After dominating the Houston Texans Saturday afternoon, the Indianapolis Colts are advancing to the divisional round for the first time since 2015. The Colts exceeded all expectations this season when they won their ninth game and clinched a winning record. Making the playoffs and winning a Wild Card game on the road is incredible and a testament to the team GM, Chris Ballard, has built in only two seasons and the winning culture head coach, Frank Reich, has instilled in his first year. With Andrew Luck returning to elite status, arguably the best draft class in the league that brought rookie of the year candidates Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard, who changed the identities of the Colts offense and defense respectively, and around $123 million in cap space this offseason, Indianapolis can go from the NFL’s feel-good story to Super Bowl contenders in only one year.
The Colts 2018 season started with immediate red flags when Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels initially agreed to become the team’s next head coach but had a change of heart and turned down the job a day after the Colts officially announced the hire. Ballard and the Colts were embarrassed and had to scramble to find a new coach. Eventually, they hired Reich, who was fresh off a Super Bowl victory as the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator.
In storybook fashion, Reich’s season got off to a shaky start when the Colts started the year 1-5. Reich received criticism after Indianapolis’ week four loss to the Texans when he elected to go for a 4th and 4 on their own 43-yard line in overtime. The Colts couldn’t convert, and Houston kicked a game-winning field goal for their first win of the season. Reich doubled down on his decision in the press conference after the game saying, “I’m not playing to tie.” Despite the criticism that came locally and nationally, the players loved the confidence he showed in them and even though they lost the following two games, his decision was the start of the Colts turnaround where they won nine of their final 10 games to become one of only three teams to make the playoffs after starting 1-5 since the NFL-AFL merger. The Colts’ plan B has now emerged as a favorite for the league’s coach of the year award.
It’s still unclear why McDaniels decided not to take the job; the common theory was that he was promised to be the heir to Bill Belichick’s throne in New England but considering that he’s taken head coaching interviews again this season, that doesn’t appear to be the case. At this point, it’s a reasonable guess that he was scared off by Luck’s shoulder and if the QB would ever return to form. Which to be fair, was a legitimate concern that gained a bit of steam early in the season when Luck was replaced by backup, Jacoby Brissett, on the final play in a game against the Eagles because the Colts were convinced his arm wasn’t strong enough to throw a 60-yard Hail Mary pass. Luck’s arm strength would improve as the season went on however and by week 11, he was effortlessly throwing 68-yard touchdowns to T.Y. Hilton.
In hindsight, it sounds foolish to doubt Luck. He finished the season with a career-high 67.3 percent passer rating, 4593 passing yards, and was second in the league with 39 touchdown passes but considering that the Colts had the 3rd overall pick in the draft and Luck’s recovery was taking longer than anyone expected, I could easily see some teams talking themselves into taking Sam Darnold. Even when they traded down with the Jets to 6th overall, they still had Josh Rosen and Josh Allen to choose from. Instead, they made the ultimate commitment to Luck by taking a guard in the top-10 and a tackle in the second round to build him what would ultimately become the best pass protecting offensive line in the league. After years of relying on Luck to win them games, the Colts finally returned the favor.
Ballard deserves praise for not only keeping faith in Luck, but for putting a great team around him. While Nelson is mostly credited with turning the offensive line into an elite unit (which he should be, the guy was named a first-team All-Pro as a rookie,) we can’t overlook Ballard using the 37th pick, that he received from the Jets trade, to select tackle, Braden Smith, from Auburn. Smith started the final 13 games and was ranked the 27th best tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus. As a result, the Colts built a line that lead the league by only giving up 18 sacks, and they now have two key pieces of it on rookie contracts for another three seasons.
Defensively, it doesn’t get much better than landing Darius Leonard in the second round. He also earned first-team All-Pro honors by leading the league with 163 tackles, plus seven sacks, four forced fumbles, and two picks. While they haven’t contributed as much of late, rookie defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis have also made an impact at different points of the season with a combined six sacks. Along with the rookie class, the Colts defense has received a surprising amount of production from free agency, despite not spending much money. None are big names, but defensive end Denico Autry, and veteran defensive backs Mike Mitchell, Pierre Desir, and Kenny Moore have all helped turn what Football Outsiders ranked as the 27th most efficient defense a year ago, to 10th in 2018. No team had a larger increase.
What makes the Colts so exciting is that because of their sensational drafting and patience in free agency, they have an estimated $123,031,980 in cap space this offseason, which is by far the most in the league. Indianapolis has the opportunity to drastically improve the talent on their roster and launch themselves into the elite class in the AFC and become legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
They’ve already been linked to Pittsburgh Steelers star running back, Le’Veon Bell, which personally, I think would be a mistake to pay him considering the Colts depth at the position and how easy it is to find running backs. Instead, I’d recommend adding as many pass rushers and DBs as possible. Whether it’s through free agency or the draft, finding a quality number two receiver to pair with Hilton would be beneficial as well.
In the modern-day NFL, most teams build Super Bowl rosters by following the Seahawks and Eagles strategy of drafting a quarterback and take advantage of his rookie contract by acquiring as many stars as possible in the four-year window before he’s eligible for an extension. While it’s still possible to be a contender with a QB who is making over 15 million dollars a year, it took three good draft classes for the Saints and Chargers to become as good as they are now. Indianapolis doing it in two years with minor spending is incredible and if they can continue to draft well, they can potentially extend their timeframe to contend longer than teams like LA and New Orleans because Luck is still relatively young for a QB at 29-years-old. Just pray to the football gods that he stays healthy.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome against the Chiefs, this season has been an overwhelming success for Indianapolis. This time last year, there was uncertainty on if Luck would ever play again and even if he did, there wasn’t much optimism for his future in Indianapolis because of how poorly they built around him in the past. Now in 2019, they’re regarded as one of the best ran teams in the league. Sure, expectations could plummet with some unexpected decline in play or if Luck takes a hit and doesn’t get back up, but right now, they’re deserving of praise and high expectations. This team is young, exciting, and should be playing football in January for the foreseeable future.