Training camp is an amazing time of year in the NFL. It's not just that football is finally back, which is awesome by itself. But more than just that, it's a time of year where every team and every fanbase has hope. Everybody is on an even playing field, and everybody's record is 0-0. Every team hopes for the Super Bowl, and to some extent every team does believe they can get there. That's the beauty of training camp. There's hope.
Of course, once the season begins, anything can happen. Some teams struggle, and for some those Super Bowl expectations aren't really expectations at all but rather hopes. The Colts aren't one of those teams. Instead, the Colts are one of those teams who's preseason expectations of the Super Bowl aren't just hopes but are real possibilities. The Colts have entered the competition in the AFC with the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, and that group of three makes up the overwhelming favorite to have the Super Bowl representative from the conference.
Last year, the Colts went head to head with three of the NFL's best teams - the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos. When it came to the playoffs, the Colts beat the Kansas City Chiefs (for the second time that season) but then fell to the Patriots on the road in the divisional round, showing that, even though the Colts were getting closer, they weren't there yet. But that was last year, and as Colts head coach Chuck Pagano told Colts.com's Craig Kelley, "You're not going to flip the switch and beat somebody. Last year was last year. That's gone."
The foundation for the Super Bowl emphasis of this team goes back to the very day Pagano was introduced as the Colts coach, when he said that, "Together we're going after that trophy. I don't know when. And I'm not talking about just one. I can't put a timetable on it. But that's our goal and that's our vision." That first year, 2012, those expectations were more of a hope. This year, entering year three of the Pagano Era, they're closer to being realized than ever.
There's quarterback Andrew Luck, who has exceeded all expectations in his first two years in the league and has even been considered a top five quarterback in the league by some this summer. Luck is the foundation of the team and has really been perceived to have been carrying the team in his first two years - a perception that is pretty accurate. The Colts are going to go as far as Andrew Luck takes them, period. Exclamation point. End of discussion.
Luck has more weapons this year than he ever has, however. Reggie Wayne is coming back, and then they have T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen, Coby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen returning as well. There are an abundance of weapons for Luck this year, and then also the Colts have three capable running backs in Trent Richardson, Vick Ballard, and Ahmad Bradshaw. While the offensive line has some question marks, they should still be improved from last year.
Defensively, the Colts added D'Qwell Jackson and Arthur Jones, both of whom will be starting and who should be contributors. They brought back Vontae Davis and players like Jerrell Freeman, Robert Mathis (after week four), Cory Redding, and others are returning as well. The defense still wasn't that great last year, but they improved and actually had the number 9 ranked scoring defense in the regular season. The Patriots ran over them in the playoffs, but the addition of especially Arthur Jones should improve the run defense. And, of course, in year three of the Chuck Pagano era the defense should really continue to improve. The special teams unit should also continue to be very good, with Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee leading the kicking unit.
D'Qwell Jackson perhaps said it best in OTAs when talking about why he choose to sign with the Colts after eight playoff-less seasons with the Browns:
"When I initially signed, my first thought was, ‘You know what? I'm on a playoff team.' Just hearing coach (Chuck) Pagano's talk every day and his message every day, it's about Super Bowls. So that dream of mine, the desire I have to get to the playoffs, that's a given. We're going to get there. So I've got to wrap my brain around ‘You know what? This is about Super Bowls here.' This is about winning the Super Bowl, playing in Arizona. I understood that at first, but now, the more we talk about it, it's like ‘You know what? I want to get to the big dance. I want to get to the big show.' It's amazing, you think you have it figured out for so many years and you get in the right place, right time and things start to take off for you."
The attitude and expectation of the team, from the top down, is Super Bowl. Owner Jim Irsay, GM Ryan Grigson, head coach Chuck Pagano, and the Colts players all have the expectation of the Super Bowl. Some, like USA Today's Nate Davis, predicted the Colts to make the Super Bowl.
Whether or not they will, that is yet to be determined during the season. But in a time with a lot of hope, the Colts Super Bowl hopes aren't unfounded. They're realistic expectations. They're going to go as far as Andrew Luck takes them.
The expectations for and by the Colts as they enter training camp are clear: the Super Bowl.