Time seems to move slowly now but try to remember the first half of the 2019 NFL season.
Do you remember that the No. 1 team in the AFC through Week 8 was the New England Patriots? At the time, they were 8-0 and sat as the top seed with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Do you remember the No. 2 team in the AFC? The team that was sitting in the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs? Maybe the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs? Maybe the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens?
It was none other than the Jacoby Brissett-led Colts.
They sat 5-2 through Week 8. They beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, handing Patrick Mahomes just his second regular season home loss of his career. They also defeated the other 2019 playoff teams they faced: the Texans and Titans. They only lost once against the spread in their first six games.
But then things started to fall apart. They were due to play the 2-4 Steelers, also starting a backup quarterback, and the 0-8 Dolphins in their next two games. The 5-2 Colts dropped both games and that was just the beginning. After the 5-2 start, the Colts went 2-7 the rest of the way.
Over their first seven games, the Colts led at halftime in four games and won all four. They led entering the fourth quarter in three games and won all three. The only win which saw a fourth-quarter comeback was Week 8 against the Broncos. But prior to that, if they had a lead, they kept it.
That’s the way things go for most teams. A team with a lead at halftime wins just under 80% of the time. A lead to start the fourth quarter bumps that up to 83%.
But after the first half of the season, something went bad for the Colts. Quite bad.
Over the Colts’ final nine games, they led either at halftime or entering the fourth quarter in seven games!
The only teams with more late leads (led to start the third or fourth quarter) after Week 8 were the Chiefs and Ravens. That’s it. The 49ers also held late leads in seven games. Every other team held late leads in fewer games.
Remember, winning games with late leads was not a problem for the Colts earlier in the year: the Colts won 100% of the time earlier in the season, 90% of the time the prior season, and the NFL overall wins 80% of the time.
Back of the napkin math shows that seven halftime leads should result in about five, maybe six wins for the Colts. They started 5-2, and with an additional five, maybe six wins, the 2019 Colts should have won 10 or maybe 11 games. And that would have landed them in the playoffs.
But the Colts went 2-5 in those seven games. They blew leads to the Steelers in Week 9 (lost by 2), the Texans in Week 12 (lost by 3), the Titans in Week 13 (lost by 14), the Buccaneers in Week 14 (lost by 3), and the Jaguars in Week 17 (lost by 18).
Of the 608 team-seasons since division realignment in 2002, only 146 times (24%) did a team hold late leads in at least seven games from Week 8 onward.
The Colts were the only team in the NFL to win fewer than 35% of those games.
Their 2-5 (29%) record was the worst in the NFL. In fact, even going back 30 years, no team has a worse record.
A lot of things factored into this. Turnovers, playcalling, and talent.
Over the first half of the season, the Colts had just two games with two turnovers and zero with three. In the second half of the season, they had five games with two or more turnovers and three games with three turnovers.
Over the first half of the season, the Colts were solid on early downs with a second half lead.
They averaged just 6.5 yards to go on third downs, the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL. And they had a 42% conversion rate on these plays, the 12th best in the NFL.
But over the second half of the season, they averaged 8.9 yards to go on these plays. Substantially worse. Remarkably, their conversion rate was nearly identical (43%), the 11th best in the NFL.
The first half of the season, they went 35% pass on these early down plays, just shy of the 38% NFL average.
But in the second half of the season, they upped that to 41% pass. Their early down runs generated 6.4 YPC and a 55% success rate and 10.6 EPA but early down passes generated just 33% success, 5.7 YPA, and -8.5 EPA.
Another issue for them over the second half of the season was injuries. The Colts’ big offensive signing last year was wide receiver Devin Funchess, but he was lost after Week 1. Their best offensive draft pick was second-round receiver Parris Campbell. He broke his hand, suffered a sports hernia, missed a lot of time, and played in just one game after Week 9. The Colts’ projected 2019 11 personnel receivers played in one game together, Week 1.
The biggest loss was clearly WR1 T.Y. Hilton. As the Colts started out 5-2, he played in six of their first seven games (missing the loss to the Raiders in Week 4).
He missed five of the team’s next six games with injuries, which is when the season derailed itself as they lost five of those next six games. All told, when Hilton played, the Colts went 6-4. When he didn’t play, the Colts went 1-5.
And the team also had to deal with the loss of tight end Eric Ebron, who missed the team’s final five games of the season (they went 1-4).
Primarily on account of the lack of talent at receiver, the Colts shifted to become a more run-centric team. In 2018, with Luck and slightly healthier receivers, the Colts went 65% pass in one-score games, the second-highest rate in the NFL. But last year, without Luck and without receiving talent or depth, the Colts shifted to only 52% pass in one-score games, which ranked second-lowest. Their shift from pass heavy to run heavy was, unsurprisingly, the largest shift in the NFL last year.
Compare Luck in 2018 to Brissett in 2019:
- Luck saw 59% of his passing yardage come via the air, seventh-most in the NFL
- Brissett saw just 46%, ranked 43rd.
- Luck averaged 0.9% CPOE, meaning his completion rate was better than expected based on player tracking data looking at pass location, defender proximity, and state of QB
- Brissett averaged -4.0% CPOE, ranking 36 of 39 quarterbacks last year.
Brissett was extremely susceptible to pressure. His accuracy was 79.9% from a clean pocket but only 57.5% when pressured (31st). Brissett brought some of that pressure on himself when he held the ball in the pocket. His 2.03 average seconds to throw was the second-longest among those 39 qualified quarterbacks in 2019.
This is the third year that Frank Reich will be working with a new quarterback in his system. 2018 was Year 1 with Andrew Luck, 2019 was Year 1 with Jacoby Brissett, and 2020 will be Year 1 with Philip Rivers. In both prior years, the Colts started slow offensively.
In 2018, with Luck, the Colts lost the EDSR battle in their first 5 games (won it in 10 of their final 11). Obviously, Luck’s season can be excused due to his injury and rehab and likely wasn’t 100% to start the season.
In 2019, with Brissett, the Colts lost the EDSR battle in five of their first seven games (won it in five of their final nine games).
To read about how the 2020 Colts can look to start faster and what Warren thinks of their season-long prospects, read his 360-page 2020 Football Preview.