Jim Irsay must decide if Colts franchise is headed in right direction

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Colts owner Jim Irsay (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – When Jim Irsay quietly sits in his plush office at the Indianapolis Colts’ West 56th Street complex this week or early next week and ponders what, if anything, to do to fix his broken franchise, there really is only one question he needs to answer.

Are things headed in the right direction?

That’s it. Everything else – a flawed roster, a defense devoid of playmakers and teeming with too much aging talent, the maddening inconsistency – is secondary.

Can Irsay look at a team that has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98; once again couldn’t win the substandard AFC South, this time with a healthy Andrew Luck; and lost to the benched Brock Osweiler, twice for cryin’ out loud, and Blake Bortles and believe the light at the end of the tunnel is a brighter day ahead and not a beacon to continued mediocrity?

If it’s the former, he’ll stand by his men. Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson, tied at the hip 12 months ago by a surprise four-year contract for the coach and three-year extension for the general manager, will be given another opportunity – undoubtedly one last opportunity – to get their act together.

If it’s the latter, Irsay will push the reset button, and the 2017 Colts, top to bottom, most certainly won’t resemble the team that finishes the season Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Listen to social media and talk radio, and the decision is a no-brainer. Soon after the Colts close ’16 at 8-8 or 7-9, Pagano and Grigson are gone. That will require Irsay swallowing hard and digesting the final three years of each man’s contract, an act that probably will cost him between $15-20 million. And he’ll pay handsomely to fill the voids.

At some level, it also will require Irsay conceding he made a mistake last January and force him to go against his nature that believes in continuity, not change.

Last year’s 8-8 record was easily dismissed with Luck missing nine starts and five different QBs seeing action. Another non-winner with Luck under center for 15 games is another matter entirely.

Let’s get one thing straight: Irsay will do whatever he believes is in the best interest of the franchise. No one is more passionate or committed to putting a championship-caliber team on the field.

But let’s also admit if he decides to stand pat, he’ll face an uproar among his fan base. It’s going to be interesting to see the turnout at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday for Colts vs. Jags. The most significant on-field issues include whether Frank Gore can become the first Colt since Joseph Addai in 2007 to rush for 1,000 yards (he needs 36) and whether T.Y. Hilton can become the first Colt since Reggie Wayne in ‘07 to lead the NFL in receiving yards (he has a 30-yard cushion over the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr.

Fan pressure, though, should be down the list of concerns as Irsay weighs options that will shape the future of his franchise.

This must be a cold, hard business decision.

Are his Colts headed in the right direction?

A few items Irsay undoubtedly will mull over:

  • Since being overwhelmed 45-7 by New England in the AFC Championship game after the ’14 season, the Colts are 15-16.
  • After posting an 8-7 regular-season record against teams that made the playoffs from 2012-14, the Colts are 2-9 the last two seasons. That doesn’t include a split this season with Green Bay (a win) and Detroit (a loss), since they’re still fighting for the NFC North title and/or a wild-card spot. This season, they’re 0-5 against AFC playoff qualifiers.
  • If a team should be measured by how it fares against upper-echelon competition, the Colts fail miserably. They’re 0-5 against the New England Patriots, including the playoffs, and have been outscored 223-100. They’re 0-3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the average score has been 41-17.
  • Since setting an NFL record by winning 16 straight division games, the Colts are 3-5 against the AFC South. Losing their grip inside the division has included losing two straight to Bortles and the Jaguars, and three in a row to Houston. The Texans have won two straight at Lucas Oil to essentially snuff out the Colts’ playoff hopes each time, after being winless in 13 previous trips to Indy.
  • The Colts never have adequately addressed two core Pagano/Grigson philosophies: possessing a strong running game and a reliable defense that’s stout against the run. Since 2012, they’ve ranked 22nd, tied-for-20th, 22th, 29th and now 21st in rushing. During that stretch, the defense has ranked 29th, 26th, 18th, 25 and now 23d against the run, and 21st, 9th, 19th, 25th and 24th in points allowed.
  • Irsay hasn’t gotten the bang for his bucks in veteran free agency. From 2013-15, Pagano/Grigson invested more than $110 million in guarantees. The hits (Erik Walden, D’Qwell Jackson, Frank Gore, Kendall Langord) have been dwarfed by the misses (LaRon Landry, Andre Johnson, Art Jones, Gosder Cherilus, Donald Thomas, Ricky Jean-Francois, etc.).
  • The draft. The 2012 draft was an obvious home run: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Vick Ballard. But not one player remains from the ’13 class, most notably first-round bust Bjoern Werner. Other misses – real or potential ones – raise red flags. Cornerback D’Joun Smith (round 3, 2015) should be starting in Indy, not languishing at the end of Tennessee’s bench. Wideout Phillip Dorsett (round 1, ’15) has only 29 catches in Year 2, including one in Saturday’s loss at Oakland.
  • Luck’s protection. That’s an issue for another day, but suffice it to say the franchise’s cornerstone player and the NFL’s $140 million QB continues to take too much abuse. Kudos to a developing offensive line for not allowing a sack in two straight games, the first time that’s happened in Luck’s 69-game regular-season career. But he’s still been sacked 152 times and hit on more than 450 other drop-backs.
  • Just so we’re not accused of totally piling on, it’s worth noting the Colts’ 48 regular-season wins under Pagano/Grigson are tied for fifth-most since 2012. Also, Indy is a league-best 31-13 (.704) in one-possession games.
  • The most recent draft might have delivered three long-term answers to the offensive line: center Ryan Kelly, guard/tackle Joe Haeg and tackle Le’Raven Clark. The ’14 draft produced solid guard Jack Mewhort and wideout Donte Moncrief.
  • The players steadfastly believe in Pagano, although too often their game-day failings – dropped passes, penalties, sloppy tackling – bring into question the effectiveness of the entire coaching staff.

There’s so much for Irsay to consider, and so much on the line.

The offseason offers opportunity for an expedited reversal of fortune. Despite Luck’s contract – he’ll count $19.4 million against the 2017 salary cap – the Colts could have $50-60 million in cap space. And they currently hold the 13th overall pick in the draft, although this weekend certainly will impact that.

Status quo, or seismic shift?

The football and the franchise’s future are in Jim Irsay’s hands.

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