The good news is, the Colts should be exciting.
The bad news remains, exciting isn’t nearly the same thing as good.
There’s a new attitude coursing through Colts camp, which there should be after last year’s 2-14 train wreck. When you’re replacing guys at every meaningful level of the organization, a sense of renewal and optimism is natural and necessary.
Whatever else he does, No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck at least gives the Colts evidence of a plan they lacked last year, when Peyton Manning’s neck problems led to the attendant problems of a Curtis Painter-led offense and the painful-but-inevitable departure of an icon.
Being able to stink for a single season and to be rewarded with one of the more polished passers to come out of college in years was a nice consolation prize for the Colts. If you’re going to replace a Manning, this is the way to do it.
But even Manning needed a 3-13 rookie season before he could deliver on his promise, and it’s unfair to count on anything else from Luck in 2012.
Even if it’s for the short-term, the Colts do have two very good pass-rushers in place after re-signing Robert Mathis to a four-year, $36 million contract and resisting the urge to purge veteran Dwight Freeney.
That’s a start, as changing over to a hybrid 3-4 system will be a major upheaval anyway. The ability to get after a quarterback is the first step toward any defense being respected or respectable, and that’s probably a lot of the reason Mathis and Freeney are two of the few old parts retained.
New coach Chuck Pagano brought a few guys he knows from Baltimore, in hopes that adding familiarity speeds the transition to a new program. Defensive end Cory Redding, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and safety Tom Zbikowski will help install the system. There are a few other pieces in place to build with, as linebacker Pat Angerer and free safety Antoine Bethea give them acceptable starting-caliber players.
It’s not a bad start. It’s also necessary that a lot of these guys play over their heads, because they could be on the field more than they’ve had to in the past.
Gone are the days when the Colts could easily light up scoreboards.
Even if top pick Andrew Luck shows the kind of progress other rookie quarterbacks have in recent years, it’s still going to be difficult for him because of the lack of supporting cast.
They kept wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie, and it’s a good thing they did, because many of the rest of the offensive jobs are a mystery.
Not only did they lose wide receiver Pierre Garcon, tight ends Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme and running back Joseph Addai, but also steady offensive linemen Jeff Saturday and Ryan Diem.
They’re trying to fill in with as many kids as possible, and that will come with the predictable growing pains. After Luck, their next two draft picks were tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Third-round speedster T.Y. Hilton is the closest thing to a threat at wide receiver out of this year’s draft, and it’s hard to expect much from him this year.
It’s a situation where you’d like to be able to lean on a running game, but neither Donald Brown nor Delone Carter inspire much confidence, and a patchwork offensive line doesn’t create much either.
Where to begin?
All they really changed is changed is everything, getting rid of one of the best quarterbacks in league history, so they could start fresh with a fleet of new faces starting with Andrew Luck.
Throw in a new General Manager (Ryan Grigson), a new coach (Chuck Pagano), new coordinators (Bruce Arians on offense and Greg Manusky on defense), a new defensive scheme, and a load of new players, and it’s a full reset for a team that was one of the models of consistency for the previous generation.
Nine straight years of double-digit victories (including an amazing seven straight 12-win seasons) made the Colts under Manning and general manager Bill Polian a paragon of success, a role model for what they’re trying to do again.
But Polian was a known commodity when he took over the Colts, and there are precious few of those here in any capacity anymore.
The cornerback position is kind of a mess, and they’re adopting an all-comers approach to the position.
Jerraud Powers is fine on the right side — not great, but fine — but who starts opposite him is very much up in the air.
Kevin Thomas, a former third-round pick, worked with the ones through the spring, but they tried to create as many options as possible. That included trading for Cassius Vaughn, claiming guys off waivers and combing through the street free agents. It’s a process that is far from over.
They’d love it if someone from the group of Delone Carter/Mewelde Moore/Vick Ballard/various others could push running back Donald Brown, but at the moment it’s his job to lose.
The Colts can crow about a new era all they want. But dumping all the veterans to clear the decks for the new guys will likely lead to another long season.
After going 2-14, it’s hard to imagine things getting worse, but the build could be slow. They open at Chicago, and the Bears have the kind of defense that will test the well-publicized maturity of Luck.
But then they host Minnesota and Jacksonville, a soft landing after a tough start. The schedule isn’t overbearing, with enough games against their fellow travelers at the bottom of the league that they could steal a few.
The reality is, this year’s priority will be for Luck to show he’s capable of the long job in front of him, and developing some of the many young parts around him.
If that means a few more wins, fine. But they’re a year or two worth of solid acquisitions away from even approaching their old form, and that’s if Luck meets every expectation. If they could match the kind of four-win jump Cam Newton helped achieve in Carolina last year, it would be reason for a party. But Luck doesn’t have nearly the kind of parts around him Newton did, which could make that kind of improvement more than anyone could fairly expect.