INDIANAPOLIS – Reality is setting in. Week after week. Loss after loss.
From a team perspective, any chance of reaching the playoffs is going, going, nearly gone. The Indianapolis Colts’ postseason odds are at 3% as they head into Saturday’s road test with the Minnesota Vikings, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
Individually, this hasn’t been the encore season anyone anticipated for Jonathan Taylor. Not even close.
It was just 10 months ago he finished second to the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp in the NFL Offensive Player of the Year voting. You remember Taylor’s breakthrough second season, right? The franchise-record and NFL-best 1,811 rushing yards. The 18 rushing TDs, another club mark, and 20 total TDs. The league-best 2,171 yards from scrimmage.
And yes, the weekly highlights: 14 rushes of at least 20 yards, including five that churned for at least 40. Both were tops in the league.
It seems like so long ago.
“You understand last season was special and everybody wants, ‘Can we do that?’’’ Taylor said. “Yes, you want to get better, but certain seasons are special for a reason.
“Now it’s about ‘What are you going to do with this season, this opportunity you have right now?’’’
The answer is obvious. You move forward. You put disappointing and error-filled games behind, and do whatever possible to make the next game your best game.
That’s what drives the Colts’ undeniable offensive cornerstone.
How are you able to regroup when you’re 4-8-1 and everyone seems more interested in positioning for next April’s draft than closing games with the Vikings, Chargers, Giants and Texans?
“Number one, you’re always fighting for something, and if it’s not any type of postseason scenario, you’re fighting for your legacy, fighting for pride,’’ Taylor said. “You’ve gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.
“Just being able to understand no matter what goes on with postseason scenarios, you’ve just gotta want to fight, just straight-up for your legacy, for the horseshoe.’’
Last season was one of those maddening mixed bags for Taylor. Despite his prolific production – 10 games with at least 100 yards, tying Edgerrin James’ team record – the Colts collapsed in the final two weeks and failed to advance to the playoffs. Taylor was the first league rushing champ not to reach the postseason since Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011.
There’s been nothing mixed about 2022. Only maddening.
Turf toe and a high sprain to his right ankle have hampered Taylor’s availability (three missed games) and effectiveness (a career-low 4.5 yards per attempt). Inconsistent run blocking – the team really misses retired tight end Jack Doyle – and the inability of quarterback Matt Ryan to establish anything resembling a deep threat in the passing game have further debilitated the run game.
Taylor ranks 10th in the league with 861 yards. He’s averaging 86.1 yards per game after running at a 106.5 clip in ’21.
As tough as it’s been, things seem to be picking up as the season winds down. The running game still ranks an unacceptable 26th in yards per game (100.2) and per attempt (4.0), but it’s averaging 122.5 and 4.6 over the last six games. Taylor has at least 76 yards in his last five starts, the NFL’s longest active streak.
“We definitely have gotten more things going in the running game,’’ Taylor said. “Like I said all year, we’ve been close. There have been plays that are close.
“That’s the very fine line. The thin margin of error in the NFL is close is not good enough. How can you find a way to make it happen rather than being close, being right there?’’
The most glaring downturn for Taylor and the Colts has been the lack of game-breaking plays in the run game. With their feature back leading the way last season, Indy piled up 19 runs of at least 20 yards and five that went for at least 40. Both were league highs.
Through 13 games of ’22: seven 20-plus yard runs (tied-20th) and one 40-plus yarder (Taylor’s 66-yard TD against the Raiders).
To give the lack of run-game explosion perspective, consider the Colts’ longest runs this season: 66 by Taylor, 39 by Ryan, 28 by Parris Campbell and 28 by Taylor.
“I think across the board, all of us, we haven’t created enough explosive plays in the run game or the pass game,’’ Ryan said. “In the run game, he’s been close on some, but you have to have multiple opportunities to get to the second level. That’s where he’s dynamic and we just, in these next four games, have to find ways to try and get him into that second level because when he does, his hit rate is pretty good.’’
It’s been a shared failure. The Colts are averaging just 9.9 yards on receptions. Only Pittsburgh (9.8), Tampa Bay (9.4) and Arizona (9.1) are worse. They have just three receptions that have gained more than 40 yards; 47-, 45-, and 44-yarders by rookie Alec Pierce. The 47-yarder, by the way, is tied with the Steelers for the shortest long reception by a team.
“It all kind of fits together,’’ interim head coach Jeff Saturday said. “From JT’s perspective of him taking advantage when he does get those one-on-ones at the second level and making guys miss.
“From the entire offense, we have to be better . . . until we get people off (the line of scrimmage) by making guys miss or making explosive plays with our outside guys, it’s going to be tough sledding for JT.’’
So, he’ll keep sledding. Taylor has sought the counsel of veterans on how to deal with adversity.
“They’ve seen teams fall apart when they go through adversity like this, and they’ve also seen teams that have come back and fought,’’ he said. “You can just see the fight in them whether it was the last six weeks or four weeks, whatever it may be.
“So, then it kind of pondered on me: ‘What do I want to contribute to this team for these last weeks?’ I want to fight and that’s the vibe in the locker room as well. We’re not going to try and let this crumble. We want to fight until the very end.’’
There’s always motivation, even if it’s reduced to the individual level at this point of the season. A few things on the line over the final four games:
- Taylor needs 139 yards to join James (2003-05), Eric Dickerson (1987-89) and Lydell Mitchell (1975-76) as the only Colts to rush for at least 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
- Taylor needs 84 yards to break James’ record (3,924) for most yards in a player’s first three seasons. He’s amassed 3,841 in 42 games.
- Linebacker Zaire Franklin leads the defense with 131 tackles and is bearing down on Shaquille Leonard’s single-season team record of 163 set in 2018. He’s piled up at least 10 tackles in eight games, tying the franchise record shared by Leonard, Jerrell Freeman, David Thornton and Mike Peterson.
- Placekicker Chase McLaughlin set a team record by converting a 50-plus yard field goal in each of the last three games, and his seven made 50-yarders tie Adam Vinatieri’s team mark.
- Michael Pittman Jr. is the team’s leading receiver with 76 catches and 755 yards. He has a shot at joining Marvin Harrison (four times), Reggie Wayne (four), and Dallas Clark as the only Colts to reach the 100-catch mark. He needs 245 yards – a tad more than 61 per game – to join Harrison, Wayne and T.Y. Hilton as the only Colts with 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.