The Indianapolis Colts may (thankfully) not have a life-threatening illness — or Coach of the Year Bruce Arians — to inspire and lead them this season, but don’t write them off as mediocre. This is a much better football team than last year’s 11-win squad.
The void left by the departure of Arians appeared cavernous, but General Manager Ryan Grigson displayed his talents and commitment to excellence with the signing of Andrew Luck‘s college offensive coordinator at Stanford, Pep Hamilton.
Luck often had to hold onto the ball longer than you would like behind a porous offensive line in Arians’ vertical offensive scheme last year which translated into the fourth most sacks taken (41) and a league-worst in QB hits on Luck (116).
Hamilton brings with him a downhill rushing approach that includes the classic pro-set — with fullback included — and a commitment to getting the ball out of Luck’s hands quickly, which will help keep Luck off of the turf this year. The commitment to protecting Luck didn’t stop there.
The Colts were very aggressive in addressing their offensive line woes signing G Donlad Thomas and T Gosder Cherilus in free agency, as well as drafting G Hugh Thornton and C Khaled Homes in back to back rounds (3rd and 4th).
Thomas spent the last two seasons with the New England Patriots helping the team become one of the best rushing attacks in the league, while Cherilus was acquired from the Detroit Lions and should help anchor the right side of the line. Thornton and Holmes will help with depth, which is something you can never have enough of when protecting a franchise quarterback in the NFL.
The defense was improved dramatically as well.
Josh Chapman and Aubrayo Franklin are clear upgrades at the nose tackle position, which is enormously important in defensive coordinator Greg Manusky‘s 3-4 scheme. Ricky Jean-Francois, was signed from the San Francisco 49ers, gives the team a menacing DE opposite of the solid veteran Cory Redding.
The signing of S LaRon Landry finally gives the team a hard-hitting Pro Bowl safety opposite of stud veteran Antoine Bethea, and the perennially underrated Robert Mathis moves to the rush linebacker position. That is a definitive upgrade over the now-departed Dwight Freeney, who never seemed comfortable at that position.
The transition away from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense was ugly at times last year and was a large part of why the team was ranked 26th in overall defense. The team had to revert to running their old 4-3 attack occasionally because the personnel simply didn’t fit Manusky’s scheme.
Going into the second season of the 3-4 the personnel fits better, and the team is growing more comfortable with the verbiage and their responsibilities. If the Colts can finish in the top-15 in overall defense this season — which is perfectly feasible — that will take a huge burden off of the shoulders of Andrew Luck, who had to orchestrate seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter of 2012 for the team to be competitive.
Luck threw for more yards and less interceptions than all-time great Peyton Manning did in his rookie campaign and should be better this year. Not only should he benefit from better protection, but he has explosive weapons at his disposal in future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne, second year speed demon T.Y. Hilton and the newly acquired Darius Heyward-Bey. Second-year TE Coby Fleener put on six pounds of muscle in the offseason and appears primed for a breakout year as well.
The expectations are huge for this year, and they should be. Surprisingly, some writers have ranked the Colts as low as 21 in their power poll, but I have them coming in at No. 9 behind only the: 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, Patriots, Houston Texans, and Baltimore Ravens.
In what we all thought would be a rebuilding era after the premature tossing of Manning (that’s another subject for another time), owner Jim Irsay has brought the hope of excellence to the here-and-now for the Colts faithful.
The Colts should have another 10+ win season and will be a team that no one will want to see in the playoffs in 2013.