Resurgent Colts seek AFC South title
Are there any limits on what the resurgent Colts can accomplish? Quarterback Andrew Luck is healthy and happy after a solid 2018 season in which he was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year. General manager Chris Ballard continues to show that he and his front office staff can find NFL-ready talent in the draft with more key pieces added to the mix. Head coach Frank Reich proved in his first season to be the steady, self-assured leader the Colts needed to stay the course after a 1–5 start and win nine of 10 games to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the last time they were Super Bowl contenders and reached the AFC title game.
The Colts are back in the conversation as one of the NFL’s best up-and-coming teams because they have strong leadership in all of the most important areas.
When Luck sat out 2017 due to shoulder surgery, the Colts dipped to 4–12, their worst record since 2–14 in 2011 — a year that gave the team the No. 1 overall pick, which it used on Luck. He drove them to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. Healthy again last year, he took them back there with career highs in pass completion percentage (67.3), passer rating (98.7) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (plus-24).
The playoff loss to the Chiefs did reveal some weaknesses. Luck needed more weapons. While tight end Eric Ebron had a career-best 13 touchdowns in his first season with the Colts, earning his first Pro Bowl nod, the team struggled to generate offense at times when Pro Bowl star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was hurt. That’s why Ballard signed wide receiver Devin Funchess in free agency. It’s just a one-year deal because Funchess has to prove he’s worth big money. But the Colts are confident it will pay off because he’s the kind of big receiver they’ve lacked since the days of Reggie Wayne. Defenses won’t be able to double Funchess because of Ebron and Hilton. Ballard also added speedy rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell in the draft’s second round. His quickness rivals that of Hilton. Expect Campbell to get plenty of opportunities in three-wide receiver sets, which should mean headaches for defenses.
An offensive line bolstered last year by the addition of rookie offensive guard Quenton Nelson, who was named to the AP All-Pro first team, returns intact. Luck wasn’t sacked in a career-best five consecutive games.
The other area in need of improvement is a rushing offense that ranked just 21st in yards per carry but showed promise at times with back-to-back games of more than 200 yards in October. Third-year pro Marlon Mack became the first Colts back with four 100-yard rushing games in a season since Joseph Addai in 2007. Mack added another in the playoff win at Houston. He just needs to stay healthy. He’s missed six games due to injuries.
Put it all together with Reich’s smart play-calling abilities, and an offense that ranked fifth in scoring at 27.1 points per game should improve.
If the Colts are on a path to the Super Bowl, Ballard might look back someday at drafting weak-side linebacker Darius Leonard in the second round in 2018 as his most important decision. Leonard became the defense’s undisputed leader from the outset with an interception of Luck in training camp. He finished with an NFL-best 163 total tackles and also had seven sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions.
While defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus did what he could with what he was given to finish 11th in total defense, the Colts still lacked playmakers, and a deeper defensive investment was the result. Ballard first reconnected with a player he knew well from his days in Kansas City’s front office, pass rusher Justin Houston. The Colts tied for 19th with 38 sacks, so signing a four-time Pro Bowl star for two years is significant. Houston had 18.5 sacks in the last two seasons with the Chiefs and becomes the team’s best pass rusher since franchise sack leader Robert Mathis. His presence will force opposing offenses to scheme for him, which frees up others to make plays.
Ballard also used seven of his first eight draft picks on defensive players. The theme became obvious — fast and tough players like Leonard. Second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin is a physical and smart cornerback. The Colts are optimistic he will start right away alongside Pierre Desir, who was re-signed to a three-year, $22.5-million contract. Second-round defensive end Ben Banogu will need some seasoning to be an every-down player but expect him on the field in pass-rush situations. His quarterback-chasing athleticism is why he was drafted so high. Third-round linebacker Bobby Okereke could force his way into the lineup in the middle or on the strong side because he plays sideline to sideline with an intense motor. Fourth-round safety Khari Willis might not start right away, but he’s a hard-hitting leader with a knack for making plays. Safety Malik Hooker returns as a secondary cornerstone. Safety Clayton Geathers was re-signed for one more year, but Willis should get his share of snaps.
The Colts might end up needing a bit more muscle inside on the defensive line, but defensive tackle/end Margus Hunt was re-signed because of his versatility, and second-year pro Tyquan Lewis shows tremendous promise with that same ability to play inside or out.
Placekicker Adam Vinatieri still has a clutch leg at 46, which earned him another one-year deal to return for his 24th NFL season. Vinatieri made 23-of-27 field goals with a long of 54 last year. He also became the NFL’s all-time leader in field goals and scoring. If a game is on the line, who else would you want than a four-time Super Bowl winner who has made two field goals to decide championships? Third-year punter Rigoberto Sanchez improved his net average to 42.7 yards, third in the league, and has a strong kickoff leg with 59 touchbacks in 88 attempts. Long snapper Luke Rhodes didn’t get noticed, which means he hikes the ball without any botched plays. The Colts have been just so-so in the return game. Wide receivers Zach Pascal and Chester Rogers are expected to handle kickoffs and punts again. They took care of the ball with modest return averages.
The Colts appear to be facing a tougher schedule with a road opener at the Los Angeles Chargers as well as away games at Kansas City, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. That said, this team has showed that it won’t come unhinged when faced with adversity. Reich won over his locker room during the 1–5 start when he gambled unsuccessfully on a fourth down play in his own end, which ended up costing the Colts an overtime home loss to Houston. The players saw how much faith he put in them. Reich might be understated, but he’s confident in his convictions, whether a fourth-down call succeeds or fails. He’s willing to take that shot. And that trust was eventually rewarded by a locker room with character guys who were unselfish and bought into his belief. There’s something to be said for a cohesive unit with players who play for each other. Luck and Leonard personify that attitude in the locker room. Egos don’t enter the equation, which is quite rare in the NFL.
The Colts will undoubtedly be asked about lofty expectations, but as Reich preached last year, they will stay focused on just trying to go 1–0 each week and not overthink anything else. It might sound boring to the outside world, but it works for them. Barring too many major injury setbacks, the Colts should be rather formidable come January, with a chance to advance deep in the playoffs. A Super Bowl berth isn’t out of the question, although it might prove to be at least another year and a few more key pieces away.