After being so reliant on Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck, Colts confident they won’t have to ask so much from Philip Rivers


Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Colts via Twitter

INDIANAPOLIS – For far too long, it’s all been about the quarterback.

Since 1998, the Indianapolis Colts have gone as far as their quarterback has taken them. Remember Peyton Manning? And Andrew Luck?

Remember how things have been when someone else was under center?

Let us refresh your memory.

With Manning and Luck running the show, the Colts were 207-114 (.645), including 13-14 in the playoffs. They reached the postseason in 13 of their 19 seasons, advanced to the AFC Championship game four times and whipped the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

They possessed that rare ability to lift those around them, which in some cases meant compensating for deficiencies elsewhere.

With someone else working as QB1, the Colts are 19-39 (.328). Only four not named Manning or Luck have won a game over the last 22 seasons: Jacoby Brissett (11-19 as a starter), Matt Hasselbeck (5-3), Dan Orlovsky (2-3) and Josh Freeman (1-0).

A philosophical cornerstone that followed Chris Ballard to Indy from Kansas City always resonates with us. He delivered it during his 2017 introductory press conference as general manager. It was in response to taking over a team that presumably would be led by Luck, a three-time Pro Bowl QB coming off shoulder surgery.

“Let me say this, because Andrew is a great player, but it will never be about one guy,’’ Ballard said. “It’s about all 53 men in that locker room.

“It will never be about one person. It will always be about the team.’’

That was in no way a knock on Luck. It simply was Ballard stressing the absolute need for the roster to be formidable enough to win without relying on its QB1, no matter who that might be.

That brings us to Ballard’s Sunday meeting with the media on a Zoom conference call. He was asked if the Colts’ roster – top-to-bottom – finally is at a level that won’t require it to be so quarterback-reliant.

Why do you think this roster now is at the point it won’t be about one guy, in this case Philip Rivers?

“Look, I don’t ever want to take away from the quarterback position, the importance of it,’’ Ballard said. “We all know the importance of that position and the value it brings to the team.

“But saying that, you’ve gotta have a team around him that can carry him so that he doesn’t have to play lights out each and every week for you to win. There’s got to be different ways to win. One week you might win on defense. The next week you might win running the ball. You might win on special teams one week.

“It’s gotta be about every player on the roster, every phase, and we feel like we’re in a good spot right now.’’

Yes, that good spot includes another high-profile quarterback. Philip Rivers, 38 and heading into the 17th season of a Hall of Fame-worthy career, wasn’t signed to a one-year, $25 million to be a game manager.

But Rivers’ supporting cast consists of one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines, a running attack that features emerging Marlon Mack and promising rookie Jonathan Taylor, and what appears to be a deep receiving corps led by four-time Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton.

But if Ballard, Frank Reich and the personnel staff have been on point with their roster-building efforts, there’s so much more.

Here’s a sampling of Ballard’s views on his latest roster:

The defense: It showed flashes early last season, but faded late. By season’s end, it ranked 16th in yards allowed and 18th in points. That’s as middle-of-the-road as it gets. The biggest offseason move was acquiring tackle DeForest Buckner in a trade with San Francisco.

By the way, the defense has undergone a total makeover on Ballard’s watch. There are zero players who pre-date him.

“I’ll never forget when we first got here saying we knew that there was going to be a ton of work that needed to be done on the defensive side,’’ he said. “And I’m proud of the work our staffs put in, our coaching staff developing these young players. We’re not perfect, but we feel like we’ve got a good setup at every level. And that’s what you want. You want disruptive players and good players at every level and we think we’ve done that.

“I’m always going to say it always starts up front. With the addition of Buckner . . . the 3-technique will make it go in this defense. It is kind of the engine that drives the train. But saying that, when you’ve got a Justin Houston, when you’ve got Denico Autry, when you’ve got a Grover Stewart, when you’ve got (Al-Quadin) Muhammad, who’s really coming on.

“I’m really proud of (Tyquan) Lewis and the way he’s performed, matured and given us a lot of flexibility inside. I’m expecting big things from him, Then (Ben) Banogu . . . we’re excited about the front.’’

The linebackers: The catalyst of the group is Darius Leonard. He’s a two-time All-Pro who appeared in his first Pro Bowl last season. The 2018 second-round pick is the first player since at least 1982 to register at least 10 sacks and five interceptions in his first 25 games.

In a rare move, Ballard kept seven ‘backers on the final 53.

“I think you know my opinion of our linebackers,’’ he said. “We kept seven because we have seven good players. They all play a certain role.’’

The starters: Leonard, Anthony Walker, Bobby Okereke.

“From a three-starter standpoint,’’ Ballard said, “I’d match them up with anybody in the league.

“Look, Darius speaks for Darius. I was looking up stats the other day and Darius is matching things statistically that only a few guys have ever done. And look, all Anthony Walker does is go to work and produce. He’s athletic, he’s fast, he can play every spot. Bobby Okereke is just continually putting pressure because we saw what he can do when he plays.’’

The back end of the D: Gone are cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Quincy Wilson and long-time safety Clayton Geathers. Offseason moves added veteran corners Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie, veteran safety Tavon Wilson, rookie corner Isaiah Rodgers and rookie safety Julian Blackmon.

“The changes we made in the back end – and they weren’t easy – but we think they’re going to be good for us,’’ Ballard said. “Rock Ya-Sin’s had a great camp. He’s just ascending and I think he’s going to continue to ascend because he’s so daggum mentally tough.

“You know my thoughts on Kenny Moore . . . one of the top nickels in the league and he’s very valuable to this football team. Then the addition of Xavier Rhodes, the veteran Carrie along with Rodgers, we think we’ve upgraded the corner position.’’

Safety Malik Hooker, the 2016 first-round draft pick, is in the final year of his rookie contract after the team opted not to exercise his fifth-year option. He had, according to Ballard, “his best camp. We’re expecting a big year out of Hooker.’’

The offensive line depth: The starters are locked and loaded: left tackle Anthony Castonzo, Pro Bowl left guard Quenton Nelson, Pro Bowl center/$50 million man Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith.

Rookie Danny Pinter has emerged as the versatile interior option.

“We thought Danny had a chance to do some really cool things here for us,’’ Ballard said, “and he’s accelerated.’’

For now, the backup tackles are Le’Raven Clark and Chaz Green.

“Le’Raven has had a really good training camp,’’ Ballard said. “Probably the best since I’ve been here.’’

Kemoko Turay: One of the team’s pass-rush threats opens the season on the physically unable to perform list, which means he’ll miss at least the first six games. He’s still on the mend after undergoing surgery to repair a broken right ankle Oct. 6 at Kansas City. He had surgery shortly thereafter. His strenuous rehab was complicated in March and April by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The surgery he had was a major surgery,’’ Ballard said. “Look, Turay’s done everything we’ve asked. At the end of the day he’s not ready and we’re not going to put a guy out there who’s not ready.

“We’re going to shoot for six weeks from now to try to get him back. He’s still having some pain in the ankle. He’s rehabbing his butt off . . . but he’s just not there yet.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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