As a Notre Dame fan, I know the significance of the third year for a coaching regime. Nearly every good football coach that the Irish have had in the last 75+ years has made the National Championship game in his third year. It started with Frank Leahy in 1943, then it was Ara Parseghian in 1966, then Dan Devine in 1977 followed by Lou Holtz in 1988, and most recently including Brian Kelly in 2012 (although let's not go over how that ended...). The point is this, and it's illustrated very well by Notre Dame's coaches: year three is a big one when it comes to a coaching regime.
Don't get lost in the Notre Dame example but instead let it illustrate a bigger point that is prevalent in the NFL as well, and that is that year three seems to be a very significant year. There's a reason that I say not to really judge a draft class until three years later, and it's the same reason I say that the third year is big for both players and coaches. Believe it or not, the Colts are entering three of the "New Era" Colts under Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano, and Andrew Luck, so I find it fitting to take a look at where each of those people stands entering the ever-important third year.
In today's NFL, there are many coaches, GMs, and quarterbacks who don't even get a chance to make it to year three, and I think that is perhaps a reason why those teams seem to struggle. If the third year is so important, it's even more important that a coach, GM, or quarterback get the chance to get there. The Colts, under the leadership of owner Jim Irsay, have established a very stable organization that gives people time, which is a very underrated thing in itself. The general manager (Grigson), head coach (Pagano), and quarterback (Luck) have all made it to year three, so let's look at where they stand entering the third year and what they need to improve on.
Ryan Grigson, General Manager
Grigson deserves credit where credit is due - he put together a team that has had back-to-back 11 win seasons with playoff berths despite having the worst record in the league before he got there, getting rid of most of the core, and being severely handicapped by the lack of cap space. Big picture, Ryan Grigson has far exceeded expectations by making this "rebuild" (sorry, Grigs, I had to) seem like nothing. He nailed his first draft, taking Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton, and Vick Ballard. He nailed the moves to sign Jerrell Freeman, Cory Redding, and some others. But some of his other moves have been questionable - his last two drafts have question marks, as do his last two free agent classes. Most questionable, however, was the trade for running back Trent Richardson in which Grigson gave up his team's first round pick in this year's draft for a player who was terrible last year. People have questions about Grigson, despite his success at building the team as a whole.
For Grigson, it's not as much about improving this year as it is about proving - either being proven right or being proven wrong. The moves have been made, and while he is always tweaking the roster all throughout the season and making crucial moves (see Darius Butler in 2012), we'll really be looking at how the moves he already has made turn out. Will Bjoern Werner step up? What about Khaled Holmes, Hugh Thornton, or this year's entire class? How will LaRon Landry do after a dismal year last year, and what about Ricky Jean Francois? And the big one, how will Trent Richardson do this year? It's important not to lose perspective of the big picture with Ryan Grigson, and that is that he took over a team with a lot of problems as a first-time GM and under his watch they have made back-to-back playoff appearances on 11 win seasons. That's pretty dang impressive. He's shown he can put together a winning team, but how about his skills about certain pieces and what about his talent evaluation skills? Hopefully, we'll begin to get some answers on some details in 2014, Ryan Grigson's third year as the GM of the Colts.
Chuck Pagano, Head Coach
For Pagano, not only is it important to remember that he has two playoff appearances under his belt in his first two seasons as head coach, it's important to remember that while this is technically his third year as coach, he missed most of his first season while battling leukemia. That said, it's year three of his system, and players are buying in. It's obvious that the players love Chuck Pagano and it's obvious that Pagano is a big draw with free agents. Pagano is an inspiring, motivational guy as head coach and he has led the Colts through thick and thin to two successful seasons. As for his system, by year three his 3-4 defense should really be implemented and firing and if not we have to look at both Grigson and Pagano, but mostly Pagano to see what's up.
I expect the defense to take big strides in 2014 and so I don't expect to have to answer those questions, but they're looming there if the defense continues to struggle this year. More than that, however, fans will be watching Pagano's coaching. Last year, the Colts came out of the gate flat way too often - will that happen again? There were some questionable timeout calls or some questionable decisions in game, and we'll be watching to see how his in-game coaching has improved. Because as much as I realize that he's responsible for his defense, the role of a head coach is much more big-picture, and Pagano has done very well in that area, the only real one that coaches are judged in - wins and losses. But, like Grigson, what about the details? Many will be paying close attention to them in 2014.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback
By all indications, Andrew Luck has exceeded expectations through two years. Since we've looked big picture at the other two, let's start off the same way with Luck - he's led the team to back-to-back 11 win seasons, back-to-back playoff appearances, a division title and a playoff win. Quarterbacks aren't (or shouldn't be, at least) judged based purely off of wins, but big-picture, it looks pretty good for Luck. The details? They perhaps look even better. Luck can make every throw he needs to and is incredibly smart. He's a team leader and commands the respect of his teammates. He has what Chuck Pagano says is important for quarterbacks to have, and that's amnesia - he doesn't dwell on mistakes. Luck has shown that he doesn't give up and has helped lead the Colts on several comebacks over his two seasons. Luck is also a tremendous athlete and playmaker and makes a lot of plays with his legs, escaping pressure, avoiding sacks, and gaining first downs and touchdowns.
There are questions about Andrew Luck entering year three as well, however. Is he already "elite"? If not, will he get there this year? Just how good can he be? When will he get his first Super Bowl? Those are the questions about Andrew Luck, and it's clear that he has exceeded expectations so far. Entering year three, Luck just needs to keep doing what he has been doing - keep playing well and keep improving.
I think too often we lose sight of the fact that what the Colts have done over the past two years is rare - a rookie GM, a rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback, and a last-place team without much talent and without a lot of money to spend, then throw in the coach's battle with cancer, and yet still they've gone 22-10 with a division title, two playoff appearances, and a playoff win? That's an impressive start, but they need to continue on that foundation they have laid in year three. It's an important year and it's likely one where we'll get some clarification on some of the questions we have. We'll be following those detail questions closely this season, but let's also not lose sight of the fact that the first two years have been very good overall. Let's hope 2014 is even better.