Winning fixes everything, or so the saying goes.
I suppose that means losing breaks everything?
Fans in Indianapolis have a long history of facing what might be the toughest or most emotionally challenging professional sports reality imaginable. The market is too small to attract the best talent, most of the time, and that is true for the Colts and the Pacers. The sports culture is too ingrained (Indianapolis is truly a World Class sports city and culture) and the owners have too much competitive spirit or integrity to tank their way into better draft positions to gain access to marquee players.
As a result, most of the time the Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers are going to be good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to dominate for an extended period. The Peyton Manning era was an exception for the Colts. Late in Reggie Miller’s career, the Pacers were true threats in the Eastern Conference, but that pesky Jordan guy spoiled their fun (also Ben Wallace, Ron Artest, and fans in Detroit).
There is good and bad to all of these things. The good is that when the Colts do get to the “top of the mountain” the feeling is incredible. They’re underdogs, you see. They’re not expected to be there. This makes winning in Indianapolis a lot of fun.
It would suck to enter each season and know your favorite team is going to be awful — New York Jets — and it would start to get kind of boring if your team is basically expected to win every year — New York Yankees.
What makes life as a Pacers or Colts fan so difficult is that at some point almost every year you’re subject to the belief that this could be the team to get the job done.
This was true of the 2021 Indianapolis Colts.
There were huge offseason questions. The start was not encouraging, at 0-3. Wentz showed his blemishes, lacked chemistry with his targets, and suffered nasty injuries to both ankles that most expected would land him on the injured reserve.
All of that changed as the Colts started to win games (fixes everything). An opportunistic defense started to make huge plays. Jonathan Taylor stepped forward as arguably the most dominant offensive weapon in the NFL. Belief started to creep in.
This team played everyone close and appeared capable of beating anyone — Bills, Bucs, Patriots, Cardinals... anyone.
National media couldn’t help but see the same things. The Colts were widely acknowledged as the team no one would want to face in the playoffs. This was happening even with questions still unanswered for Carson Wentz.
The Colts were expected to win their final two games. The only questions were, would the Titans hold onto their AFC South lead, and just how far could the Colts climb?
Weeks 17 and 18 were soul-crushing.
The highs are very high for franchises like the Colts and Pacers. But the lows are super low too. Every season these feelings can swing widely between these two points and so for Colts fans, it’s best you have a strong stomach and the number for an incredible sports psychologist.
The Colts fan base ended the season with the same questions it has early on. Is Carson Wentz the long-term answer at quarterback? At this point, that appears unlikely and confidence has taken a big blow.
If Carson Wentz isn’t the answer, what options do the Colts have? Right now, there aren’t any good answers.
Speaking of no answers, without a first-round draft pick, there might not be a better option than Carson Wentz. QB purgatory is a real thing. The Colts are about as deep in it right now as they could ever expect to be.
The Colts' defense was a bit like Jekyll and Hyde this season. When it was taking the ball away, it could turn the tables on any opponent. The beatdown again the Bills in Buffalo stands out.
Of course, the defense also allowed Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens to overcome a huge late-game deficit to win an important game in overtime. The defense couldn’t stop the Bucs to put the game away against the defending Super Bowl Champions. The defense didn’t get the job done against the Raiders in Week 17, and Kenny Moore II didn’t look like a Pro Bowler. The Jaguars were awful offensively all season but drove down the field convincingly to get things going in Week 18.
Is the Matt Eberflus defensive scheme the right one moving forward? If Eberflus leaves to become a head coach, should the Colts modify the approach? Perhaps it would be better to have a defense that is harder to move the ball on, especially when trying to close out a game, and less reliant on turnovers?
While Frank Reich has had his own ups and downs as a play-caller, most of the Colts fan base still sees him as someone who can lead the Colts to the promised land. His players love him, his coaching staff does too, and he has the support of the owner and General Manager.
The question moving forward is just how much Reich wants to hitch his wagon to Carson Wentz? If he fights for him again and convinces Chris Ballard to stay put, things could get rather interesting for Reich a year from now.
It should come as no surprise that the Colts fan base has tied their faith in the future of the franchise to Chris Ballard. Even after a horrible end to the season, and even when almost any member of the fan base can point out that the roster still has weaknesses, those who think things would get better without Ballard are in the minority.
Ballard has put together a roster that has more talent in more places than Indianapolis has seen in quite some time, likely since the Colts faced the Saints in the Super Bowl following the 2009 regular season.
The coaching staff is solid or spectacular. Look at how many are getting interviewed for promotions on other franchises.
Ballard has drafted an All-Pro guard, All-Pro linebacker, and an All-Pro running back. He has acquired an All-Pro defensive tackle. This year, his roster had seven players earn Pro Bowl honors to lead the NFL. Those Pro Bowlers were acquired via the draft, trade, and waiver wire claims.
He has consistently shown the ability to get the most out of the salary cap and get production from his free-agent signings. He has built a locker room culture that was so incredibly magnetic on Hard Knocks that numerous people who don’t even watch football are now Indianapolis Colts fans.
Ballard has faced incredible adversity since taking on the role of General Manager. Two head coaches — and that incredibly awkward situation that didn’t happen with Josh McDaniels. Two different offensive and defensive philosophies. A new starting quarterback situation in every year of his tenure, including having to lead the franchise forward after he watched the NFL equivalent of a young Reggie Miller retire abruptly. Despite all that, he had a roster that was widely considered the most dangerous team to face in the playoffs just two weeks before the season was over.
Some might call that a miracle.
Others say, so what, now what.
Both are right.