In a season filled with surprise results, the Indianapolis Colts achieved arguably the biggest by not only landing a wildcard berth in the postseason but winning that wildcard game too.
After going 4-12 in 2017, the Colts responded with a 10-6 mark in 2018 that was wholly unexpected, given the doubt surrounding the health of star quarterback Andrew Luck and the fact that the Colts had been jilted at the last minute by primary head coaching candidate Josh McDaniels.
The good feeling surrounding the Colts season has fans excited about the future and it’s easy to see why.
Frank Reich was the man chosen to lead the Colts after the distasteful McDaniels rejection. Reich was part of the Eagles staff that had led Carson Wentz to a MVP calibre season and then Nick Foles‘ superhuman postseason effort, but these things mattered not to Colts fans at the time.
McDaniels’ situation had left another bad taste, after an awful season without Luck. It was a bleak outlook for the Colts supporters, but little did they know that Reich was about to transform that view. With general manager Chris Ballard overseeing things at Lucas Oil Stadium, he and Reich have a vision for the team that now has fans purring about what they can achieve.
In 2017, the Colts ranked 30th in scoring offence, albeit without Luck. In 2018, Ballard added offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith through the draft. Nelson was a monster at guard, earning 1st team All Pro honours as a rookie after allowing a minuscule 23 QB pressures from a huge 730 pass blocking snaps. Smith was a pick for the future but found himself starting 12 games as a rookie tackle and he did not let his team down in any way.
The offensive line, so often a problem in previous years, performed brilliantly and gave up a league best 18 sacks. Given the concerns over Luck’s health, this was imperative.
Fellow rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, both running backs, added nice contributions to an offence that was pitiful the previous year. Ballard added these rookies to established talent such as T.Y Hilton, Ryan Kelly and the emerging Marlon Mack, giving the Colts a talented young core on offence. Luck bounced back to start every game, playing to the elite standard that he had set prior to his injury layoff in 2017. The addition of Eric Ebron, who led the league in tight end touchdowns with 13, was another masterstroke by Ballard and Reich, giving Luck a redzone monster. A year on from 2017, the Colts finished with the 5th ranked scoring offence, averaging 27.1 points per game.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Colts were led by the sensational rookie Darius Leonard, the linebacker Ballard drafted in the second round.
Leonard ended the season with a mammoth 163 tackles (a franchise record), seven sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Ballard, who had previously worked with the Bears, likened Leonard to the legendary Brian Urlacher and going off his debut season, there is certainly reason for excitement. The performances of corners Kenny Moore (claimed off waivers), Quincy Wilson (2nd round pick in 2017) and Pierre Desir supported a strong secondary led by safeties Clayton Geathers and Mike Mitchell.
The unit, under the leadership of first year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, transformed from 30th ranked scoring defence in 2017 to the 10th ranked in 2018.
Moving forward, there is huge optimism that the Colts can roll back the years and return to the glory days enjoyed under Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning’s leadership. Luck proved this year that he is ready to return to the top table of elite quarterbacks and, at age 29, he has plenty of gas left in the tank. The average age of the starting offence is just 25 and the defence comes in at 26. You could go as far as to say that the Colts dodged a bullet by missing out on McDaniels, as they ended up with Reich who established himself as a fantastic playcaller, connecting perfectly with this talented yet raw Colts roster.
They still have to navigate through free agency, but Ballard has shown an adept ability to identify talent. Couple this with $123 million in cap space and imagine what this team could do in the next few years. The team has a young core with a QB in his prime that belongs at the top table – it is time for the Colts to go “all in”.
Le’Veon Bell, anyone?