It's not hard to see what the Colts will focus on this offseason.
The team has a number of needs, such as pass rusher and cornerback, and those will surely be addressed. But there's one area that stands out among the rest when the Colts talk that reveals an awful lot about what their emphasis will be this week: they know they need to protect quarterback Andrew Luck better.
Owner Jim Irsay said as much earlier this offseason, telling the Indianapolis Star's Greg Doyel that the offensive line needs to take more pride in protecting their quarterback.
"We want some leadership," Irsay said in January. "When Howard Mudd was here and it was Jeff Saturday and Tarik Glenn, the mantra was, ‘No one touches 18! His jersey doesn't get a spot of dirt on it!' I mean, it was the pride of the building. I can't tell you the way those offensive linemen carried that pride. We have to get back to that."
General manager Ryan Grigson knows it too. When asked at the NFL Combine this past week what the first thing he notices about where the team needs to improve, he said protecting Luck - acknowledging that the bulk of their winning over the past four years has been due to Andrew Luck.
"Obviously we need to protect our quarterback better," Grigson said. "There are a lot of different ways to do that. I think that every team in this league knows, no matter if you have a line full of ones (first round picks), your quarterback is going to get hit. You have to find ways, whether it be through acquiring better talent, smarter players, schemes. There are a lot of different ways to protect your quarterback. Obviously, drafting is a very key component to building an offensive line. But pass rush, protecting the quarterback, coverage. This past year (2014) we were one game from the Super Bowl. (In 2015, we) played the two teams in the Super Bowl. We beat one, played one nose-to-nose into overtime. When we had our quarterback, we felt like we had the pieces to get where we wanted to go. But you're always trying to get better. Everyday you're trying to get better. That's what we've been charged to do."
Head coach Chuck Pagano also knows that his quarterback needs to be protected better.
"Obviously we feel great about AC (Anthony Castonzo) and where he's at," Pagano said at the Combine this week. "He'd be the first one to tell you that he can clean up some things and he'll do that. But we feel great about the blind side and him protecting the back side of Andrew. Joe Reitz came in and did a great job at right tackle till we moved him inside and he got hurt. Denzelle Good has got a bright future, but we want to shore up the middle there and we feel really good about Jack Mewhort, where he's at. I think obviously his ceiling is still high and he's got a lot of room to grow but he's going to do nothing but get better. Again, the interior of that offensive line, the center and two guard spots is the focal point."
Even punter Pat McAfee knows that the Colts need to protect Andrew Luck better. Asked by Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio this week about what the team needs to improve this offseason, McAfee pointed to the offensive line.
"I think it was very obvious: we've got to protect our franchise," McAfee said. "Number 12 is an incredibly athletic genius. I mean, that's what he is. He can make every throw, he can make every play, we've just got to protect him. So I think you've heard that from our GM yesterday, our head coach yesterday; we've got a great group of guys in that offensive line who, if we could find a good group plus add a couple of guys, I think that would be great news. And Von Miller proved that if you could get to the quarterback, some magic can happen. We've got good guys in the back end, we've got two-time Pro Bowler Mike Adams, we've got D'Qwell Jackson, Vontae Davis coming off another Pro Bowl, we've just got to get the quarterback, protect the quarterback, and I think we're good to go. And we've got to pay Andrew at some point. Boy, he is going to be wealthy."
We can discuss what the biggest need for the Colts is this offseason (I've said and will continue to say it's pass rush), but without a doubt it's clear the Colts need to protect Andrew Luck better as well. Luck is the team's franchise quarterback and, as we've seen, is capable of putting the Colts on his back and winning football games with a high level of play. The repeated hits add up, however, and the Colts rightly realize that in order for Luck to really reach his potential, he needs to have time to throw. At the same time, however, the Colts have the tough task of figuring out a way to protect Luck while also not taking away what makes him special - his playmaking ability.
"Andrew is who he is," Grigson said this week when asked if they want Luck to be more careful when playing. "He also knows that he's growing as well. He knows what is smart and what is ill-advised as a player. I think he'd tell you that himself. He has that type of humility. He's another person that is yearning to grow as well. He knows, take the sack. Throw it out of bounds. He sees all the great ones do that. That's why they play forever. So you've got to learn how to do those things if you want to extend your career and not take those vicious hits. But at the same time, like coach has talked about it ad nauseam, it's that same spirit within him that plays the position like a defensive player. I've never seen a quarterback beat our skill guys on interceptions to the ball carrier. He goes like a missile to go blow that guy up. He did that in college. He is a blue competitor. That's hard to pull out of somebody. He's saved some plays for us. He's done it with his legs as well. So, it's a catch-22 sometimes I think because you say, ‘Hey, take the sack.' But when he runs for 20 (yards) and gets you a chunk and keeps you in a game, you say, ‘Well, we'll take that one.'"
That's the challenge the Colts face this offseason, as Grigson noted that protecting the quarterback can take different forms. For example, having Andrew Luck play smarter football is one such form, but there are others too - such as improving the talent up front. It will likely take a combination of several factors in order for the Colts' offensive line to finally get to where they want to go, but regardless, it's abundantly clear that everyone associated with the Colts knows this much very clearly: they need to protect Andrew Luck better. In other words, expect that to be a major focus this offseason.