INDIANAPOLIS – DeForest Buckner has had a very close relationship with bad football. Really bad football.
As a rookie first-round draft pick in 2016, he nearly was swallowed up in a sea of Ls. The San Francisco 49ers won their opener against the Los Angeles Rams, then dropped 11 straight en route to a 2-14 record. The Niners opened 0-9 the next season and finished 4-12, then got off to a 1-7 start in ’18 that set the tone for a 4-12 record.
Yep, Buckner has been at the bottom, or in close proximity.
But he’s not ready to reach for the panic button – or white flag – after his Indianapolis Colts opened 0-3 for the first time since 2011 and just the eighth time since their relocation in 1984.
That was the gist of a conversation Buckner had with coach Frank Reich and some teammates in the aftermath of Sunday’s 25-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
“I’ve been part of a couple of bad teams in my career,’’ he said. “We’re far from it.’’
The bottom line begs to disagree, and until the Colts prove otherwise, we’re giving the floor to Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells.
You are what your record says you are.
The record says the Colts are 0-3. They’re in a barren neighborhood that includes the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, New York Giants and Detroit Lions.
History says a franchise with lofty expectations during the offseason should readjust – OK, lower – those expectations. The Colts have never reached the playoffs after an 0-3 start and since the league went to a 16-game season in 1978, only six of 228 teams to open 0-3 clawed their way and earned a postseason berth.
Buckner pointed to the little things, not taking care of the details, conspiring against the Colts. He insisted they needed to start playing “complementary football.’’
Trouble is, that’s exactly what the Colts are doing.
Sunday was a trifecta afternoon. Toss blame at the offense, defense and special teams.
It took that type of comprehensive effort to buck an incredible trend. Heading into the game, teams that were a plus-3 in the takeaway battle since 2011 had won 91.7% of the time (264-24).
Now it’s 264-25.
The offense was restricted because a pair of sprained ankles robbed quarterback Carson Wentz of his mobility. He didn’t get the thumb’s up to play until after pregame warm-ups, then wasn’t able to get much done: 19-of-37, 194 yards.
Wentz’s two longest completions of the day – a 27-yarder to Zach Pascal and a 36-yard hookup with Nyheim Hines on a nifty catch-juke-and-run down the left sideline – came on the same drive. In the fourth quarter.
On his 35 other attempts, he averaged 3.7 yards per attempt.
There were a few occasions Wentz could have done damage with his legs, but his ankles wouldn’t allow him. And he knew that going in.
“I knew I wasn’t going to scramble around and make some plays. It didn’t feel great when I did that,’’ he said. “But there were plays to be made.’’
The Colts, and Wentz, simply didn’t make them.
The offense converted 3-of-12 third-down situations and is just 13-of-36 on the season (36.1%). It entered the game 3-for-8 on posting touchdowns in the red zone, and stayed in character, going 1-for-3.
“We have to do better,’’ said Hines, who accounted for the one red-zone TD with a 9-yard run. “The defense can do what they do, but when we’re kicking field goals . . . we have to be better.’’
Most damning: of the 11 red-zone trips, six have been first-and-goal situations, including two more against the Titans. The Colts offense now has one TD, three Rodrigo Blankenship field goals, an interception and that wasted first-and-goal at the 1 against the Los Angeles Rams.
On one goal-to-go opportunity against the Titans, Wentz’s pass was high and just off the hands of a diving Michael Pittman Jr. in the back of the end zone.
And fully aware of Wentz’s inability to do what he does, the game plan still resulted in him dropping back 39 times – he was sacked twice, hit on another eight occasions – and running the ball 18 times.
Reich mentioned the flow of the game and pre-snap checks contributed to the pass-heavy approach. The fact remains Jonathan Taylor averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. Ten handoffs weren’t enough.
Props for coming up with three takeaways – interceptions by Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore II and a fumble recovery by Rock Ya-Sin – but Ryan Tannehill tossed three TD passes to guys not named Julio Jones and A.J. Brown; Tannehill broke containment three times and scrambled for 58 yards and three first downs and Derrick Henry notched his fourth straight 100-yard game against the Colts (113 yards on 28 attempts).
The Titans converted 6-of-12 times on third down and once on fourth-and-1. They’re also 3-of-5 in the red zone.
Special teams? After Blankenship’s 28-yard field goal to open the third quarter brought the Colts to within 14-13 and the defense responded with a three-and-out, special teams captain Zaire Franklin plowed into punter Brett Kern and kept the Titans offense on the field. The defense bailed him out with Ya-Sin’s forced fumble, but it was another hurdle that had to be overcome.
Any hopes of a dramatic finish ended when Blankenship pushed a 51-yard attempt wide right with 57 seconds remaining. It was his first miss of the season and he’s just 1-of-4 on 50-plus yard attempts on his brief career.
Just like that, a team-wide effort, an 0-3 start and an unfriendly locker room.
Reich described the game as “heartbreaking.’’
A few of his players took it to another level.
“I’m pissed off,’’ Hines said. “I’m angry and I’m upset. I’m ready to go out there Wednesday and work my butt off and set the tone for (next Sunday at Miami).
“It’s a really good team. We just have to fight; 2018, we started out 1-5. A lot of teams may not be able to come back from this, but I think we are.’’
Leonard was right there with him.
The All-Pro linebacker, who’s playing with an ankle injury, was asked if the prevailing mood in the locker room was frustration or anger.
“It’s a little of both,’’ he said. “You’re frustrated you’re not getting a win. You are putting everything on the line and it’s just not enough.’’
Leonard was just getting warmed up.
The defense, he added, is “playing fast, playing downhill, but (expletive) just happens. If you ever play the game of football before you understand that. Playing in the NFL, (expletive) happens.’’
As for the first 0-3 start in Leonard’s career with the Colts?
“That (expletive) sucks. That sucks,’’ he said. “Especially being a true competitor, that sucks. It sucks being 0-3. It’s a sick taste in my own mouth.
“You talk about 1-0, 1-0; we’ve gotta get one.’’
The locker room, Leonard said, “is pissed. If you don’t hang your head, that means you don’t give a damn. If you’re a true competitor walking off that field, if you don’t hang your head and understand this hurts, then you don’t need to be in that locker room.
“We’re sticking together, but it hurts.’’
Reich mentioned more than once during his post-game press conference that the loss was a shared effort. But he hammered home his belief in the team.
“I have full confidence and belief in the players that we have, the coaching staff that we have,’’ he said. “Zero doubt. Zero doubt.’’
But zero wins.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.