Next season could be amazing.
Indianapolis Colts fans can legitimately utter that declaration today. Last spring, not even the most optimistic Indy backers could have imagined their 2012 NFL season would produce hopes of an AFC South Division title, a Super Bowl berth, or — dare we suggest it — another Lombardi Trophy in the coming 2013 campaign. Such aspirations are now quite valid.
For those needing reminders of the adversities overcome by the Colts in the past 10 months, we’ll briefly recap the high points.
n The club chose to release Peyton Manning, the franchise cornerstone and maybe the best NFL quarterback ever, rather than pay a $28 million signing bonus to a 36-year-old healing from a career-threatening neck injury. (Manning, of course, recovered superbly and has led the Denver Broncos to the top seed in the conference playoffs, but that is now beside the point for the Colts.)
n The Colts also turned loose numerous well-known, standout veterans, and unloaded front-office mastermind Bill Polian and head coach Jim Caldwell following a disastrous 2-14 season in 2011.
n After retooling virtually the entire operation, from the offensive and defensive lineups to the coaching staff, the Colts lost their new head coach — Chuck Pagano — less than a month into the 2012 season. Diagnosed with leukemia, the 52-year-old Pagano was hospitalized and began rigorous treatments to save his life. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians stepped in as interim head coach.
Any one of those obstacles would be burdensome enough to unravel the toughest of teams. After all, just one season earlier, the loss of Manning to his neck injury turned Indianapolis from a Super Bowl threat into the least effective team in the league. And yet, the “renovated” 2012 Colts, as Pagano always put it, found success and played with inspiration. They finished the regular season with a sterling 11-5 record. When Indy lost at Baltimore in the AFC playoffs on Sunday, 28 of the 53 players on their active roster had never played a postseason NFL game, and 14 were rookies, including Manning’s replacement, Andrew Luck. With his treatments completed just weeks earlier, Pagano was back on the sidelines Sunday, pushing to the brink his doctors’ orders to take it easy, and strengthening the spirits of millions of Americans who’ve admired his courage.
More personnel changes will come in the offseason. The loss to the Ravens revealed some shortcomings, as Baltimore pass rushers swarmed Luck all afternoon, and the Indianapolis defense got stung by several big-yardage pass plays. Still, the core is solid.
Pagano painted the picture this way …
“The foundation is set, and we said we were going to build one on rock and not on sand,” he said. “You weather storms like this and you learn from times like this. This disappointment and the feelings they all have right now, that’s what’s going to propel us to 2013 and motivate us to come back and work even harder.”
We agree. Well done, coaches Pagano and Arians, staff and players.