No more sneaking up on the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts blew their underdog cover in 2012 with a most unexpected climb to 11–5 and a playoff spot only one year after a 2–14 train wreck.
First-year general manager Ryan Grigson initiated himself by winning NFL Executive of the Year. First-year head coach Chuck Pagano endeared himself to a team and community with his inspiring fight against leukemia and emotional return to the sideline. Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck turned out to be every bit as talented and smart as advertised.
Just like that, the Colts are Super Bowl contenders in the eyes of many, and so soon after parting ways with Peyton Manning in March 2012. Who woulda thunk it?
Pagano suggests he hasn’t accomplished anything yet. The Colts are still “Building The Monster,” as player T-shirts remind. As much as everyone is excited about what could come next, the bottom line is about winning Super Bowls and hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 7th
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians parlayed a stint as interim head coach into a permanent title with Arizona, so the Colts hired Luck’s former Stanford play-caller, Pep Hamilton. This should translate to a more balanced passing attack — Arians hated dink-and-dunk — with Luck utilizing more short-range throws in addition to going deep. He took 41 sacks last year and had to hold the ball too long behind a below-average offensive line.
The Colts had money to spend in free agency and used a chunk on Gosder Cherilus to play right tackle. They also added guard Donald Thomas. Grigson is a former O-lineman who ensured what he called a “cauldron of competition” for training camp with draft picks used on offensive guard Hugh Thornton and center Khaled Holmes. How quickly the rookies transition will impact who stays and goes on a reshuffled front.
While wide receiver Reggie Wayne delivered his sixth Pro Bowl season and flourished in the slot formation when the Colts went with three wide receivers, the team needed another speed guy to replace free agent departure Donnie Avery. They signed former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey for one year. Like Avery, Heyward-Bey is fast, but drops are a concern.
Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener showed promise as rookies, especially Allen, who the Colts should utilize more — often times he helped block and even ran the ball as an H-back. Allen’s a mismatch in the pass game, and Luck needs to find him more.
The run game is still a question mark. That Vick Ballard proved to be a reliable rookie was a big bonus for a fifth-round pick. Donald Brown got hurt again, and the former first-round pick is in a contract year. The Colts talk about wanting to run the ball, which is why the team signed former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw in June. Bradshaw has had a tough time staying on the field, but he's also shown he's capable of being a 1,000-yard rusher when he gets enough carries. Seventh-round rookie Kerwynn Williams is valued as a kick returner but could be an ideal third down back.
Pagano used the word “hybrid” to describe the team changing from its usual 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 last year. That’s another way of saying the Colts didn’t have the parts to play an aggressive 3-4 like he did as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator.
More parts are now in place. While some were surprised at the money shelled out for certain players, needs were addressed with the addition of several free agents, most notably Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, outside linebacker Erik Walden and cornerback Greg Toler.
Landry is a run-stop thumper, the likes of which the Colts haven’t had since 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders. Walden “sets the edge” as a decent run-stuffer and adequate pass-rusher, although many will unfairly compare him to the guy he’s replacing, all-time sack leader Dwight Freeney. The Colts decided not to re-sign Freeney, who didn’t fit the 3-4 and had just five sacks last season. Walden had more than 100 tackles in the last two seasons with Green Bay, so the priority is to have a guy on the edge who is responsible on all downs, not just rushing the pocket. If Walden can’t come up with enough sacks, first-round pick Bjoern Werner should get his chance.
Toler helps a secondary that lost cornerback Jerraud Powers, an oft-injured but capable starter. They essentially switched addresses — Powers going to Arizona and Toler coming from the Cardinals. While more changes were expected, the Colts opted to hang onto to cornerbacks Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn, who made plays at times but also got torched.
Eyebrows rose when Grigson gave starter money to San Francisco backup defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois. But he’s another ideal fit in a 3-4. He’s worked before with defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and can play either end or tackle.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri enters a contract year and turns 41 in late December. It’s possible his replacement is on the roster in punter Pat McAfee, who also handles kickoffs and aspires to one day add field goals to his areas of expertise.
The Colts thought enough of McAfee to use the franchise tag on him, which meant $2.9 million for this season. The sides have talked about a long-term contract.
T.Y. Hilton could be one of the league’s best punt returners. He started slow as a rookie but eventually displayed the speed and elusiveness to make cover teams miss. He accounted for both Colts TDs in a 20–13 home win over Buffalo in Week 12 with a 75-yard punt return and eight-yard catch. Williams should handle kickoffs and might spell Hilton on punts at times.
Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC South
As owner Jim Irsay said outside the locker room after January’s playoff loss in Baltimore, 11 wins is a tough act to follow.
If Luck’s O-line gives him time, watch him take another step forward. That’s saying something considering the passer set an NFL rookie record with 4,374 yards. But he should enjoy a better TD-INT ratio than 23-to-18. The Colts will still have to pass to set up the run in stretches, but Luck is mobile and has plenty of weapons. Even if every part doesn’t fit, the Colts should be better on offense.
The real question about this team is defense. The Colts couldn’t stop the run at times, the pass rush was spotty and the cover guys were exploited too often.
Granted, the team was able to overcome those shortcomings. But Pagano and Grigson realize that next step is a big one and requires a complete team. Winning masks inefficiencies for only so long. The initial hurdle is the two-time defending AFC South champion Houston Texans. They’ve taken ownership of the division once dominated by the Colts. Houston has learned that climbing the playoff ladder demands more than just talent. The Texans have never won in Indianapolis, so that bodes well if the Colts need a Dec. 15 win in the playoff push.
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New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)