Money Ball in the NFL: How the Indianapolis Colts are Positioned to Deal with the Salary Cap

Bimagesy Max Partlo

There are certain realities of managing an NFL team, the first of which, is that it is very hard to become a good team. Secondly, it might be even harder to keep a good team together. Looking at the Seattle Seahawks, we saw a team so deep with young talent coming up on expiring contracts, that come payday, they faced critical personnel decisions and tradeoffs. In dealing with these contract decisions, a funny trend came to light. At every turn, the Seahawks chose to keep their talented players at a high cost, forfeiting valuable cap space at the expense of depth and flexibility down the line. As the numbers stand now, the Seahawks have committed upwards of $139 million to the top 13 players on their roster, in terms of cap hit for the 2016 season, while still having to resign their star left tackle and resolve Kam Chancellor’s contract dispute.

Seattle’s dilemma of having too much talent on their hands this offseason was certainly an enviable one, but it largely stemmed from the issue of having to pay a promising young quarterback his market value. One other team that faces a similar set of looming decisions is the Indianapolis Colts, whose 2012 draft class yielded not only the most promising young signal caller in the league by way of Andrew Luck, but also a trio of pass catchers who racked up a combined 2,514 yards and 23 touchdowns in TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen. Luck, entering his fourth season, has already been locked in to a 5th year team option, but will likely see a record setting extension on top of that option in the next offseason. Hilton, meanwhile, received a 4 year, $65 Million deal during training camp last month. However, both of the tight ends, and starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2015 campaign. Like the Seahawks, the Colts must evaluate how to divide their limited cap space in order to maximize the long term potential of the team. The key question though, is what must be sacrificed in order to maintain and improve other elements of the team?

The answer, if I were in GM Ryan Grigson’s position, would be quite simple. While the Seahawks retained top end talent at the expense of depth, the Colts must retain offensive and defensive weapons in the pass game at the expense of running the ball and defending the run. While this may fly in the face of conventional football logic, the NFL is still further evolving into a passing league, and when resources such as salary cap space are limited, it is essential that the Colts go where they get the most bang for their buck. This is not to say that teams can’t win by running the ball, as the Seahawks and the Patriots[1] have achieved great success with a higher concentration of rushing plays. Still though, a recent study shows that offensive pass efficiency explains 62% of the variance in winning in the NFL, while rushing only explains 4.4%. As such, with few resources for improvement as a team soon to be with little cap space and later draft picks, the Colts can shift the way the game is played by amplifying their strengths[2] in order to reduce the importance of their weaknesses[3]. Last year, Indy played with a lead 54% of the time, the highest such figure in the NFL. When ahead, the Colts threw the ball 57% of the time, or the second most frequently in the league. When tied or behind, they threw the ball on 70% of plays and 79% of plays, respectively, both of which were tops in the league. This strategy lent itself well to the Colts’ personnel, as they threw the ball often and very well, and kept opponents from taking advantage of the Colt’s porous run defense.

Critics of offseason moves like drafting Philip Dorsett or signing Andre Johnson claim that the Colts would be better served by investing in run defense and preventing teams from holding leads late in games by chewing up the clock. This, however, should be viewed as preparing to fail. It appears the Colts rightly believe – according to their production last year[4] – that they are capable of throwing their way to wins.  If they plan on still passing the ball while ahead as a way of defending that lead, then there is no need to invest in assets that specialize in run defense; Indianapolis’ entire model is built around not being in a position where the opponent’s rushing offense is a significant factor. The blueprint for the Colts to beat the Patriots doesn’t work when the offense doesn’t play well, as they are designed to outscore their opponents.  So, the Colts are best served by investing in the offensive weapons and resources that will turn games into shootouts, and not by spending draft picks and cap space on run defenders in the hopes that they can prevent blowouts.

[1] Despite the recent run-heavy drubbings they have put on the Colts, the Pats’ ability to focus so solely on the run game is more a function of holding the lead and capitalizing on Colt turnovers than a singular desire to run the ball.

[2] Throwing the ball and letting Vontae Davis play shutdown defense.

[3] Anything involving either team running the ball.

[4] They ranked first in the league in both passing yards and touchdowns as a team.

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