Soft. That’s been the book on the Colts under Pagano. More like a marshmallow than the iron he talks about sharpening. He doesn’t like to say it. It is preferable for him to to stick to coach speak. But it is the truth.
It was a soft team that got steamrolled in the AFC Championship. It was a soft team that lost the next two divisional titles to the Texans, a team that may as well have been putting classified ads out to find a more suitable quarterback.
It was a soft team that made it their personal mission to put Ben Roethlisberger in the running for MVP by forgetting how to play defense as soon as he took the field. As for the Patriots, it was a soft Colts team that should be pleased they did not have to face them in 2016 because it would have gone about as poorly.
As fans, this was not the team we wanted. We have been blessed with something most fans around the league can only dream of: A once in a lifetime quarterback, followed up by another once in a lifetime quarterback. But watching Luck be forced to carry an old, overpaid, ineffective defense year-after-year has been endlessly frustrating. Finally, Irsay had enough and Grigson was shown the door. And in stepped Chris Ballard.
Ballard has it. Colts fans know all about this nearly imperceptible quality. Luck has it too. Simply looking at things by the numbers is not enough to quantify what that quality can mean. But it is significant.
It did not take a brilliant general manager to go all slash and burn on the Colts roster. Just about any armchair quarterback could have told you the list of guys worth keeping was short. The additions, though, were solid ones.
Guys like John Simon, Jabaal Sheard, and Johnathan Hankins. Young, talented, from good defensive teams, and not leveraging the future with massive contracts. Then came the draft. Hooker, Wilson, Basham, Mack. As the positive reviews on the Colts offseason have come in from all the national pundits, we have allowed ourselves to hope that this nearly criminal misuse of Luck’s prime could be nearing an end.
No one has said the Colts have arrived yet, but we might be content with the idea that the arrow is pointing up.
Through all this, Ballard has kept saying the right things. He has reassured us, he has given us the same kinds of clichés we have grown accustomed to hearing from Pagano. And he has talked about competition.
According to Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, he has says it on average 5 times every press conference. What’s more, the players have heard him and it seems like they are ready to answer the bell.
In their first practice in pads today, Vontae Davis mixed it up with T.Y. Hilton and then with Phillip Dorsett. Chester Rogers worked hard to hold on to a starting spot that Dorsett should have claimed a long time ago. Johnathan Hankins talked a big game to the press and then showed what a force he can be on the practice field. It is a welcome change.
Instead of talking about iron sharpening iron, today we saw the talk put into practice. The best receiver on the field taking on the best cornerback on the field. The players who want to carve out a role not worrying about when they were drafted, just worrying about competing.
Rather than practicing all training camp like they are worried someone will get hurt, Ballard wants them practicing like they are worried the guy below them on the depth chart is about to take their job. That mentality, the hunt-or-be-hunted, or as Donte Moncrief says it, grind-or-get-ate, is what it takes to build a winning franchise.
That is the dichotomy of football. Total dedication to one another and the team, while also understanding that those men you are lining up with as brothers are out to take your spot the second you lose a step. Under Pagano, it has seemed that this reality has been muted by sentimentality.
Maybe the times are changing.
What we saw on the practice field today is just the beginning. A few dust ups and a fiery group of players certainly doesn’t make a winning team. The toughness, both mental and physical, that it takes to make it through a season on a team where competition is king? That’s what makes a winner.
Whether Ballard has put together enough pieces yet to become that monster we have all been waiting for remains to be seen. One thing is seems sure though, this won’t be the last time we see the fires of competition burn this season.
Ballard will make sure of it.