The Colts were the surprise team of 2012, vaulting from 2-14 the previous season to 11-5 in the playoffs based on a combination of a new quarterback and some old-fashioned emotion.
Now that the strong feelings have subsided, and a new baseline of expectations has been set, it’s reasonable to wonder whether they’ll be able to continue to build, or will suffer the kind of regression to the mean so many teams that make big leaps find.
Quarterback Andrew Luck is a special player, and as long as he’s well, there’s a floor on how bad the Colts are going to get. But they overachieved by such a remarkable degree last season, that it seems almost impossible to replicate.
They strengthened the middle third of their roster with a bunch of free agent signings, but the offseason didn’t bring in many difference-makers.
They have many young parts other than Luck which will provide the base for years to come, but may not have done enough to help him yet.
It starts at the top, as Luck was as good as advertised as a rookie.
While his overall stats might not shine like others, he was also asked to much more, and with much less. The Colts didn’t put Luck into a comfortable spot, with a leaky line and an offense that asked him to move the ball downfield rather than making the safe, short throws.
He still excelled, and looked his best in late-game situations, when young players can often fold. He has a legitimate star in Reggie Wayne to throw to, a young deep threat in T.Y. Hilton and a pair of good tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.
Now’s he’s going to have to build on that, and even what could be considered a problem may work out in his favor. Losing coordinator Bruce Arians and replacing him with Pep Hamilton will be a change in style, but Hamilton was Luck’s OC in college at Stanford, and will bring a system well-suited to his strengths and weaknesses.
One of Luck’s biggest problems last year was hardly his fault.
He took 41 sacks behind a makeshift offensive line that seemed like the last problem that General Manager Ryan Grigson got around to addressing.
They’ve at least added some new names there this year, signing right tackle Gosder Cherilus for more money than anyone thought he’d get, and then bringing in former Patriots guard Donald Thomas.
That’s still just a 40 percent turnover for a line that was pretty bad last year, which may not be enough to fix it.
They’re also not overwhelmed with options in the pass rush. Letting Dwight Freeney walk was reasonable given his age and the direction of the franchise, but they kind of have Robert Mathis and your guess is as good as mine to provide sacks.
Signing former Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden early in free agency was a bit of a head-scratcher. He’s not a bad player, and may well be able to set the edge and help the run defense, but he’s hardly worth the investment and urgency they put into him.
As with many young and rebuilding teams, special teams was kind of a hash last year, but a season to put parts together might lend some stability there, particularly in the return game.
The Colts spent, as the owner referred to it, “SERIOUS coin” this offseason, but they also bought a lot of bulk.
While some of the new additions could have an immediate impact (safety LaRon Landry, running Ahmad Bradshaw), many of the guys they brought in were more subtle tweaks to the roster.
Cornerback Greg Toler’s a solid addition to a secondary that needed help.
New quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is the right kind of voice to put in Luck’s ear at this stage in his career, a smart veteran who has made the transition from starter to backup.
But some of the moves just seem like they were made for the sake of making moves.
An upgrade at tackle was a necessity, but Cherilus got an awful lot of money ($34.5 million over five years), considering a market that went flat and some of the guys who are still available now.
They needed another outside weapon on offense, but Darrius Heyward-Bey has always provided more sizzle than steak. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois got a big contract for a guy who was always a backup.
The Colts needed to add depth to a young roster, and some of the guys they signed should provide that. But Grigson behaved like all that coin of Irsay’s was burning a hole in his pocket.
The sorting at defensive tackle will be interesting, as Jean-Francois and Fili Moala are likely battling for a starting job. But both are versatile enough to play end in Greg Manusky’s hybrid 3-4, and should have a role. The fact Jean-Francois has never been a full-time player makes Moala a necessity, even if he’s not starting.
They’re also looking at options at inside linebacker.
They brought in Kevin Sheppard in a trade with Buffalo, and he took a lot of offseason reps with the first defense while Pat Angerer was recovering from a foot surgery.
Angerer’s likely to win the job if he’s well, and should give them a solid pair along with Jerrell Freeman.
Though it sounds strange to say, the Colts are practically in the early stages of another coaching change.
While Chuck Pagano’s battle with cancer was the emotional lift for last year’s climb, much of that success happened when he was away from the team taking care of his health.
He set the tone in the offseason and established the program, and Arians did a masterful job of running things in his absence. Now it’s on Pagano to keep the progress going. Hamilton was an excellent hire, someone who was going to have his pick of NFL jobs at some point.
The Colts are still an at early stage in their growth as a franchise, and Pagano was respected around the league before last season.
He’s a good coach, but the job’s harder now. Going from good to great is much harder than going from terrible to good, and Pagano will have to adjust to that.