Let’s start with the good news.
When units comprised primarily of starters were on the field during the preseason – the rough equivalent of five quarters – the Colts were dominant, outscoring their opposition 44-9.
Offensively, Andrew Luck was sharp, completing 66 percent of his passes for 322 yards, four touchdowns, one pick, two sacks and a 108.3 rating. Reggie Wayne had 11 receptions, T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey seven apiece, and that new power running game … well, not so much.
The front-line defense was even more impressive. No touchdowns were scored against the starters, just three field goals. You can’t ask for much more than that.
All of which bodes well for the regular season, which begins, finally, next Sunday at home against Oakland. Ultimately, that’s what really matters.
Only four projected starters (fullback Stanley Havili, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois and inside linebacker Pat Angerer) took the field in Cincinnati for the preseason finale Thursday night, and none stayed very long.
Which leads us to …
The bad news.
With the reserves primarily on the field, including the entirety of the 27-10 loss to the Bengals, the Colts were outscored 80-33 in the preseason.
Of course, if you had a choice, you’d take dominant starters over impressive reserves every time. And this is not to suggest the Colts’ season is somehow in jeopardy because guys that probably won’t even make the team couldn’t handle their counterparts.
But it does raise the question: where’s the depth?
One of the strengths of this roster is supposed to be the presence of quality backups across the board.
At quarterback, you’ve got Matt Hasselbeck. Nothing more need be said.At running back, you just might have unearthed a gem in Kerwynn Williams, who racked up 92 yards against the Bengals and led the team with 169 in the preseason.
The offensive line may be strengthened by rookies Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes, but both are in catch-up mode after missing almost all of camp and the preseason with ankle injuries.
At rush linebacker, Caesar Rayford jumped up and made a case for himself, though he was very quiet in Cincinnati, managing just two tackles despite playing every defensive snap.
Other than that, questions everywhere you look.
Even the secondary, which seemed remarkably deep in training camp, didn’t play that way. Couldn’t stop Josh Johnson. Couldn’t stop John Skelton. Couldn’t stop any of the backup quarterbacks they faced.
Consider: Johnson, Skelton, Jason Campbell, David Carr and Jeff Tuel combined to complete 66 percent of their attempts for 547 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Colts’ reserves during the four preseason games. That’s a 103.4 rating.
The night in Cincinnati, and in fact the reserves’ performance throughout the preseason, was all crystallized on one third-quarter possession.
A dismal first half prompted this quote from Chuck Pagano as he left the field: “Disappointed. Got outplayed in all three phases.”
It was clear he would insist that his lads bring forth a mightier effort in the second half.
On Cincinnati’s first drive out of that fired-up locker room, which started at the Bengals’ 15, the Colts had a 31-yard pass interference penalty against Sergio Brown, illegal use of hands penalties against Marshay Green and Scott Loiseau and surrendered 26 yards on second and 17. The defense dragged the Cincinnati offense into field goal range.
Then the offense came out, similarly charged, and put forth a three-and-out.
“We couldn’t get off the field on third down, we couldn’t convert on third down, and gave up plays on special teams, so credit Cincinnati,” Pagano said afterward. “They just played a lot better than we played tonight.
“We’ll go back and look at the tape. Obviously, we have some tough decisions to make, and we make those in the course of the next couple days and get ready to open the season, get ready for Oakland once we get the roster finalized.”
The way the reserves have played in the preseason, the tougher decision may not be finding 22 players to cut, but 53 to keep.