WESTFIELD, Ind. – On a clear, comfortable Wednesday, optimism was high and spilling out of every nook and cranny of spacious Grand Park Sports Campus.
“Look, we’ve got a good football team,’’ general manager Chris Ballard offered without much prodding. “I’m not going to shy away from that.’
T.Y. Hilton was in no mood to argue the point.
“This team is special,’’ he said. “This team has enough to do what we want to do.’’
Hilton’s been a part of the good, the bad and the so-so since the Indianapolis Colts selected him in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. This group – the 90 players who reported Wednesday for the start of training camp – is the best collection he’s been around.
“Absolutely,’’ the four-time Pro Bowl selection said. “This team is probably the most talented team I’ve been around.’’
In a quarterback-driven league, the Colts have the luxury of a blue-chip leader: Andrew Luck. Initially, he’ll be limited in practice as he returns from a calf injury that kept him out of the team’s offseason work. But Luck resumed throwing over the past month and should quickly regain his form.
“In good shape,’’ Ballard said.
Luck’s supporting cast is deep and diverse, and the Colts return their starting offensive line intact for the first time since 2006. The defense is trending in the right direction, and features a nice mixture of the old (30-year old Justin Houston) and the still-new (24-year old Darius Leonard).
And the national media has noticed. More than a few experts/analysts consider the Colts a trendy pick to challenge for AFC supremacy.
That’s a seismic shift from a year ago at this time. Everyone seemed to have the Colts’ number. It was 32, as in dead-last in a 32-team league.
“Look,’’ Ballard said, “expectations are good. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But every year’s a new year, it just is.
“Expectations are good. Embrace it and let’s get to work.’’
And that’s what training camp is all about. It’s a three-week stretch during which serious players assert themselves and pretenders are exposed and ultimately discarded.
As players, coaches and management embarked on their second summer at Grand Park on a picturesque day, so many still were thinking about that dreary Jan. 12th in Kansas City. It was overcast, cold and windy at Arrowhead Stadium.
A week after a dominant first-round road playoff win at Houston showed how far the franchise had come from when Ballard took over in January 2017, the Colts discovered how much further they had to go. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs rolled them 31-13, and it wasn’t that close.
Ballard’s eyes tightened as he considered the Kansas City experience.
“Well, look, we’re disappointed ‘cause we got our ass kicked,’’ he said. “But also we knew it was the first step in the journey.
“More pissed because we got our assed whipped and I didn’t think we performed like I thought we were capable of performing. It happens in this league. I do look back to when Bill (Polian) was here. I think it was year 6 before they won their first playoff game.’’
Ballard was spot-on with his history lesson. Despite the presence of Peyton Manning beginning in 1998 and a slew of other top-tier players, the Colts didn’t win their first playoff game in the Manning era until 2003. They didn’t reach the Super Bowl until 2006.
“It takes time,’’ Ballard said. “You’ve got to enjoy the journey and you’ve got to build and you’ve got to grow.
“You’re going to have some failures along the way. You’re going to have some disappointments along the way that you’re going to have to deal with and get over.’’
The point, so many stressed Wednesday, is to take the necessary steps to ensure another Kansas City doesn’t happen again.
Last season, Frank Reich was adept at using the overwhelming lack of respect and expectations for the Colts – 32, remember? – as motivation. It contributed to the team recovering from a 1-5 start, winning nine of its final 10 regular-season games and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Now, the humbling loss at Kansas City serves as motivation.
“It’s one of those games that leaves a sour taste in your mouth,’’ cornerback Pierre Desir said. “We didn’t play as well as we wanted to. It’s a game that I’ll never forget and a lot of guys will never forget,
“It’s one of those games that is going to be with you. You were there, but you try to learn from it.’’
“It’s motivation,’’ noted Hilton, “because we fell short of the goal. We’ve just got to continue to go out and continue to play Colts football. As long as we play Colts football, we’ll be a tough team to beat.’’
As argument can be made that the Colts have been here before, a one-time afterthought suddenly facing amped-up expectations.
Remember 2015? Indy was coming off a trip to the ’14 AFC Championship game. Even though the Colts were overwhelmed 45-7 by the New England Patriots, lofty expectations followed them into the following season. Management believed it was on the cusp on a championship and took an all-in approach to free agency. Expensive investments produced Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Trent Cole, Kendall Langford, Todd Herremans, Nate Irving and others.
In their all-in season, the Colts went bust. They finished 8-8 with a roster that had too many 30-plus players and lacked anything resembling chemistry.
Hilton had a ringside seat.
It was that comparison – now and 2015 – that elicited the “this team is special’’ response from Hilton. He pointed to the top-to-bottom makeup of the current roster, one that benefits from Reich’s steady-handed guidance and leadership from the likes of Luck, Anthony Castonzo and other veterans.
“For us,’’ Hilton said, “our main goal this year is to just stay focused. This team, they love football, man. Most humble team I’ve been around.’’
The idea – the overriding goal – is for the Colts to be a contender year-in, year-out. Not to be the trendy offseason pick, but the of-course-they-are team in any discussion regarding postseason success.
To get to that point, Ballard insisted, takes following the same blueprint Reich used in his first year as head coach.
“I don’t ever want us to get any kind of institutional arrogance to where we think we’ve got it made,’’ Ballard said. “That’s not how I am. That’s not how Frank is. That’s not how our owner is.
“We want to make sure we are always working and moving forward.’’
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