WESTFIELD – The backdrop fit the narration: bright and sunny.
Jim Irsay offered an abbreviated State of the Colts Wednesday, and the talking points were familiar:
- Changes that absolutely had to be made in the wake of the crushing season-ending losses to the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars that kept his franchise out of the playoffs have exceeded his expectations.
- Nothing short of the team’s first AFC South championship since 2014 will suffice. The gauntlet’s been dropped at the feet of the Tennessee Titans.
- It’s time for the franchise to create a “new era’’ and bring another Lombardi Trophy to sit alongside the one the Peyton Manning-led Colts earned in 2006.
“We’re really, really excited, and I think we have a reason to be,’’ Irsay said as his Colts and the Detroit Lions were engaged in a joint practice at Grand Park Sports Campus.
The skies were mostly clear and temperatures in the low 80s. It was a picturesque afternoon as the owner of the Indianapolis Colts considered a glowing future.
“We are set up for excellence,’’ Irsay said. “Now we just have to go do it.’’
So much has transpired since that week 18 afternoon when Irsay stood and looked on in utter disbelief as his once-feared Colts – they had roughly a 96% chance of making the playoffs with two games remaining – embarrassed themselves and angered their owner by being non-competitive in a 26-11 loss to the Jaguars, without question the worst team in the NFL.
That Sunday night, Irsay took the extreme measure of summoning general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich to the team complex. Normally, a cooling-off period is required.
The owner was too hot. Too much had gone wrong – in the closing weeks, and before that, truth be known – and that demanded immediate attention.
“When we look where we were sitting on that Sunday night with Chris and I just gathered at midnight . . . to think the roster has changed obviously with Matt Ryan and those great free agents and a great draft . . .’’ Irsay said.
Gone is Carson Wentz, replaced by Ryan.
That dramatic transition was complemented by the arrival of edge pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue (trade with the Raiders) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (free-agent signing), and a draft class that features wideout Alec Pierce and offensive tackle Bernhard Raimann.
“So many positives,’’ Irsay insisted.
He was quick to point out his franchise has piled up 217 regular-season victories since 2000. Only three have more: New England (254), Pittsburgh (226) and Green Bay (223).
But that’s muted by recent shortcomings.
The Colts have missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons and have won just one postseason game since 2015. They last won the AFC South in 2014.
It’s time, Irsay insisted, to recreate the level of success attained by those Peyton Manning-led teams. From 2000-09, the Colts won 115 games, at the time the most in a decade in NFL history. They won two AFC championships and one world championship.
When the owner assesses the roster put together by his GM, he sees young stars Jonathan Taylor, Quenton Nelson, Shaquille Leonard and others. He sees a defense that was second in the league a year ago with 33 takeaways and a top-level special teams.
And Irsay’s eyes light up when he considers the impact of a 37-year-old quarterback.
“Matt Ryan has been everything we had hoped and dreamed for,’’ he said. “I know how happy the whole organization is having his leadership going into the season.’’
Irsay aches for another Lombardi Trophy and believes Ryan is driven to obtain his first. He directed the Atlanta Falcons to Super Bowl LI, but they were unable to protect a 28-3 lead and fell to New England 34-28 in overtime.
“Matt Ryan has that same feeling in his heart; that difficult loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl,’’ Irsay said. “He’s here to get his Lombardi.
“This is the time.’’
It’s time, he insisted, to once again pursue excellence.
“This is the time to set up another generation of greatness,’’ Irsay said. “We were there with Peyton Manning. We did all of those things with Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Edgerrin (James) that is well-documented: 115 wins in a decade, going to two Super Bowls, winning two AFC championship games.
“But now is the time to create another era. It’s been created in Pittsburgh. It’s been created in Green Bay. It’s been created in Denver. So, we have to do that. It’s about greatness with the horseshoe and continuing to show that eras don’t last forever, but great organizations do, and it’s up to us to go get that next world championship and create this new era.’’
For that to occur, the Colts first must shed their history of slow starts and season-opening losses. They last won a season opener in 2013.
And they absolutely must return to prominence in the AFC South. The Tennessee Titans have won the last two division titles, in part because they’ve won three straight and four of the last five meetings with the Colts.
“We know going into it it’s about Tennessee,’’ Irsay said. “It’s about winning the division. It’s about going against those guys who have been very tough.
“But we know that’s what we have to do. That’s what we have to overcome if we want to get where we want to get.’’
About Nelson extension
Irsay offered no clarity on an extension for All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson.
He initially said “right now we’re not doing anything,’’ but quickly added, “it’s a process.
“The talks go on. It’s always been the plan to get that done, and I see that getting done. I really do. It’s just a question of timing and moving towards an agreement that favors both sides and is good for both sides.’’
Nelson is heading into the fifth year of his rookie deal and is due to a base salary of $13.74 million.
An extension is expected to make him the highest-paid guard in NFL history. A multi-year extension could be worth nearly $20 million per season.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.