If the Indianapolis Colts could skip ahead and simulate the remainder of the 2017 season, you suspect they would happily fast-forward to February.
Chuck Pagano's team has avoided the ignominy surrounding the 49ers and Browns by winning two of its first seven games, doing so specifically by beating those two teams by three points each. The Colts have lost their other five games by a combined 109 points. Football Outsiders believes that the Colts -- not their winless brethren -- are the worst team in football on a play-by-play basis.
The biggest problem for the Colts, of course, is that their franchise quarterback hasn't thrown a pass since New Year's Day. Andrew Luck underwent shoulder surgery in January and was supposed to return in July. Things changed. Luck's return kept getting pushed back further and further, and it quickly became clear the organization had no idea when he would be back. The team took him off the physically unable to perform list, implying that they believed he would be back before Week 7, but Luck didn't make his way back into practice until before Week 5. Shortly after, he stopped throwing because of soreness in his shoulder, and now there's no timetable for Luck's return.
The Colts reportedly intend to insert Luck into the lineup if he's healthy enough to play this season, but it's difficult to understand why they're rushing to put their quarterback in the line of fire. According to the Football Power Index, their chances of making the playoffs are less than 0.1 percent. Their fill-in quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, has also been pleasantly surprising for a player who was acquired after being shopped by the Patriots in advance of a roster cutdown he likely wouldn't have survived in New England.
All of this conspires to present an interesting opportunity for Colts general manager Chris Ballard. Indy is staring down a bunch of losses, but its long-term situation might look extremely promising after the coming offseason. The Colts aren't tanking -- it may not even be possible to tank in the modern NFL -- but they have less to gain by winning than anyone else in football right now.
The Colts this season
Things are going to get worse before they get better for these Colts. They don't get to play the 49ers or Browns again over the rest of the season. Their schedule is about to get significantly tougher. To this point, Indianapolis has enjoyed the league's sixth-easiest schedule, per Football Outsiders. Over the remainder of the season, they play the league's toughest slate of opponents, with seven of those nine boasting a record of .500 or better.
They'll also be doing it without some crucial players, having lost their two most influential defenders on Sunday. First-round pick Malik Hooker, who has flashed playmaking ability to go along with his otherworldly athleticism, went down with a torn ACL and MCL against the Jaguars to end his season. Hooker and his three picks were joined on the shelf by free-agent addition John Simon, who has racked up 12 quarterback knockdowns so far, tying him for eighth in the league. The former Texans edge-rusher is week-to-week with a stinger.
The offensive line is also a concern. Ryan Kelly, the team's first-round pick from a year ago, missed the first four games of the season with a foot injury. He came back just in time to welcome his replacement, Deyshawn Bond, and guard Jack Mewhort, the team's best interior lineman, to injured reserve. The Colts have had trouble protecting Luck when their line has been healthy; it's another thing altogether when they have a second-year undrafted free agent like Jeremy Vujnovich trying to protect the quarterback.
It seems foolish to risk Luck behind an offensive line that allowed Brissett to be sacked 10 times and knocked down a staggering 20 times last week. The inexperienced Brissett was likely responsible for a few of those hits, and the Jaguars have one of the league's best pass rushes, but the season is already essentially lost.
If Luck were ready to return right now, it would be one thing. The Colts would still have nine games with which to work, and while they would still be in relatively dismal shape in a suddenly competitive AFC South, they could at least credibly sell the idea that a half-season of Luck and some favorable results from their rivals might be enough to win the South. Instead, there's no time frame for when Luck will even be able to resume throwing, let alone consider a return to playing. It will take several weeks for Luck to ramp up from throwing before being ready to suit up.
Let's say three weeks pass before Luck starts throwing and three more weeks pass before he's ready to take the field. That would line up Luck to return against the Bills in Week 14, with just four games to go in Indianapolis' season. The FPI projects the Colts' record at that point to be 3-9. Unless the Colts go on an unexpected run over the next few weeks, what is the real benefit to bringing back Luck into the lineup behind a makeshift offensive line? Do we really need to know whether a guy who has taken more than his fair share of hits over the past few years can take a pounding? What if Luck gets hurt again, and it costs him meaningful time in 2018?
If tanking means placing Luck on injured reserve and resisting the temptation to bring him back for a few meaningless games in December, the Colts should seriously consider tanking. The risk-reward ratio for bringing back Luck is wildly skewed against that decision. The risk-reward ratio for leaving him out, on the other hand, makes it clear that the Colts would have quite a bit to gain by leaving him wrapped in cotton wool for the rest of 2017.
The Colts in 2018 and beyond
Our definition of tanking is when a team with little to no chance of contending purposefully plays a weakened roster, knowing that losing will make it more likely it comes away with a cornerstone piece for the future in the draft(s) to come. You might fairly raise moral questions about a team that doesn't try to win with all its heart every single time out, but the economic structures leagues have built in American sports -- the combination of a player draft alongside the artificially depressed salaries of young players -- incentivizes teams to either be very good or very bad. It's not going anywhere.
In the NFL, teams most often tank or trade up to the top of the draft with one goal in mind: grabbing a franchise quarterback. The success of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz this season won't exactly disabuse teams of the notion that the place to find a franchise-altering quarterback is by drafting one as early as possible.
This year's class seems particularly promising in that regard. ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper's most recent Big Board includes three quarterbacks in the top six. Even if USC passer Sam Darnold, a third-year sophomore, decides to stay in school, it's reasonable to figure that the duo of UCLA's Josh Rosen and Wyoming's Josh Allen could be the first two picks, following the scripts of the 2015 and 2016 drafts, which also started 1-2 with quarterbacks. (While neither is having a Heisman-caliber season, quarterbacks have a way of rising up draft boards.)
The Colts, of course, don't need a quarterback. Luck's contract realistically commits Indy to the 2012 first overall pick through at least 2018, and it would require some sort of seismic disagreement for them to move Luck out of town. It's safe to assume he isn't going anywhere. Indy could consider a move for the ridiculous Saquon Barkley, Kiper's No. 1 overall prospect, or grab the best defensive player available, but there's a more palatable option available.
Indy is projected to finish with the third overall pick in next year's draft, but if the Colts manage to jump into the top two, they should be in an enviable and rare position. They would have a top pick in a quarterback-laden draft without any need to take a quarterback. Ballard would be well-positioned to auction off his selection for a haul of draft picks.
The Colts badly need young talent after previous general manager Ryan Grigson repeatedly failed to land useful players in the draft. While Indy came away with Luck and T.Y. Hilton from Grigson's debut in 2012 and used a second-round pick to acquire Vontae Davis, his other drafts failed to deliver useful pieces. No players are left on the Indy roster from the 2013 draft, while the Colts' first-round pick in 2014 was used to trade for Trent Richardson. Their 2015 first-rounder, Phillip Dorsett, went to the Patriots for Brissett.
If the Colts hold a pick that would set up a team with a franchise quarterback, they could rebuild and add multiple desperately needed cheap pieces to their roster. The Browns probably won't need to trade up to grab a passer. The 49ers could have Kirk Cousins, a potential free agent, by the time the 2018 draft rolls around, but if the Colts pass them or the Browns in the standings (or if Darnold leaves school), it won't matter.
Let's say the Colts finish with the second overall pick and have at least one franchise quarterback prospect available to them. They could extract a huge haul from one of a handful of teams that wouldn't otherwise have access to Rosen or Allen. I count nine teams that could be looking for a quarterback depending on whether players such as Cousins, Sam Bradford and Ben Roethlisberger leave town, and they would need to send a bevy of picks Indy's way. Here's what those trades could look like:
The Colts also might have a second trade asset in Brissett, who is still under contract through the 2019 season and appears to have the upside of a high-quality backup, if not a cheap starter. They might want to keep Brissett around given Luck's propensity for injury, but it would be better to sign Brian Hoyer for nothing in free agency and reap the benefits of sending Brissett to a quarterback-needy team for a midround pick.
Tanking with the intention of grabbing one player as opposed to the intention of acquiring a pick that you'll trade for several players also reduces the risk that comes with trading up. Teams that make these sort of massive tradeups often come to regret the move; while the Rams and Eagles feel good about Goff and Wentz right now, similar trades for Robert Griffin III and Ryan Leaf turned out to be colossal mistakes. If you're not going to draft a quarterback, it's usually going to be better for you to get three cracks at drafting players than just one.
The last team to be in this situation was Tennessee, which drafted Marcus Mariota in 2015 and held the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. The Titans dealt the pick to the Rams, who sent two first-round picks and two-second round picks to Tennessee as part of the return for Goff. The Titans used one of those selections as part of the deal to draft Jack Conklin, who was a Pro Bowler as a rookie at right tackle. The other first-rounder they picked up came in as the fifth overall selection in this year's draft, with which Tennessee drafted injured wideout Corey Davis. Talented contributors such as Derrick Henry and Jonnu Smith also came out of that trade. Even if Goff continues to look like a superstar, the Titans will be plenty happy with Mariota and the boatload of picks they got to replenish their roster.
This is why it's incumbent upon the Colts to finish with as high a pick as possible. If Darnold stays in school, the difference between the second and third overall picks could amount to multiple high draft picks. If only one of the quarterbacks projects to be a superstar, the Colts might end up needing the first overall pick to be in position for a franchise-altering swap.
It's true that there are no guarantees the Colts will end up spinning a high draft pick into a mountain of selections. They could hold onto whatever pick they get. The Browns have shown how frustrating it can be when you make the logically sound decision to trade down and amass extra picks without actually doing a good job of drafting.
It's also true, though, that there's virtually nothing the Colts can do this season to compete, with or without Luck in their lineup. They're at least another year away from matching up with the rest of the South, let alone powerhouses like the Patriots and Chiefs. There's no reason to rush back Luck.
When he returns, the Colts will be much better for having surrounded him with a better offensive line, a deeper defense and likely a new head coach. Don't call it tanking. Call it patience.