INDIANAPOLIS – The motivation comes from the top.
As a season approaches, Jim Irsay’s attention invariably focuses on the first step: the opener.
Yes, the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and all that. It’s a 16-game, 17-week grind that often becomes a war of attrition. Injuries pile up and can take a toll.
For now, Irsay’s all about the opener. In this instance, it’s Sunday’s road trip to Jacksonville.
“It’s important because every year . . . just talking to Mr. Irsay,’’ Frank Reich said. “He stresses to me the importance of the opener.
“We’ll give him our best effort, and we’ll give Jacksonville our best effort.’’
Along with his team’s best effort, Irsay needs it to flip the script.
Over the last decade, the Colts are 1-9 in season openers. Their last successful opener: a 21-17 win in 2013 over the Terrelle Pryor-led Oakland Raiders in Lucas Oil Stadium.
More alarming, though, is they’ve lost seven straight openers on the road. The Colts haven’t figured it out since Manning Bowl II in the ’06 opener at The Meadowlands when Peyton outdueled Eli and the New York Giants 26-21.
That rare successful first step away from home culminated with a trip to Super Bowl XLI and the franchise’s first world championship in a quarter century
No one is predicting a similar road map for 2020, especially with Super Bowl champion Kansas City and the Baltimore Ravens residing in the AFC. But everyone realizes the significance of not stumbling out of the gate again.
“Obviously, as you guys know, this one is even more important because it’s a division opponent and it’s on the road,’’ Reich said. “A win against a division opponent on the road against a team that we haven’t played well down in their stadium.’’
Another alarm: the Colts haven’t won in Jacksonville since 2014. The recent wreckage has included a 38-20 loss that wrapped up last season’s 7-9 record, a 6-0 decision in ’18 that still is difficult to fathom and a 51-16 beatdown in ’15 that saw the Colts actually leading 13-9 at the half.
And then there’s this: Jacksonville is in serious reboot mode. In the last few weeks, the Jaguars jettisoned three starters – disgruntled defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (traded to Minnesota), running back Leonard Fournette (waived) and safety Ronnie Harrison (traded to Cleveland).
Those moves came on the heals of offseason trades that sent quarterback Nick Foles to Chicago 12 months after signing him to a four-year, $88 million contract (he’s still counting $18.75 million in dead money against Jacksonville’s cap); five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Calais Campbell to Baltimore; and cornerback A.J. Bouye to Denver.
The end result is a young roster. When general manager David Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone pared their roster to 53 over the weekend, they kept 16 rookies – all 12 draft picks and four undrafted free agents.
“I love this team,’’ Caldwell said. “It’s going to be a young team . . . but we feel good about it.’’
The massive roster turnover has amped up speculation across the NFL landscape that the Jaguars are in serious “tank’’ mode. The obvious objective would be to get into position for the 1st overall pick in the 2021 draft and take Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Caldwell dismissed such talk.
“Before we decide where we are or where we stand, let us play some games,’’ he said. “Let’s see where we are. Let’s see how these young guys are.
“Let us play this season. Don’t count these players out.’’
The current makeup of the Jaguars roster makes it difficult to recall how close they were to getting over the top in 2017. They reached the AFC Championship Game at New England and led the Patriots 20-10 with less than 9 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but were unable to finish what they started. Two Tom Brady TD passes in the final 8-plus minutes capped a 24-20 Patriots comeback.
From that almost-got-it-done moment, only 12 Jaguars remain, including seven starters. But that’s the nature of the NFL. Only 13 Patriots remain, including six starters.
It remains to be seen if Caldwell’s youth movement succeeds. It’s being led by quarterback Gardner Minshew II, a 2019 sixth-round pick who enjoyed a solid rookie season with 21 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 91.2 passer rating.
But the Jaguars finished 6-10. It marked the eighth time in nine seasons they lost at least 10 games.
That’s the backdrop facing the Colts Sunday. An argument can be made – should be made – the opener will tell us more about Indy than Jacksonville.
“We feel good where we’re at,’’ Chris Ballard said Sunday.
Added Reich: “We do feel good about this roster. I look at every position group and I see winning football.
“Each year (the roster) has gotten deeper and stronger.’’
The Colts have positioned themselves to compete for their first AFC South title since 2014. Ballard ponied up $25 million for a 38-year old quarterback (Philip Rivers) and invested heavily in the 3-technique defensive tackle (DeForest Buckner) that’s been missing. The cost for the latter was the 13th overall pick in the draft and a four-year, $84 million extension.
It’s a roster that blends the young – 10 rookies, including eight of nine draft picks – with veterans such as Rivers, Buckner, Justin Houston, T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, Anthony Castonzo and others.
A strong beginning to a season doesn’t guarantee anything. Anyone remember 2019? Despite losing their opener on the road against the Rivers-led Chargers in overtime, the Colts sat at 5-2 before injuries and an unreliable kicking game proved too much to overcome.
However, an opening misstep at Jacksonville would be a major speed bump.
“We’ll be focused and get ready,’’ Reich said. “We want to start the year off right with a win on the road against a division opponent, a good team.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.