Colts' owner Jim Irsay has said numerous times that in this new era of Colts football, he wants the team to be built better and he wants to win more Super Bowl rings. Sometimes those words have caused him to take some heat, but that is the very same goal of 32 owners throughout the NFL: win rings.
He won one with his previous superstar, otherworldly quarterback, and he wants more than that with his new one. And he correctly saw that the way to do that was by building a complete team, not forcing the quarterback to carry it on his back by himself. He looked to the Colts' biggest rivals, the Patriots, for an example of how to do that. In the early 2000s, they won 3 Super Bowls in 4 years thanks to a good defense and pieces around a good yet unspectacular young quarterback in Tom Brady. Irsay wanted to build that: a championship team. And that first meant gutting the old one.
He released Peyton Manning. He released Joseph Addai. He released Dallas Clark. He released Gary Brackett. They let Jeff Saturday walk in free agency. He fired Bill Polian and his son Chris. He fired Jim Caldwell. By the time it was all said and done, Irsay was the owner of a team with a first time general manager, a first time head coach, and a rookie quarterback surrounded by several other rookies and a team patched together as well as possible - and a team that had upwards of $30 million in dead money - around a fourth of the team's salary cap that year.
The pieces were in place, but it would take time. A lot of it. People, including myself, thought it would work out perfectly, as Manning would go to a contender and by the time he was about to retire then the Colts would be emerging as contenders. No one even thought it was a possibility that the Colts would become quite possibly Manning's biggest obstacle in getting to his third Super Bowl.
It has been a remarkably quick turnaround, from a league-worst 2-14 in 2011 to being ranked at or near the top in almost every ranking after week 7 of 2013. An incredible quarterback like Andrew Luck will do that, but this team is about more than just Andrew Luck right now. The defense was phenomenal for much of the game Sunday and they have been for most of the season. The special teams really were game changers. And the offense, led by Luck, continued to be really good.
Sure, they're not there yet. They lost to the Chargers just eight days ago in their worst performance of the year. People will point to the inconsistency there, but it's fixable. And the bottom line is that these Colts have wins over three of the NFL's best: 27-7 over the 49ers, 34-28 over the Seahawks, and over the Broncos 39-33. Those teams are a combined 17-1 against the rest of the league (with the one loss actually being the Seahawks over the 49ers) yet they are a combined 0-3 against the Colts.
On Sunday night, the Colts played the biggest regular season game in their history. Peyton Manning came back to Indianapolis, this time as a member of the Denver Broncos. It was a huge test for Jim Irsay, who had made the decision to release Peyton and move on towards building a new championship team - a more complete one. Chuck Pagano's name for that type of team is a "monster," and Sunday night was the best example yet of just how far this team has come so soon. The offense played well, the defense played well, the special teams played well, and the Colts passed the test with flying colors.
This week, ESPN has the Colts second in their power rankings, as does SI's Peter King. Pat Kirwan of CBS has them at number one, and Bleacher Report's Matt Miller does also. The Colts have established themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They're not there yet. They still have some questions about consistency to be answered, and now they have to deal with a crushing injury to star receiver and team captain Reggie Wayne. I wouldn't say the Colts are "here" yet. But they're incredibly far ahead of schedule, and Irsay's vision is beginning to come true in just the second year of the new era.
The Colts are serious title contenders. They just went head-to-head with the NFL's best - and won. More so, they went head to head with their franchise's past: Peyton Manning. The old era against the new era. And on Sunday night, the new Colts and their new superstar quarterback came out victorious. The Colts are on a fast path to the playoffs (the rest of the AFC South is coming apart at the seams) and they are ready and capable of being a force in them too. The monster is still being built. But it is at least in part here, and faster than anyone could have imagined.
Jim Irsay wanted to build a Super Bowl contending team. And a year and a half after he completely blew everything up, they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders playing good football all around as a team.
After the win over Manning and the Broncos Sunday night, head coach Chuck Pagano gave Jim Irsay the game ball. "I think he earned it," Pagano said when asked about it. He earned it indeed. Take a bow, Jim Irsay. Your monster is way ahead of schedule, and you're building it the right way: a Super Bowl contending team. And that's exactly what these Colts are, just a year and a half after Irsay made the tough decisions to begin a new era in Colts football.