Indianapolis Colts: Pep Hamilton
With Luck and Hamilton back together, you thought they would be able to pick up where they left off at Stanford.
The Colts’ overall record was good – 12 victories, counting the playoffs – but the transition to the NFL as an offensive coordinator wasn’t exactly a smooth one for Hamilton last season.
He had shaky moments as a playcaller. But the stretch of the season when the Colts were searching for an identity couldn’t strictly be put on Hamilton’s shoulders.
Indianapolis has its injured players back, and the offense has taken off with Hamilton on the sideline calling the plays.
The Colts lead the NFL in yards (444.0), passing yards (328.7), time of possession (36:28) and points per game (31.5).
“Just our players are executing at a high level and this is what we envisioned from the standpoint of having the personnel that allows us to do a lot of different things,” Hamilton said. “It puts pressure on the defense to decide who they want to try and take away and we feel like we present a conflict to our opponents because we have so many guys on the field at any given time can make plays for us.”
It’s easy to tell that Hamilton and Luck spent time together before the NFL. Ask Hamilton about their offensive success and he points the finger at the players, which is similar to the way Luck deflects personal praise.
“I’m competent,” Hamilton said. “Confidence is overrated. I know what we’re doing and what we’re doing with this quarterback specifically. I know it’ll work and it’ll work for him because I’ve experienced it on a different level with him. I believe in what we’re doing.”
Hamilton has every right to feel good about how things are going because fingers quickly point at him when things aren't going right. That was the case last season, when the Colts were determined to have a “power-running game" but struggled establishing the run, instead of putting the ball in Luck's hands and letting him pass more.
“It’s like the quarterback, when things aren’t going well, they probably get too much criticism and probably too much credit when things are going good,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s done a great job. … I think going into Year 2, everybody’s much more comfortable with the system, with the scheme.”
Hamilton's mind frame with his play calling is that they can be successful in any formation they run.
Empty backfield. Three receivers. Five wide. Two running backs. One receiver and three tight ends.
It doesn’t matter.
“He’s such a creative playcaller and play designer,” Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “He can change on the fly instantly. He likes to be able to call plays in all formations from all personnel groups at the line of scrimmage in a short amount of time.”
A perfect example of Hamilton’s successful play-calling was put on display in the Colts’ victory over the Houston Texans on Oct. 10. The Colts gained 218 yards and scored 24 points in the first quarter during their 33-28 victory.
“I would say this, on our hot streak, he’s called great games,” Hasselbeck said. “The first half against Houston was amazing. He had [Texans defensive coordinator] Romeo Crennel on his heels. That’s hard to do because he’s one of the best defensive coaches.
“I’ve been around a lot of different coaches and you can tell when a guy has a bright future. Pep is that guy. It’ll be a short amount of time before he’s a head coach somewhere, wherever he chooses. Pro or college will be his call on what he wants.”
The same can't be said about some other players on the roster.
With the start of training camp less than two weeks away, we're going to take a look at a number of players who are under pressure to step up this season.
Why he needs to step up: The Colts didn't fork over a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Richardson to struggle and eventually lose his starting position to Donald Brown. Richardson obviously was behind the rest of his teammates after being acquired just days before the Colts' Week 3 game against San Francisco, but he didn't show much progress as the season went on. He actually regressed as the season went on. Richardson has to step up to not only avoid being labeled a bust after being taken with the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, but also to help the Colts from looking like they got played by the Browns in the trade. Averaging 2.9 yards a carry again won't get the job done for Richardson.
What he has to do: Richardson -- for his and the Colts' sake -- spent the offseason studying the playbook so that he's able to run with his natural instincts instead of overthinking, which he did too often last season. Richardson also has to do a better job of picking the correct holes to run through. It wasn't entirely Richardson's fault last season. The offensive line has to do a better job of blocking. There were way too many occasions where Richardson would get hit two or three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Richardson also has to beat out Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard for the starting running back position.
Outlook: Richardson wore a red non-contact jersey during part of the offseason workouts because he had surgery on his shoulder shortly after the season ended. He'll likely get the first shot at starting over Bradshaw and Ballard because the latter two are coming off injuries that cost them almost all of the 2013 season. But Richardson will have to produce right away because it's unlikely the Colts will wait for him to get going if Bradshaw and Ballard are producing when given the opportunity.
Quotable: "(Richardson's) one of those guys that has benefitted tremendously from the extra classroom time. It was ambitious to think that he could come in, what was it, Week 3 or 4 last year, and pick it up to hit the ground running. It was one of those situations where the defense knew when we put him in the game that more than likely we were running the football and they were packing the box. He was faced with some tremendously tough looks but he'll be better in 2014." -- Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton
Thornton says he was “hesitant” and “timid” in his rookie season. It didn’t take him long to realize he was no longer at the University of Illinois.
Inconsistent is a good way to describe Thornton’s rookie season. There were times when he looked completely overwhelmed and other times when you could see his potential.
That’s expected when you consider that Thornton, the Colts’ third-round pick in 2013, wasn’t expected to play as a rookie because Thomas and Mike McGlynn were set at guard.
“Last season taught me how to be a professional, learning how to be accountable for your job,” Thornton said. “It helped me be a better teammate. It definitely humbled me a lot as far as coming out of college and through the draft and everything, you’re considered as the best of your group. Now you come to the NFL and you’re at the bottom of the totem pole and there’s some humility in that.”
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson had positive thoughts about Thornton’s rookie season.
“We were really pleased,” Grigson said. “You talk about a guy who can match up with anybody physically. He matched with [San Francisco’s] Justin Smith in that first game. He had his snags, but heck, for a guy who is 336 [pounds], the way he moves around, he looks great out there.”
The Colts will likely have two new starters – at guard and center – on the interior part of the offensive line this season, but Thornton, even though he doesn’t see it that way, is in the position to maintain his starting spot. Thornton, who said nothing is a given, spent the offseason at right guard with the first unit. He could end up being the veteran member of the interior part of the offensive line if rookie Jack Mewhort and second-year player Khaled Holmes start at guard and center, respectively.
“It’s all about competence, his overall knowledge of what he’s doing,” Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “He’s done a great job of really spending time just watching the film and working on communicating with the guys that are around him and beside him and just gaining a better understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively. But he’s a bear now. He’s big and strong and he’s another smart guy that we have on our offense.”
Football as a whole is a different sport for Swoope.
He didn't play it in any youth leagues growing up in Southern California. He didn't play it in high school. And he definitely didn't play it at the University of Miami, where he averaged 5 points per game as a senior on the school's basketball team.
"Learning football terminologies has been the biggest challenge," Swoope said. "It's a different language. Trying to get myself, I'm not going to say forget about basketball, but take the terminology and set it to the side so I can really hone into the different languages used in football."
As improbable as it might seem with his lack of experience, there was the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Swoope catching passes from quarterback Andrew Luck during offseason workouts.
"Andrew makes it so easy," Swoope said. "You just have to make sure you do your stuff correct because he'll put the ball in the right place."
The road to making the Colts has just started for Swoope. He's considered a project player who will likely spend the season on the practice squad if the Colts decide to keep him. The Colts already have established tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen on the roster. It's all about progress with Swoope, who hopes to join San Diego's Antonio Gates and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham in making the transition from college basketball to NFL tight end.
"It's been a pleasant surprise just to see how he's been able to acclimate himself to the game of football," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "His natural-born talents show every day in practice. He does an amazing job of going up and catching the football, making difficult catches. He has a catching radius that's off the charts. It'll be interesting to see how he comes along during training camp when we put the pads on and actually start practicing football."
Swoope will spend the rest of the offseason working out in Miami with former Hurricane players preparing for his first training camp.
"I just know that will come with reps and practice and just trusting my own abilities," he said. "I feel like I'm making steady progress every day. I just need to continue to do that once we get to training camp."
The only thing Pagano would say about starting spots is that quarterback Andrew Luck will start. Put that down in permanent marker as long as he’s part of the franchise.
“I mean you look at this team today compared to when we started, like I told the team, it’s going to be really, really difficult, and I told our staff, really difficult to get to 53 this year,” Pagano said. “When we get to final cut-down, it is going to be difficult.”
Monday is the start of a five-day series while I'm on vacation looking at the five most competitive positions for a starting spot.
Position: Running back
Primary candidates: Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard
Richardson: 157 attempts, 458 yards, 3 TD
Con: All you have to do is look at Richardson’s statistics -- or watch a few of his runs -- from last season to see him struggle and then it's easy to question if he’ll ever live up to the expectations of being the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft. He only averaged 2.9 yards a carry and eventually lost his starting spot to Donald Brown late in the season, giving Cleveland the obvious advantage in the trade. The Colts need more University of Alabama Trent Richardson and less indecisive running Trent Richardson. The Browns used the No. 26 pick to draft Johnny Manziel, who by name alone makes Cleveland relevant in the league.
Bradshaw: 41 attempts, 186 yards, 2 TD
Con: Injuries, injuries and more injuries. Bradshaw has a difficult time staying healthy. His season ended after the game against the 49ers because of a neck injury. Bradshaw has only played in all 16 games in a season once, in 2010, in his seven-year career. You want your starter to be dependable in the health department. Bradshaw isn’t that.
Ballard: 13 attempts, 63 yards 0 TD
Con: Ballard tore his ACL while making a cut in practice prior to Week 2. It’s difficult to regain your form quickly from an ACL tear unless your name is Adrian Peterson. Ballard is behind Richardson and Bradshaw in the competition since he didn’t take part in any of the Colts’ offseason workouts because he’s still working his way back.
Wells’ verdict: Richardson will be given the first shot at starting partially based off his talent and because not starting would be another sign of a failed trade by Grigson. But don’t be shocked if Bradshaw ends up starting if Richardson struggles early. The Colts aren’t in the position to be waiting for Richardson to find his rhythm.
Wells: You can't count out Ahmad Bradshaw based off how he played in his brief time on the field before getting injured last season. ESPN NFL Insider Jim Trotter had an interesting nugget recently. He wrote on Twitter that Trent Richardson, according to coaches, is relying more on his instincts when running instead of thinking it through and he has a chance to be a "three-down player." I'd say at this point -- and mind you, so much can change over the next few months -- that you have to think Richardson and Bradshaw are the frontrunners.
@MikeWellsNFL who do you personally think to be the starting running back for the Indianapolis Colts next season? How does TR look?— Mason Ross (@Sauce_Ross) June 19, 2014
Wells: The outside linebacker position is simply Bjoern Werner's to lose. Play well and the starting position is his. Struggle and it'll be open competition for Robert Mathis' spot during his absence. You can't really get a good indication on how a player looks based off drills where they're not wearing pads or going full speed. A better indicator will be once the pads go on in training camp.
@MikeWellsNFL How's Bjoern Werner looking? Does he look ready to take on an increased role with Mathis out?— Tommy Bond (@TommyN_Bond) June 19, 2014
Wells: Donte Moncrief will be given the opportunity to be the Colts' fourth receiver, but don't be surprised if he's not a major contributor next season. Here's what offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton had to say about Moncrief during minicamp. "He is big, fast and smart. He has the tools to be a legitimate down the field threat. He's been working his tail off with [receivers] coach [Charlie] Williams to learn the offense and more importantly, develop continuity with our quarterback. He's done some good things over the course of the offseason program and expect that he'll pick up where he leaves off in training camp."
@MikeWellsNFL is moncrief more of a project guy or do you think he is actually going to contribute other than ST?Longterm starter potential?— Nathaniel J. Ford (@n8james4d) June 19, 2014
- Tim Evans of the Indy Star has a story on Colts owner Jim Irsay facing an Aug. 28 trial date on his two misdemeanor charges related to driving under the influence of prescription drugs back in March.
- Phil Richards of the Indy Star writes about the Colts signing defensive tackle Brandon McKinney for a second time. The Colts originally signed him in 2012 but he spent two seasons on injured reserve before being released.
- Stephen Holder of the Star has a story on how the Colts are optimistic that the offense will be more successful in offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's second season with the team. "I feel like I learned more from my mistakes than our successes," Hamilton said. "That's just part of the process."
- Kevin Bowen of Colts.com gives a final wrap on the Colts minicamp, highlighted by college basketball player-turned-NFL-player Erik Swoope catching the eye of Hamilton. Swoope played college basketball at the University of Miami but has never played football at any level until now. “It's been a pleasant surprise just to see how he's been able to acclimate himself to the game of football," Hamilton said. “His natural-born talents show every day in practice. He does an amazing job of going up and catching the football, making difficult catches. He has a catching radius that's off the charts. It'll be interesting to see how he comes along during training camp when we put the pads on and actually start practicing football."
Chudzinski has an extensive offensive background, but the Colts already have Pep Hamilton as their offensive coordinator.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano cleared the air on it during the NFL combine in late February.
"Pep's our offensive coordinator, period," Grigson said at the time. "You know those questions are going to come. We talked to Pep. Chuck talked to Pep. It comes from a comfort standpoint where Chuck has known Chud and what he's made of forever. Here's a guy that has head coaching on his résumé."
Hamilton said Chudzinski, who spent two seasons as offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, will only help them.
"We haven’t had much time to talk ball," Hamilton said. "He’s busy getting comfortable in his new role with Chuck. It’s one of those deals where we have a veteran offensive staff and we were able to accomplish a lot as a unit last year and we’re going to build on what we started before. I think when the time comes about we can pick his brain on some things that will help us."
Chudzinski was fired after one season in Cleveland after the Browns went 4-12 last season. You can expect the Colts coaching staff to spend a lot of time talking to Chudzinski about the AFC North since that's the division they face this season.
"He’s got that experience," Hamilton said. "He coached against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens and those teams last year."
The media will be able to watch practice and have access to the players Thursday.
Here's a quick look at five interesting things to pay attention to during the OTA's:
Race for top running back spot: Vick Ballard reminded everybody that he was the Colts' starting running back before a torn ACL cut his second season short. Ballard is in the running with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw to be the team's workhorse in the backfield. Richardson is coming off a disappointing first season in Indianapolis and Bradshaw, like Ballard, had his season end early because of an injury (neck). All three will get a chance to carry the ball if things go as envisioned for offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but only one of them will carry the bulk of the load.
Reps for Holmes and Luck: This is the time for Colts new starting center Khaled Holmes and quarterback Andrew Luck to work on their continuity. Holmes will try to do something former starter Samson Satele couldn't: Lead the offensive line. "The center-quarterback exchange really starts everything, probably the most elementary fundamental part of a play," Luck said. "I know when you fumble one, it stinks and we pride ourselves on making sure we get 100 percent of those, which we will no matter which center-quarterback combination is in the game."
Replacing Mathis: Suspended linebacker Robert Mathis is able to take part in all of the team's offseason activities, but I wouldn't be surprised if other linebackers, especially Bjoern Werner, get first-time reps. Mathis is allowed to be around the team until his suspension starts in Week 1, but this is the time the Colts need to allow players like Werner to get as many of the snaps with the rest of the starting defensive unit to allow him -- or whoever the starter will be -- to get comfortable. There's no replacing Mathis' 19.5 sacks, but the Colts need to do what they can to at least tread water while their defensive leader is away.
Delano time: Speaking of continuity, this would be a good time for Delano Howell, who has the inside shot at the starting spot, and LaRon Landry to work on their chemistry at safety. But Landry has spent most of the offseason working out on his own like he often does. This is a time, though, for Howell to cement the starting spot since the Colts put their faith in him by not drafting a safety or signing a marquee one during free agency.
They had do-everything quarterback Andrew Luck, but they insisted on a being a run-first team. The only sign of that working happened in their Week 3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Injuries and lack of running game from Trent Richardson and Donald Brown forced the Colts to basically become a no-huddle offensive team by the end of the season.
They started the season mixing in some two-back sets. They ended it basically using one-back, one-tight-end, three-receiver sets.
"We’re going to be a score-first team," Hamilton said. "We’re going to do whatever we need to do to score one more point than our opponent."
Don’t kid yourself; Hamilton won't allow Luck to drop back in the pocket and fling the ball downfield -- even if he does have plenty of weapons at his disposal -- 50 times per game. The Colts will still run the ball, which is why they have three backs they think will carry the load.
But as Hamilton said, it’s all about scoring more points than the opponent, and that likely will end up being with Luck doing what he does best: using his arm.
The Colts threw the ball 582 times and ran it 409 times last season.
"Our mentality has not changed; we have to be physical at the point of attack. We have to try and knock people off the ball and wear them down physically," Hamilton said. "We have to have a sense of balance and still have a physical mentality, make up going into games so we can wear our opponents down how we see fit."
Hamilton had an opportunity to leave the NFL to become the head coach at Vanderbilt, but he decided to return to the Colts because he believes in the product they have in the organization. He’s back for Year 2 as an NFL offensive coordinator, and instead of being forced to dig deep into the playbook to find plays to suit their offensive personnel, Hamilton should have a cupboard full of healthy players next season barring any setbacks with their return from injuries.
By Week 7 last season, the Colts were without tight end Dwayne Allen, guard Donald Thomas, running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw and receiver Reggie Wayne for the season. Those players were replaced by Jack Doyle, Weslye Saunders, Hugh Thornton, Brown, Richardson, Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen.
No offense to those players, but that’s a drop-off for Hamilton, who at times made some questionable play calls to work with.
Things should be different this season for him and the Colts.
"Not only do we have some guys that are proven playmakers in the National Football League, but we have an opportunity to build on what we accomplished last year and hopefully take that next step," Hamilton said. "It’ll be great to have Reggie, Dwayne and all those guys available to see if we can go out and accomplish our ultimate goal.
"The toughest part [of last season] was making sure that we had the packages available to accommodate the personnel changes that were made from week to week. When I say personnel changes, I’m talking about the attrition, the attrition that we had to deal with. Other than that, it wasn’t tough. When you have Andrew Luck, that really gives you an ability to adapt to whatever the circumstances are and have a chance to be successful."
A head coach that missed 12 weeks as he battled leukemia. A rookie quarterback taking over a 14-loss team from the year before. Five offensive players, including a likely Hall of Fame receiver, going down with season-ending injuries.
That's why as the organization was dealt a devastating blow to the gut by the announced NFL suspension of pass-rush artist Robert Mathis last week and the possible suspension of owner Jim Irsay at some point, there hasn't been any wavering of what the expectations are for next season.
That's not how the Colts approach things. That message was relayed more than two years ago, when general manager Ryan Grigson took over the rebuilding franchise and hired an unproven head coach in Chuck Pagano. And that was the message passed through the facility on the west side of Indianapolis after Mathis was suspended.
"We’ve had our fair share of bumps in the road," Grigson said. "We’ve had quite a bit of significant ones, but at the end of the day, we know we’re judged by wins and losses. This league is all about the bottom line, and we understand that.
"You can't sit there and cry a river when you have mounting injuries or you have unfortunate things happen because it's just life, and it's life in the NFL. We roll with the punches."
Ask anybody in the Colts organization why they haven’t fallen apart or even shown signs of cracking, and they point at Pagano.
Pagano didn’t have to overcome a broken arm or foot to return to the sidelines in 2012. He was in a nasty slugfest with cancer. It was a fight that took him out for 12 weeks, but he returned at the end of that season and hasn’t left since.
"I’ve been around a lot of teams and college teams, and this franchise is a no-excuse franchise," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said.
Pagano doesn’t look at his illness as the reason the Colts have managed to overcome the obstacles that seem to continue to get in their way.
It boils down to trust, loyalty and respect with Indianapolis, something Irsay has constantly preached, to go with exceptional talent.
Colts southeast regional scout Jamie Moore put on a presentation last year in which he researched some of professional sports' legendary dynasties: the Montreal Canadiens, New York Yankees and Boston Celtics.
The Colts are far from a dynasty. They’ve yet to win a Super Bowl with Andrew Luck at quarterback. What Grigson and Pagano took away from the presentation, though, was the blueprint those teams used to build their franchises: being innovative, thinking outside the box and -- probably the most important of the three -- checking egos at the door.
The Colts have avoided internal conflicts because everybody has the same goal: winning as many games as possible, not worrying about individual stats.
"We laid out a foundation when we first got here," Pagano said. "We talked about a vision. We know what the vision is, [the Super Bowl banner is] hanging in the indoor practice facility. We talked about an environment and culture we wanted to create and then we talked about the process and how you go about your business."
Replacing Mathis for the first four games of the 2014 season won’t be easy. Anybody who says the Colts will be fine without last season's NFL sack leader likely isn’t telling the truth. For as much as Mathis is known for his strip-sacks, his presence inside the locker room has been just as valuable.
"Our team knows what’s at stake, same thing with Reggie [Wayne] being hurt," Grigson said. "If you lose somebody who is so significant to your franchise for a set amount of time, it's going to send everyone reeling for a second until we fall back on those things we've been preaching. Guys aren't going to have to step up in a serviceable way; they have to play at a championship level this year. Everyone does."
“I’m great. I’m actually back to 100 percent,” Allen said on WFNI-1070 AM in Indianapolis.
Allen’s second season came to an end when he landed awkwardly on his hip after going up for a pass from quarterback Andrew Luck that Oakland’s Kevin Burnett tipped in Week 1.
Allen, who had 45 receptions for 521 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie in 2012, eventually had hip surgery, ending his season.
Allen’s return will help the Colts, especially offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, because it’ll allow them to run more two-tight end sets with Coby Fleener. Allen, who is a strong blocker, also gives Luck another option to throw to along with Fleener, receivers T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne and recently signed Hakeem Nicks.
@MikeWellsNFL are there enough balls to make pass catching core happy? Fleener, Allen, Richardson, Hilton, Bradshaw, Wayne, Rogers, &Brazil— James (@jgrafik) March 14, 2014
I've been asked a lot of questions for this weekend's Twitter Mailbag. So I'll go ahead and get it started by answering this question, then putting the rest of the Mailbag out Saturday.
I don't think the Colts can have too many players for quarterback Andrew Luck to choose to throw the ball to. Last season, you were left wondering who he was going to throw it to at times because of the Colts' depth concerns and inexperience at receiver with Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton enjoys having a number of running backs to use. He constantly reminded the media that they would use all three running backs at the start of last season.
There's always a chance of injuries. That's why there's nothing wrong with having a full cupboard to choose from. Too many is always better than not enough. The good thing about the Colts is that they lack selfish players. It's all about the team. So look at this as a good problem for them to have.
Not a bad one.