Malik Hooker, and some feel they aren’t progressing fast enough under Pagano.

Yes, Hooker already has three interceptions this season, but his tackling is borderline pathetic. He had just three tackles Monday night at Tennessee.

Regarding Mack, Pagano benching him Monday night also was a questionable decision. Mack is one of the most explosive open-field running backs on the Colts. He’s rushed for 130 yards on only 27 carries and had a 10.1 yards-per-carry average against San Francisco. Rumor has it Mack was benched against the Titans for missing a blocking assignment that led to Brissett getting hit. Mack wasn’t seen again in the Colts’ backfield until Robert Turbin injured his elbow late in the game.

One aspect of the 2017 Colts isn’t hard to figure out. All of Pagano’s shortcomings are magnified by Luck’s absence. There’s also the fact that the Colts didn’t blitz the Titans on Monday night after Indy found out Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota was immobile, another shortcoming.

But getting rid of the head coach during the season just adds to the Colts’ chaos.

As 2017 progresses, whether Luck returns or not, Colts fans and higher-ups should focus on one of Pagano’s primary tasks. Time management and fourth-quarter meltdowns aside — the head coach’s lack of developing young players may seal his fate after the season is over.