The Indianapolis Colts enjoyed a miraculous turnaround last season after a miserable start. Can they afford to start slow again?
It’s the sort of story best enjoyed in the afterglow. And no doubt about it—it’s a helluva story.
Last season, the young, rebuilding Indianapolis Colts experience the sort of historic turnaround that will told for generations of fans to come. Under first-year head coach Frank Reich and his star quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts somehow climbed out of a miserable hole at 1-5 to not only make the postseason but actually pick up a win in the wild card round.
That’s 10 wins in 11 weeks. That’s last place to first place. That’s also the sort of story you’d rather not repeat.
Given their tremendous run of success last season, the Colts are a chic pick in the AFC. ESPN recently put the Colts at No. 1 overall in the NFL in terms of Future Power Rankings—a measure of which NFL franchises are in the best shape for the next three years. Forget last year’s Super Bowl participants in the Patriots or the Rams. Set aside the runners up in both conferences with the Saints or the Chiefs. The burgeoning youth movement of the Colts drew the most respect in this exercise.
Coming into this season, ESPN isn’t the only media outlet predicting big things for Indy. General manager Chris Ballard has restored a completely depleted roster with young impact talent on both sides of the ball. The offensive line went from a literal worst to first in sacks allowed in a single season. The Colts have real depth at all three levels of the defense. And, best of all, they have the single most important asset an NFL team can boast: an elite quarterback.
Unfortunately, this preseason hasn’t been particularly kind to the ascendant Colts.
Thanks to a calf strain suffered back in April, Luck remains out of practice in training camp for the foreseeable future and has already missed 10 straight practices, as of Monday. He’ll reportedly miss the joint workouts scheduled this week with the Cleveland Browns, and there’s no timeline on when he will be able to return.
“There a degree of pain that he is not comfortable with, and obviously we are not comfortable with putting him out there,” Frank Reich said over the weekend.
A calf strain doesn’t sound like a major deal—and to be quite clear, at this point, it is not a serious concern—but one that stretches back to April with no obvious timeline for return is distressing. It’s certainly a red flag for a franchise that has endured several of them with Luck’s health over time. It’s also not going to make it easy to start fast this year as compared to the previous season.
Speaking of injury concerns, the Colts invested a Day 2 pick to bring in Parris Campbell to bolster their vertical passing game and provide Luck with a deep threat he deserves next to T.Y. Hilton. Campbell has also missed 10 practices now with a hamstring injury, and Reich said he’d fallen behind once again after feeling better.
“He was kind of getting close, and then we had a little bit of a, I don’t even want to call it a setback, but he felt a little something yesterday,” Reich said. “…We’ll have to wait a few more days to see if that settles down. Hopefully, we can get him back soon.”
Campbell is a burner from Ohio State who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds at the NFL Combine. He’s also a rookie receiver in a league that’s not so kind to first year players at his position. Given the time he’s lost in training camp, the Colts might want to dial back their expectations for Campbell in year one.
The running game
If you watched the Colts visit the Buffalo Bills in their opening salvo of the preseason, you saw a vanilla offense with an absolutely pitiful run game. When you take away backup quarterback Chad Kelly’s 33-yard run (longest of the game) or 53 rushing yards total, you get a look at just how anemic the Colts backs were: 22 rushes for 50 yards.
That’s good for under 2.3 yards/carry.
Aca’Cedric Ware and Jonathan Williams had 8 carries apiece and picked up 25 and 24 yards on the ground, respectively. The most embarrassing effort came from Nyheim Hines who rushed 6 times and gained a total of one positive yard in the game.
Yes, the team refused to play Marlon Mack and they also have Jordan Wilkins and D’Onta Foreman on the roster. All is certainly not lost, but their inability to move the chains against Buffalo’s backup lines is a signal that something wasn’t working that should have been.
Strength of Schedule
Perhaps the toughest part about starting strong will be the schedule that Indy faces in 2019. They begin the year with a road trip to face the Los Angeles Chargers—a team with serious Super Bowl aspirations. From there, they visit the Tennessee Titans in an important inter-divisional game for early AFC South positioning.
The Colts then head home for two games but one is against the Atlanta Falcons and the Colts then travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs at Arrowhead in Week 5 before a very early bye that will mean a grueling stretch run without much rest. Only a date at home against the lowly Raiders will bring a respite on the calendar for the first six weeks, the same amount of time it took the Colts to dig a sizable hole last season.
Reich, Luck and company have proven before that they can overcome a slow start and compete with anyone week to week. Their roster is deeper than before, and even if these concerns or injuries last longer than anticipated, the defense should make a considerable leap forward in 2019.
That said, the Colts aren’t exactly clicking all that well for a team with great expectations. Can they overcome these early hurdles? It’d be nice if they didn’t have to endure the same sort of story as last year.