In one of the most exciting football games in recent memory, the NFL officials made their presence felt in crunch time. While the Colts and Browns traded haymakers back and forth all afternoon, the outcome of the contest was sullied by at least one missed call late in the 4th quarter.
The initial questionable ruling came on what could have been a game-sealing strip-sack by the Indy defense. Alas, the referees threw a flag and hit Darrell Baker Jr. with an illegal contact downfield call. Now, there is some merit to this penalty, but it still felt awfully tick-tacky.
Colts-Browns Game Ends In Controversy
One play later, on the all-important goal-to-go snap, Baker Jr. yet again found himself on the wrong end of a penalty flag. In a throw best described as “uncatchable” — and a penalty best described as “a blatant mistake” — the Colts fell victim to a brutal 39-38 defeat.
In my 28 years of life, aside from the infamous Rams-Saints NFC Championship in 2019, I’ve never watched a group of officials directly determine the result of a football game to such a degree. I can see how this would come off as whiny or as meaningless conjecture, but go peruse through social media, and you’ll see how many agree with this thought.
But the game is the game. It’s over, and no amount of complaining will change the loss to a victory. So, let’s turn the page and offer a better perspective. The Colts scored 38 points with a backup QB and produced several explosive plays, both in the ground attack and through the air. Without further ado, here is the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Week 7 showdown.
No. 1: The Colts Remain As The Only Team To Score 20+ Points Each Game
Before the season, this wouldn’t necessarily be a surprising feat for the Anthony Richardson-led unit. However, with the Colts’ QB1 on the shelf for much of the year, Shane Steichen deserves credit for crafting such an effective unit, even without 100% health on his side.
Jonathan Taylor started to show flashes of his former self on Sunday, with an impressive 120 yards on 21 total touches, including a touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter. On top of that, Michael Pittman Jr. scurried for a 75-yard, go-ahead touchdown in the 4th, while rookie Josh Downs sliced and diced the Cleveland defense for 125 yards and a touchdown of his own.
The fact Indy has been able to produce points, even in the face of such uncertainty, is a promising sign for the rest of this campaign and the future with Richardson at the helm. Steichen will keep the ship steady until then but expect gloves to come off with a healthy ARich in 2024.
No. 2: The Colts Defense Bent As Much As It Could Before Breaking
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley gets criticized for his conservative approach on defense. I agree with a lot of the complaints geared his way, including how soft his zone coverage concepts are and how easy it is for opposing offenses to attack the middle of the field.
That is all fair. But, for the most part, the defense did its job on Sunday. It’s hard for any unit to overcome four turnovers by the offense, let alone against a team as physical as the Cleveland Browns. The Colts held their own, and down to the very last play, they competed their tails off. It is hard to blame the defense for this one.
No. 3: Kenny Moore II Is BACK
The Colts boast one of the youngest, least experienced cornerback rooms in the NFL. That is, besides Kenny Moore II. The long-time Indy standout regressed mightily in 2022, with many calling his future with the franchise into question. However, so far this season, and especially on Sunday, Moore re-cemented himself as a pillar for the secondary.
The slot specialist recorded 1.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss on the day. As sticky as he is in coverage, Moore’s ability to put pressure on the backfield has been a calling card since entering the league. He recorded 10 total tackles and registered two more QB hits. The Colts have question marks on defense, but the 28-year-old isn’t one of them.
No. 4: Zaire Franklin Is A Budding Superstar
The Colts have a knack for hitting on Day 3 draft picks; Zaire Franklin is the best player on the 2023 defense, and it only cost general manager Chris Ballard a late seventh-round selection to land the Syracuse alum. It took Franklin a while to seize a full-time role at linebacker, but he did and hasn’t looked back once.
Franklin currently leads the NFL in tackles — thanks in part to Gus Bradley’s soft scheme — but I digress; a guy still has to make plays, no matter how advantageous the system is. The 27-year-old is still scratching the surface of what his “final stage” will look like. “All-Pro Zaire Franklin” has a nice ring to it. At this point, anyone would be foolish to doubt him.
No. 5: Frustration Is Mounting
Losing a hard-fought battle typically leads to high emotions at the conclusion of the game. And the Colts are no exception. While the gripes are legitimate, one quote from Michael Pittman Jr. raised the brow of every fan listening to his post-game presser.
“They just didn’t target me today for whatever reason. Maybe I’m not a big part of the offense,” MPJ said immediately following the matchup. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love it when a player speaks about wanting more responsibility in the offense. I mean, one of his two catches went for a 75-yard touchdown.
It’s the timing that is bad for the Colts, not necessarily the message. Shane Steichen didn’t call a perfect game on Sunday, and part of that is due to having training wheels on the playbook for Gardner Minshew. Targets may be sporadic the rest of the way, but 65 looks through 7 games is far from an insult.
Here’s to hoping the two sides can get past this once emotions over this tough loss dissipate. Pittman Jr. is an impending free agent at the end of the year, so push will come to shove sooner or later. “Please, not another Jonathan Taylor situation,” says every Colts fan.
No. 6: The Colts Desperately Need A Healthy Offensive Line
While the offense has been humming, all things considered, the big men up front have struggled to stay healthy. Whether it’s one starter missing or multiple players on the shelf, continuity has become a clear and present issue in the trenches.
I know, I know. The PFF numbers say this is an above-average unit. I’m willing to go that far when everyone is healthy. But until I see the same starting five for several weeks in a row, it’s hard to see some of the mental errors diminishing. It doesn’t help when the quarterback takes longer getting the ball out than the 70-year-old “scratch-off ticket lady” at the gas station.
No. 7: Gardner Minshew Must Take Care Of The Football
Speaking of which, Gardner Minshew’s inability to take care of the football has cost the Colts a chance at multiple wins thus far. Now, to be fair, Minshew was never supposed to be taking these snaps. He was signed as a veteran mentor who could step in and help the offense in a pinch.
But as we all know by now, things have changed. The season-ending injury to Anthony Richardson thrust Minshew into the spotlight. And opposing defenses have been licking their chops preparing for the Minshew-led unit. Sunday showed the distinct difference between being “the best backup QB in the NFL” vs. “the worst starting QB in the NFL”.
The Colts can only cover up his deficiencies for so long. The roster is better than many care to admit, but it isn’t good enough to overcome 3-4 turnovers a game from the starting signal-caller. No shade to Minshew as a man, but as a quarterback, he must be better.
Bonus: Let’s Consider A Legitimate Disciplinary Option For Referees That Botch Games
The NFL currently has a “write-up” system for referees when they miss a call in an egregious fashion. But that is it. All a referee has to do is say, “Whoops, we missed that call”, and the NFL will send out a corresponding letterhead explaining how sorry they are for the mistake. The ref gets the tiniest of slaps on the wrist, and then it’s back to normal business again.
This isn’t me calling for another grown man’s job; I am never eager to send someone to the unemployment line. But is it too much to ask for some actual accountability? How about some real ramifications if a blown call leads directly to the loss for a team?
Perhaps it is too much to ask. Because this isn’t the first time the officiating crew decided to “take matters into their own hands”. And I can bet every dollar I own that it won’t be the last.
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