It is almost here folks! The long trudge back to football is nearing its conclusion, and not a moment too soon. Thus far the Colts have survived the summer without making any headlines, which is just about the best thing you can hope for during June and July. However, for those of us chomping at the bit for some football, we only have to wait until this Wednesday when the Colts report to training camp to whet our appetites. There will be a lot of questions to answer in this coming training camp with more roster question marks than there ever have been in the Pagano era, and that makes this time in Colts fandom even more interesting. Here is a look at some things to keep an eye on:
Andrew Luck’s Shoulder
Much has been made about Luck’s shoulder this offseason. Virtually every analyst has an opinion, and the many of them are of the “sky is falling” persuasion. Look, I don’t have a magic 8-ball or some kind of deep medical knowledge of the workings of Andrew Luck’s shoulder. So, you’ll have to trust me as I do my best Aaron Rodgers impression – “R-E-L-A-X!”
I get it, this shoulder is pretty expensive. I also know, and Bruce Arians said as much in his interview with Pat McAfee, that Luck alone has willed the Colts to some wins they weren’t nearly good enough to achieve otherwise. So, if you are nervous I understand. But what I want to tell you is that from what we have heard out of Ballard, what we have seen so far is to be expected.
The Colts haven’t exactly been forthright and honest with fans where Luck’s health is concerned, so a healthy dose of skepticism is not misplaced. But one thing that Ballard said early on, which was echoed by Irsay, is that they are in this for the long haul. They want multiple Super Bowls. Irsay said so back in April when he hired Chris Ballard.
“I’d rather win two Lombardi (trophies) and endure several losing seasons than have one Lombardi and be in the playoffs every single year and never have a losing season for 10 years or what have you.”
Everything about the way Ballard and Irsay are approaching things is about the long game. Andrew Luck won’t be rushed back, even if that means he misses training camp or even the start of the season. They are building a young team that will be competitive year in and year out, and that means getting their star quarterback completely healthy, not just healthy enough. All this worrying could also turn out to be completely needless as well because it is completely possible that Luck has been throwing for a while and the Colts just don’t like us and want to make us suffer.
Competition, Competition, Competition
If you have heard Chris Ballard say anything, you’ve undoubtedly heard him say the word competition. It is the center point of all his philosophy as a GM. While I think most Colts fans like what we have seen from Ballard so far, next week the rubber will actually hit the road and we will start to see what his vision looks like for this team.
What it appears it might look like, is a fairly open competition for nearly every spot on the roster. If he actually follows it all the way through, it means that no matter where you are drafted or what your cap number, you are only as valuable as your play. That is a big change from past seasons that saw guys like Trent Richardson playing despite terrible production, or Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson getting playing time because they are legends who had stayed too long. If this style trickles down to Pagano it would be a drastic change and one that is needed. In a league that thrives on the “what have you done for me lately” mentality, the Colts have often let nostalgia dictate starters. That makes for a nice story and not a lot of football in December.
A good player to watch to see how serious they are about this philosophy shift is Frank Gore. Let me be clear, I think Gore is awesome. He is a great locker room presence and I have loved having him as a Colt. Having said that, I think his explosiveness and burst really lacked all of last season. He beat out an inferior group of backs and ran behind a developing young offensive line to break the Colt’s horrifyingly long streak without a 1000-yard rusher. I don’t think that will happen again. The question is if Robert Turbin or Marlon Mack start to outplay Gore, will competition win out? If it does, I will have high hopes for this team going forward.
Continuity and Change
It absolutely cannot be oversold how important to an NFL offense it is to have continuity in both players, coaches, and playbooks. Given how little teams get to practice and how complex the systems they play in are, it is mind-boggling that general managers and owners are so quick to pull the trigger and fire coaches. It also should come as no surprise that the successful franchises are also the ones who are not perpetually cycling through staff. The Colts will benefit from that very thing this season. The offense will be running the same system for the second year. For that matter, so will the defense, but we will get to that in a minute.
That continuity will help the returning players play faster, and new players more quickly integrate into the team. The biggest area for possible improvement will be on the offensive line. With the second year under Joe Philbin’s tutelage, I am very optimistic about what this line can become. Andrew Luck was outstanding last season in a new offense with a bad shoulder. Imagine him with his top two wideouts healthy, a functional shoulder, and more experience in Chud’s offense!
Now about that defense. As I said before, they’ll be playing the same system with Ted Monachino that they did last year. The only thing is, at least half the defense will be new guys. While continuity is great in some places, those changes are good ones. The Colts defense was epically bad last year, completely failing to hold up their end of things. That was due to old, slow guys as well as young, not very talented ones. When Ballard took over, he essentially took a blow torch to the defense and rebuilt it through free agency and the draft.
We won’t know until the regular season kicks off just how good this unit can be, but given how much younger and faster it got, it seems unlikely that it could get worse. With any luck, the draft picks like Hooker and Wilson will have positive impacts, and we could see the defense crawl closer to the middle of the league. With a healthy Andrew Luck that would likely be all that is needed to push them back into playoff contention.