It can be difficult to go back to the beginning and hard to pick the right point to start. If you want to go way back, you can go seven years to 2011 when Peyton Manning missed an entire season getting vertebrae in his neck fused together. Too far? Go back to early 2017 when Jim Irsay hired rookie general manager Chris Ballard away from the Kansas City Chiefs.
How about we make it even easier, let’s go back to February of 2018. This February last saw Indianapolis name two men as the team’s head coach. Josh McDaniels agreed to join the team but changed his mind, even after some of his assistant coaches had already signed to join Indianapolis and agreed to move their families to a new home. Less than a week later, the Colts brought in Frank Reich, adding to his storied resume as a “backup” in his football career.
Since that time, Andrew Luck went months with no real timeline on when his throwing program would ramp up to one that is typical of a starting NFL quarterback. Chris Ballard moved back in the draft to grab extra picks and then back up to load up his rookie roster with first and second round talent. Former starting left guard Jack Mewhort retired.
There are only 13 players in the Colts locker room who arrived in Indianapolis before Chris Ballard was hired. There are more than 40 players who are on the active roster, practice squad or injured reserve that fit into the blueprint Ballard has put together for his team.
Ballard has made it clear from the beginning that he intends to develop home grown talent to serve as the backbone for the team’s identity on the field and in the locker room. He preached patience and indicated that while he was not afraid to dip into free agency for players who could be a good fit in the team’s longer-term plans, blowing money on players deemed to be a quick fix is both fool’s gold and potentially catastrophic for team chemistry.
Ballard has taken his lumps for draft misses but has not been shy to acknowledge them and move on quickly. He has taken his lumps for the McDaniels fiasco but had arguably the best backup in NFL history on speed dial for just such an occasion.
Heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, the Colts had a massive need to improve the offensive line. Jacoby Brissett took a beating while under center in 2017. In each of Andrew Luck’s first five seasons, he had taken a beating of his own. There was no hope of a meaningful running game behind that offensive line either, resulting in lopsided strategies that put quarterbacks in the cross hairs.
Ballard drafted guard Quenton Nelson sixth overall and presumed guard Braden Smith with the fifth pick of the second round, 37th overall. At the end of the 2017 season, Ballard snagged Mark Glowinski off of waivers from the Seattle Seahawks. He signed free agent guard Matt Slauson in March of 2018. These players have played a key role in the Colts having one of the top rated offensive lines in the NFL, allowing fewest sacks in in the league through 16 games.
Another glaring weakness to be addressed in the 2018 NFL Draft was at linebacker. The only veteran on the roster was Najee Goode, who Ballard signed away from the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. It was assumed that he would play big role on defense in 2018 as the only player with legitimate starting experience. Think again.
Ballard drafted small school linebacker Darius Leonard 36th overall and added two seventh round linebackers in Zaire Franklin and Matthew Adams. He snagged priority undrafted free agent Skai Moore and added him to a group that included 2017 fifth round pick Anthony Walker. What has happened to this position is nothing short of incredible.
Leonard has to be considered a serious contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Walker has looked very good in his second NFL season. He dropped weight and looks fast and ferocious, particularly coming up against the run. Even Matthew Adams has found his way into a regular role as the team’s go-to SAM linebacker, helping to seal the edge against the run and playing a key role in refusing to allow mobile quarterbacks out of the pocket.
When Matt Eberflus joined the Colts coaching staff, it was clear that a major change on defense would be required. Moving from Pagano’s plodding 3-4 defense to a speed-centered 4-3 Tampa 2 would require entirely new personnel. The transition would require patience. Colts fans braced for a soft unit, particularly against the run, after watching the scheme gets gashed on the ground for years during the Polian/Manning era.
This unit? It is currently ranked 8th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.
Saquon Barkley will win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award at the end of the season. Against the Colts? Barkley carried the ball 21 times for 43 yards, good for 2 yards per carry. He did this against a Colts unit missing Al Woods, Anthony Walker, and Clayton Geathers — all primary weapons for the run defense. The Colts stifled him even though the Giants jumped out to an early lead, one it held until the last minute of the game.
The young team started the season in a huge hole. Too many winnable games ended up the other way. Veteran tight end Jack Doyle fumbled away what felt an awful lot like an Andrew Luck fourth quarterback comeback drive for the win. Questionable officiating helped the Eagles win a home game in Week 3, even though the Colts had Philadelphia on the ropes for much of the game. A late game push for a possible win against Houston in Week 4 fell flat after a questionable overtime call allowed the Texans to kick a game winning field goal.
While the score didn’t look particularly close, Indianapolis stuck with the Patriots and a series of unfortunate self-inflicted wounds were the team’s ultimate undoing. An embarrassing loss to the New York Jets in Week 5 left the team 1-5 and fans with little reason to believe in a recovery.
The Jets game was the turning point.
Since that time, Indianapolis has gone on a 8-1 run. They are one win away from a playoff berth, or a ridiculously unlikely division championship — don’t count on it, Jacksonville is an unmitigated disaster.
Many of Ballard’s unheralded, under-the-radar, not sexy defensive free agent signings have been important.
Denico Autry has 36 tackles, leads the team with 9 sacks, has 13 tackles for a loss, 11 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Pierre Desir has played a key role in shutting down all world receivers Amari Cooper and DeAndre Hopkins. He has 73 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, an interception, 8 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Kenny Moore has been the best cornerback on the team this season and has 72 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback hits, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defensed and a forced fumble. Jabaal Sheard has 47 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits and 4 passes defensed.
Margus Hunt has had the best season of his career with 26 tackles, 5 sacks, 13 tackles for a loss, 6 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. Al-Quadin Muhammad has 25 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed and 1 fumble recovery. Jihad Ward had 4 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, and 6 quarterback hits in four games.
On offense? Ballard picked up former first round “bust” Eric Ebron, who has subsequently set the franchise record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end in a single season and been named to his first Pro Bowl. 2017 undrafted free agent tight end Mo Alie-Cox has stepped in as a hybrid option with 6 catches for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Free agent wide receivers Ryan Grant, Zach Pascal, Marcus Johnson and Dontrelle Inman have combined for 927 yards on 90 receptions and 6 touchdowns.
People are starting to recognize that the Colts are young but capable. They are much further along in this rebuild than any reasonable person could expect. They are far exceeding their 2018 projections and dangerously close to first franchise playoff berth since 2014.
Ballard will carry one of the hottest young teams into the off-season. He will boast the largest piggy bank, with over $122 million in projected cap space. He has 8 draft picks, including 3 in the first 2 rounds, and will likely earn one or two compensatory picks for the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Colts franchise is resource strong, talent-rich, and has what might be the most aggressively positive trajectory of any young team in the NFL. In terms of possible destinations, it has to be attractive. The locker room is fun and the bonds are easy to see in post-game clips. The players have a great deal of respect for the coaching staff and are prepared to do what it takes to pull out close games.
Only two teams in NFL history have started a season 1-5 and went on to make the playoffs. The Cincinnati Bengals recovered in 1970 and the Kansas City Chiefs went from 1-5 to 11-5 in 2015 — Chris Ballard was in the front office for that comeback season. If the Colts pull it off in 2018, Ballard will stand alone as the only member of an NFL front office to do it twice.
Who would have thought after the devastating and embarrassing loss to the Jets in Week 6 that Indianapolis would be traveling to Nashville later in the season with its playoffs destiny in its hands? Who would have thought the AFC South would be the most competitive division in the NFL? Who would have thought the Jaguars would stand alone as the butt of the division?
A lot has happened in a very short time and much more is yet to come. How much further can the Colts take this unlikely story? Will Sunday be the end, or will it be the start of another chapter?