Indianapolis Colts fans had gotten comfortable with the NFL offseason.
When Peyton Manning was drafted in 1998, there was excitement for the future and the expectation that the franchise would have a real opportunity to compete for the long-term. It was widely covered that Manning would sneak away with his teammates for individual work in the offseason and fans knew that his expectations would rub off on everyone by the time training camp and the regular season rolled around.
It’s a luxury that only a handful of franchises have in any given year.
All of that changed when Manning had surgery to fuse vertebrae in his neck and sat out the 2011 season. His NFL future was in doubt, the teams future was in the air, and fans knew that whatever came next would likely look very different from what came before. Even if Manning stayed, there would be lingering questions about whether he could return to his dominant form after the surgery and if he did, how long did he have left?
If he went another direction, Andrew Luck was waiting in the wings as the next great Colts quarterback. However, so much change was likely to come with it. The Manning era in Indianapolis was also the Polian era and if the franchise was going to start a new chapter, it was time to consider starting something with a new and fresh foundation.
Luck quickly earned the respect and admiration of fans in Indianapolis. He earned fans’ trust and started to create his own sense of calm and confidence in the offseason. Three 11-5 seasons to start his career, advancing deeper into the playoffs in each season from 2012-2014 made the future look really bright.
The good Luck feelings started to slip when the young signal caller started to suffer injuries. Fans knew he took far too many hits and pleaded with the front office to find a way to protect him. The process of realizing just how much Luck’s body had suffered took seasons to fully understand. Missed games, mounting ailments, and light offseason loads were the early indicators that a once bright future was no longer an absolute.
Colts fans dealt with a lot of offseason questions and uncertainty in the 2011 and 2012 offseasons and then from 2015 on. In fact, fans were finally starting to feel some confidence in the future again in the 2019 offseason. After all, Luck did return to football following a 2017 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and he led the Colts to a 10-6 record in 2018, to go along with an unlikely playoff berth berth, and a win to get to the Divisional Round.
When Luck retired a couple of weeks before the Colts began the 2019 season, a cloud of uncertainty spread quickly.
The team was young and growing, Chris Ballard had brought in some promising players in the draft, including a young offensive line that promised to finally keep the team’s quarterback upright. The defense was starting to take shape with the Maniac coming off of a Rookie Defensive Player of the Year effort.
Now, the questions turned back to quarterback and whether Jacoby Brissett could build on two offseasons working with the first team and become a long-term possible starter. Brissett was able to perform well enough early in the season to get the Colts off to a good start but there was never a time where fans were left to feel truly comfortable. The questions still lingered and when Brissett went down with an MCL sprain against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they got louder.
Unfortunately, Brissett’s late-season performance was less effective than earlier in the season. The Colts finished 2019 good enough to earn a mid-first round draft pick — which meant the team was likely too good to find the long-term answer at quarterback in the draft.
Fortunately, it feels like there is more starting quarterback talent around the league at this time than there has been in a very long time. The “old guard” quarterbacks are entering the final phases of their careers and the young guns are establishing themselves.
It’s during times like these that you see a future Hall of Famer like Tom Brady leave the Patriots and you see a proven veteran like Philip Rivers replaced by a rookie for a franchise that is trying to create a new identity in a new home. Quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston or Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton are either still young enough to establish themselves in the right situation or experienced enough to help a team win a lot of football games.
Chris Ballard communicated with his coaching staff and determined that the best option for the Colts in 2020 was to sign Rivers. Doing so reunited Rivers with Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni, and placed him in a familiar system. Perhaps the most important part of this is that the NFL is facing a different kind of offseason as the world continues to fight the spread of COVID-19. It could pay off in a big way to have a veteran quarterback with a well established offseason process and system familiarity pegged as the starter.
While there are no guarantees about how the 2020 season will play out for anyone, Colts fans have some reason to feel some confidence and a bit more calm heading into 2020.
Stories have already been written about how Rivers is connecting with teammates, working to gain familiarity with his receivers, tight ends, offensive line, you name it. A bit of the Manning offseason flavor is starting to come through, as a proven locker room leader, a proven field general, and a highly respected veteran has joined the team with his own demanding offseason process and expectations.
If Rivers brings stability to the quarterback position, there are plenty of reasons to feel really good about the rest of the team.
The backfield should challenge as one of the most productive and dangerous units in the league behind an offensive line returning all five starters, a line that has established itself as arguably the league’s best. The wide receiver still has questions, in that there isn’t a ton of production, but there is a whole lot of talent in that room and — importantly — at this point the group is entirely healthy. Jack Doyle is as reliable as one could ask for at tight end and Mo Alie-Cox has established himself as a dominant blocker at the position.
The defense took a step forward in 2019 and appears poised to take another in 2020. The unit played without Kenny Moore in the back half of the 2019 season, a huge loss. He will return and will be joined by new defensive line additions DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day. The Buckner/Day tandem just started together in the Super Bowl for the 49ers.
Third-year defensive end Kemoko Turay was starting to show signs of his potential before he suffered an injury and he will be back to full health. Second-year cornerback Rock Ya-Sin played good football late in the year, along with second-year linebacker Bobby Okereke. If those players make a second-year leap, along with second-year safety Khari Willis, the defense could be dangerous in its own right.
What happens when you have strong roster on both sides of the ball and stability at quarterback? Typically, the post-season happens. Once you get to the post-season, anyone can make it. The Titans were in the AFC Championship game last year. Tom Brady is no longer with the Patriots. With Rivers, the Colts fan base has reason to be confident and excited.
It feels like a long time since the fan base has had good reasons to feel that way.