INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The pain of missing the playoffs is sudden and excruciating.
But there’s a silver lining, one that’s actually been more of the golden variety for the Indianapolis Colts.
A consolation for failing to reach the postseason – the Colts have done so in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98 – is better positioning in the subsequent NFL Draft. The worse you are, the better your odds of finding a young phenom capable of offering immediate and lasting impact.
The only caveat: Don’t screw it up.
Don’t be the Cleveland Browns.
Be the Indianapolis Colts.
“The franchise obviously has a track record of getting them right in those situations,’’ agreed former long-time Colts’ front-office executive and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian.
Since 1993, the Colts have missed the playoffs eight times. To say they’ve made the best of bad situations is a gross understatement. Spoiler alert: the worst of the bunch is defensive tackle Ellis Johnson and his misfortune was coming along before the team established itself as a perennial contender.
A refresher course:
- 2016 draft (8-8 in ’15): C Ryan Kelly with 18th overall pick. He was inserted into the starting lineup from day 1. He will be to Andrew Luck what Jeff Saturday was to Peyton Manning.
- 2012 draft (2-14 in ‘11): Luck with the 1st overall pick. Jim Irsay was able to transition from Manning to Luck. As we all know, in life timing is everything.
- 2002 draft (6-10 in ’01): DE Dwight Freeney with 11th overall pick. Tony Dungy initially believed Albert Haynesworth was the guy. Polian talked him out of it. Good thing. Freeney was a beast. He’s still constructing a Hall of Fame-worthy resume with 122.5 career sacks.
- 1999 draft (3-13 in ’98): RB Edgerrin James with the 4th overall pick. Fans were not pleased Polian opted for James, a dreadlocked back out of Miami, over Ricky Williams, the dreadlocked Heisman Trophy-winner out of Texas. Again, good choice. James is the team’s career rushing leader and another Hall of Fame-worthy individual.
- 1998 draft (3-13 in ’97): Manning with the 1st overall pick. We won’t bore you with the details, but Canton awaits. Polian laid the groundwork for a decade of excellence by pairing James and Manning. One “What if?” scenario: What if Polian had opted for Leaf over Manning and Williams over James? How does the Los Angeles Colts sound?
- 1995 draft (8-8 in ’94): Johnson with the 15th overall pick. We wouldn’t mind if the Colts found a comparable talent at No. 15 Thursday. In seven seasons in Indy, he started 84 of 104 games and generated 33 sacks. He wasn’t the reason the Colts were 53-59 during that stretch.
- 1994 draft (4-12 in ’93): RB Marshall Faulk with the 2nd overall pick. A member of the Pro Football of Fame’s Class of 2011. A transcendent talent.
The next attempt at helping ease the pain of missing the playoffs by capitalizing on a lofty draft position comes Thursday. The Colts hold seven picks, including the 15th overall, and we’ve considered the various areas of need over the past few weeks: pass rusher, cornerback, running back, inside linebacker, offensive line.
Polian dismissed the notion there’s more pressure or urgency to get it right when a team is drafting in the top half of the draft.
“I don’t think so,’’ he said. “There’s urgency to get your team better and the draft is part of that. Each individual pick stands on its own.
“I always told our guys that if we’re going to be wrong, let’s be wrong for the right reason. Let’s be wrong because we had a conviction on a guy. Let’s be wrong because we thought he would be better than he was. Let’s don’t be wrong because we tried to put a square peg in a round hole.’’
The Polian-directed Colts endured some significant misses: offensive tackle Tony Ugoh, a second-round pick in ’07 that cost the team its first-rounder in ’08; defensive end Jerry Hughes, the 2010 first-rounder that didn’t emerge as a force until he was traded to Buffalo.
But there’s no denying Polian and his scouting staff were adept at coming out of the draft with quality and quantity throughout the process. While so much attention always is given to the first-round prospect, building a roster through the draft goes much deeper.
Let’s not forget some of the middle- and late-round “finds:” defensive end Robert Mathis (round 5 in ’03), safety Antoine Bethea (round 6 in ’06), linebacker David Thornton (round 4 in ’02), offensive tackle Ryan Diem (round 4 in ’01), guard Steve McKinney (round 4 in ’98), linebacker Cato June (round 6 in ’03), punter Pat McAfee (round 7 in ’09), wideout Pierre Garcon (round 6 in ’08). That group shares 11 Pro Bowl selections.
“Last year in the NFL, 65 percent of the snaps were taken by guys drafted in the fourth round or lower, or were collegiate free agents,’’ Polian said. “Those are the facts.
“It’s not the pick you have or the total number of picks you have. It’s a question of what you do with them. Did you get them right?’’