INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.
But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.
“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’
Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’
He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to improve. We’ve got to evaluate everything we’re doing within our program and we’ve got to find the answers.’’
No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.
Today: Running backs.
Starter: Marlon Mack.
Backups: Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Johnathan Williams.
Reich set the bar high from the outset. He wanted a top-5 rushing team. More than that, he wanted a 2,000-yard rushing season. The Colts fell short on the former – they finished 7th, but just 24 yards out of 5th (Dallas) – but blew past the latter. With Mack & Co. working behind one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines, they piled up 2,130 yards, the first time they breached 2,000 since 1994 and their most since ’88. They had three 200-yard rushing games for the first time since ’88.
Yes, the offensive line deserves credit for creating creases and room for the backs to operate. But it must be noted the running game was among the league’s most productive without benefit of a reliable down-the-field passing game. That allowed defenses to load up the box and make it more difficult to run.
Yet run they did.
Mack entered his third season with critics wondering if he could stay on the field (six missed games in his first two seasons). He missed two games, but it took a fractured right hand to keep him on the sideline. He cracked the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career (1,091). It marked the most by a Colt since 2005 (Edgerrin James with 1,506).
Mack was the constant – he averaged a career-high 17.6 carries per game – and the reason the rest of the running backs room worked so well as a unit.
“You have a good No. 1 back with Marlon that can do a lot of different things, who is able to catch the ball out of the backfield, make explosive plays and make guys miss, get in the open field and open it up and pull away from the defense,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said.
Mack averaged 4.4 yards per carry. He had 14 carries of at least 15 yards, including nine that gained at least 20. He thrived on quick decisions, power, an impressive acceleration and a lethal stiff arm.
The complementary pieces simply fit. Williams took over when Mack was out with his fractured hand and responded with his first two career 100-yard games. Wilkins again was a reliable backup, averaging 6.0 yards on just 51 carries. His career-long 55-yarder against Tennessee in week 2 was instrumental in the 19-17 victory over the Titans.
Hines? The 2018 fourth-round pick continued to establish himself as one of the league’s more versatile backs. After piling up 63 receptions last season – third-most by a Colts rookie regardless the position – he added 44 more in Year 2, one behind team leader T.Y. Hilton.
And then there was Hines’ emergence as a punt returner. He took over after Chester Rogers suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 1 against Tennessee and immediately was one of the NFL’s premier returners. He averaged 31.2 yards on nine returns and had a game for the ages Dec. 22 against Carolina. Hines set a franchise record with 195 yards on three returns, including 84 and 71-yard touchdowns. He was just the fifth player in NFL history with a pair of 70-plus punt return TDs in the same game.
Not bad for a player who was yanked from the return game as a rookie when he displayed serious ball-security issues during the preseason.
Despite the fat numbers and lofty ranking, the running game could have been so much more. As was the case in 2018, there were too many “off’’ games with the running attack. That was especially the case in December when the Colts were mired in a downward spiral that cost them a playoff spot. In consecutive losses to Tennessee, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, the running game was limited to 194 total rushing yards and 3.1 per attempt. Yes, Reich and Sirianni had to abandon the run after trailing the Saints 20-0 at halftime, but the overall effectiveness was lacking during an extended stretch.
If Ballard is listening, we’d suggest offering Mack a reasonable extension. He’s clearly the catalyst for the running game and finished his third season as the NFL’s 11th-leading rusher, again with the two missed games. He turns 24 in March, so his prime years are ahead of him.
Issue 1: Mack is heading into the final year of his rookie deal, which means he’s out-performed his contract. He’s due a base salary of $735,000 in 2020.
Issue 2: determining the magnitude of an extension that adequately rewards Mack while protecting the team as it invests in a risky position. We’re not expecting anything in the Ezekiel Elliott (six years, $90 million) or Todd Gurley (four years, $57.5 million) neighborhood. A new deal probably would be closer to what Lamar Miller got when he signed with Houston in 2016 as a free agent (four years, $24 million with $14 million guaranteed) or the extension Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta in 2017 (five years, $41 million, $22 million guaranteed).
In non-Mack concerns, look for Reich and Sirianni to find more ways to tap into Hines’ play-making skills on offense. His 107 receptions are the third-most by a Colt running back in his first two seasons – Edgerrin James had 125 in 1999-2000 and Marshall Faulk 108 in 1994-94 – but he’s averaged a modest 7.0 yards per catch. Hines has too much speed and elusiveness to average just 7 yards per reception.
“We have a pretty good feel of what he does well and the things he does well, but you’re always growing in that aspect of what else can you do just because he is a great playmaker with the ball in his hands,’’ Sirianni said.
“You always want a guy like Nyheim to put some fear into the defense and give them some matchup problems.’’
And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast: