The Bolting Horse
On the night of March 29, 1984, a fleet of 15 trucks moved, under the cover of darkness, along the highway from Baltimore, Maryland to Indianapolis, Indiana. The Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay clandestinely relocated the Colts football team after the city of Baltimore refused to upgrade the existing Colts stadium, and the Maryland General Assembly was on the verge of passing legislation to allow it to seize the team via eminent domain.
Without any indication, Irsay hired movers to gut the offices in Baltimore and move, while the city of Baltimore slept. It was a fait accompli. From then on the team began to play as the Indianapolis Colts in the 1984 NFL season. Baltimore fans were embittered for decades. The Colts marching band, a staple of Baltimore games, defied the move and continued to perform in the city. A new dawn beckoned in Indianapolis, the Crossroads of America.
Manning The Reins Led by quarterback Johnny Unitas, the Colts were the best team in the NFL in the late 1950s and embodied the blue collar spirit of Baltimore. Unitas, the Hall of Fame quarterback, cut all ties with the team after they left town. The first 15 years in Indianapolis were mired in mediocrity. Jim Irsay took over as owner following his father Robert’s passing. 1998 was a watershed year for the organization when Irsay brought in Bill Polian as general manager and they picked Peyton Manning No. 1 overall in the draft. When Tony Dungy arrived as head coach in 2002, and with Dwight Freeney spearheading the defense and making them perennial contenders, the Colts were ready to mount a Super Bowl challenge. They became one of the greatest teams of the decade, fueled by their rivalry with the New England Patriots, and from beating the Chicago Bears in 2006 to win the Lombardi Trophy.
After Peyton’s era, Andrew Luck quickly established himself as the next generation talent at quarterback for the Colts. Luck was cursed with injuries, and tragically, his career was cut short in 2019 after extensive surgeries. For the guts of a decade he was football’s version of Mark Zuckerberg minus the controversy, the boy genius with talent and an intellect that shone brightly in his profession, while also hampered by setbacks. Watching him choke up at his retirement press conference before the start of the 2019 season was a reminder of how brutally attritional and cruel football can be.
Rivers Itching in the Kitchen
Philip Rivers likes to talk trash to opponents, especially 300-pound+ defensive linemen. He and his wife have nine children. He doesn’t move well outside the pocket. You could say he’s not your average modern day quarterback. The 38-year-old signed a two year deal to play in the AFC South division with the Colts as the veteran quarterback that fires the offense, when they target a short championship window. After an outstanding career with the San Diego and later Los Angeles Chargers, where his longest playoff run was to get to the AFC Championship, he’s now drinking at the last chance saloon in Indianapolis. Rivers has a chance to sail off a winner, protected by the best offensive line he’s ever played behind, and banish the memories of his final Chargers season when he threw a lot of interceptions. Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league against defensive pressure. The 2018 tape shows him a master of staying calm when the opposition defense brings the heat. I think even he’d admit that he’s not athletic, but that his pocket footwork and movement is superb. That’s what his coaches will look to tap into.
With accuracy being a major issue last season, he’s in the right place at Indianapolis. Head coach Frank Reich coached Rivers with the Chargers and also coached veteran Nick Foles to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl in 2017. Reich will encourage Rivers to be aggressive, while taking much better care of the ball. An immobile quarterback who turns the ball over would be a disaster for the Colts. Rivers remains a calculated gamble.
Indianapolis are a run-centric offense, with Marlon Mack the incumbent running back and Jonathan Taylor joining in the draft. Taylor was one of the best college running backs over the past three seasons at Wisconsin, so expect him to get plenty of reps. He is a hugely exciting prospect in the backfield. Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jnr., another draft pick, will complement star and Indy lifer, T.Y. Hilton. On offense, the Colts are rounded off by one of the best offensive lines in football, anchored around guard Quenton Nelson, who started his career as an All-Pro with two historic seasons. As I said earlier, Philip Rivers has a ready made bunch of new friends in his offensive line who should continue to dominate. Defense Darius Leonard credits Andrew Luck with so much of his development. Training everyday against a competitor such as Luck was really beneficial for Leonard when he came into the NFL in 2018. Learning to read Luck’s footwork and eyes in practice, helped him become a first team All Pro in his outstanding rookie season. The Colts have every intention of building their defense around linebacker Leonard. This year they made a splash by trading for DeForest Buckner, a defensive tackle from the San Francisco 49ers, reflecting the team view that they are in a ‘win now’ window. Leonard praised the move for adding ‘a complete dog’ to the defense. GM and Head Coach General manager Chris Ballard has consistently made smart decisions since taking over running the Colts in 2016. His draft record is excellent, and he has a knack of bringing in underrated free agents, which has enabled the team to be competitive each year. Working with former quarterback and innovative play caller in head coach, Frank Reich, Ballard has been able to build a franchise identity and roster through the draft and by reinvesting in homegrown names, and not being afraid to bring in a bridge quarterback. In many ways, there are parallels with the strong head coach and front office-coaching partnerships I described in Seattle and Buffalo.
Operation AFC The Indianapolis Colts are a tough team, and fortified by an intelligent draft strategy and team building, they are well positioned for a playoff run. The question is, can they take down the nasty brute that is the Tennessee Titans, 2019’s playground bullies who made it to the AFC Championship game with their power game and toughness? The AFC South title is there for the taking, and at a minimum, Indianapolis should make the playoffs. There, the Colts will be a dangerous team for Baltimore and Kansas City to face. There are similarities between the Colts and the Buffalo Bills, whom I previewed earlier this month. Both have built stacked rosters and are well balanced on either side of the ball. Winning the division will make their life easier. The question mark remains about the quarterback. As Tennessee showed last season in mugging the Baltimore Ravens, performing strongly into January means making a run in November and December. The leading teams that get the playoff bye can switch off and lose to a battle-hardened Wild Card team. Just ask the Titans.
It would be fitting if the Colts went into Baltimore on an unsuspecting night in January 2021 and stole the furniture away again.