INDIANAPOLIS -- Think about this time a year ago for the Indianapolis Colts.
There were still chuckles about the Josh McDaniels fiasco. Quarterback Andrew Luck had yet to throw a football during his right shoulder rehabilitation. The Colts were preparing to make their highest draft pick since selecting Luck No. 1 overall in 2012. And there was no playoff buzz.
Oh, how things have changed in Indianapolis in the past 12 months.
The Colts shook off the outside notion of their being a rebuilding team to make the playoffs last season. There’s no drama surrounding the coaching staff or the front office, and no questions about the franchise quarterback's health.
“Not one Luck question,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said, laughing, after his media session at the NFL scouting combine this week. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
All those developments have put the Colts in a position they haven't been in for several years. Instead of preparing to sneak up on teams in 2019, they'll be one of the teams nobody will take for granted. They’ll try to build off a 10-6 record and playoff season that began with a 1-5 start. The bar is set after they made the playoffs in Luck's return season and with first-year head coach Frank Reich.
Next season will be the first time since the season after their 2014 AFC Championship Game appearance that the Colts will be looked at as one of the teams expected to make the playoffs.
"We set our own expectations," Ballard said. "No matter what the outside world thinks, we're going to set our own expectations internally and that’s to win. Even last year, when the expectations were so low, our expectation was to win. That’s always going to be our expectations. ... This league is too hard. It’s a long season. If you’re listening to the outside world, the expectations, either the sky is falling or you’re the best thing since sliced bread. That’s not a good world to live in."
The Colts were a good team in 2018. The challenge that awaits them now is to figure out how to be a great team in 2019.
“Yeah, I think is hard to go from good to great,” Reich acknowledged. “I think one of the things that can happen -- if you can just think back to when we were all younger and you play a game, whatever the game is -- you get close to getting there, but you didn’t quite get there, so you hit the reset button and you go to play again and the tendency can be to kind of go through it faster the next time and skip through those other steps just to get to the end so you can get to the top. I think we just have to be careful.
“Just because we made it pretty far, we accomplished a lot, we didn’t get where we wanted to get to, but I think we have to take the same approach. Very methodical, very disciplined, focused on the process, don’t get caught up in putting expectations on how many wins or how far. Take the same approach that we did last year, just continue to get better.”
That approach by the Colts?
Continuing to be methodical. Having patience. Being thorough.
As much as some might want Ballard to take a leap by being even more aggressive with his roster decisions to try to improve the team, he won’t do that. His approach through his first two offseasons has been relatively successful so far.
This won't be like in 2015, when the previous front-office regime slid all its poker chips to the middle of the table and gambled on acquiring older players in an attempt to field a better team. That move backfired, and it played a part in the start of a three-year playoff drought.
The Colts weren’t expected to beat Kansas City in the AFC divisional playoff round last season. But how they lost further magnified the areas they must improve in order to take the next step.
A second receiver to team with T.Y. Hilton and more pass-rushers are two well-documented areas of focus. Ballard also noted a need for depth in the secondary, and that the offensive and defensive lines will always be a priority.
“[We’re a] pretty good football team,” Ballard said. “I’m not going to let one game against what I thought was a really good football team [change that]. Are we where we need to be yet from a talent perspective? No, we’re not. I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke up y’all and make you think we are. We still have work to do. But we are better and we are a good football team. Absolutely we are.”