Colts plan to build off foun­da­tion from his­toric turn­around

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS -

The In­di­anapo­lis Colts kept in­sist­ing An­drew Luck would play bet­ter after shoul­der surgery. He did.

Frank Re­ich ac­knowl­edged some of his best work came in a backup role. Ap­par­ently, It still does. A healthy Luck and an op­por­tunis­tic first-year coach led the Colts on a his­toric mid­sea­son turn­around, end­ing with a play­off run and a glimpse into a po­ten­tially promis­ing fu­ture.

“We left our hearts on the field ev­ery game,’’ Luck said Sun­day, a day after a 31-13 elim­i­na­tion loss at Kansas City. “I know we all wished we played bet­ter yes­ter­day. It’s sad. We wanted this some­what mag­i­cal sea­son to con­tinue and we’ll use that to mo­ti­vate us.’’

That could be bad news for a team that seemed to defy the odds at ev­ery turn.

Most fig­ured the Colts hit rock bot­tom when Josh McDaniels backed out of a deal to be­come the Colts’ new coach while Luck con­tin­ued to re­hab his throw­ing shoul­der in early Fe­bru­ary. Gen­eral man­ager Chris Bal­lard wasted no time in mak­ing Re­ich, the of­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor for the Su­per Bowl cham­pion Ea­gles, his sec­ond choice.

The odd se­quence in­cluded Re­ich in­her­it­ing a de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in Matt Eber­flus, who he didn’t know much about and was al­ready plot­ting a con­ver­sion from a 3-4 front to a 4-3. Re­ich fol­lowed the ad­vice of Bal­lard by keep­ing him in the same role and adding two more first-year co­or­di­na­tors to his staff.

To out­siders, it looked like a com­plete re­build.

But the Colts never bought into the per­cep­tion and de­liv­ered the kind of sea­son no­body thought pos­si­ble when they lost their fourth in a row in mid-Oc­to­ber. That’s when things changed. Luck rounded into form, the Colts de­vel­oped a bal­anced at­tack, their re­vamped of­fen­sive line be­came a vir­tual fortress and the oft-crit­i­cized de­fence sud­denly emerged as one of the league’s stingi­est units.

The Colts (11-7) won nine of their last 10 reg­u­lar-sea­son games to be­come the third team in league his­tory to make the post­sea­son after start­ing 1-5, fol­lowed by a wild-card win at Hous­ton.

“You won­der as a first time head coach, what is this re­ally go­ing to be like? I just couldn’t have imag­ined in my wildest dreams how this year was,’’ Re­ich said. “The guys in this build­ing, the guys in that locker room, the coaches and play­ers they just ex­ceeded any of my wildest ex­pec­ta­tions.’’

Ev­ery­one else’s, too.

Luck had the best over­all sea­son of his ca­reer, throw­ing for nearly 4,600 yards and 39 touch­downs while set­ting ca­reer highs in com­ple­tions, at­tempts and per­cent­age. He was sacked a league-low 18 times, one sea­son after the Colts al­lowed a league­high 56 sacks.

Mean­while, Mar­lon Mack fought off in­juries to fin­ish with five 100-yard games — the most by a Colts run­ning back in more than a decade.

Eric Ebron fi­nally de­liv­ered on the first-round prom­ise the De­troit Li­ons saw in 2014 by catch­ing 13 touch­downs to lead the league’s tight ends and earn­ing his first Pro Bowl se­lec­tion.

“It was a hel­luva time, a hel­luva sea­son,’’ cen­tre Ryan Kelly said. “Guys were fight­ing for each other and it was just a good time.’’

But Re­ich’s favourite might have been watch­ing the rook­ies de­velop.

Quen­ton Nel­son and Braden Smith were rock solid at left guard and right tackle, and line­backer Dar­ius Leonard led the league in tack­les with a fran­chis­ere­cord 163. Nel­son and Leonard be­came the first rookie team­mates to earn first-team All-Pro hon­ours since Dick Butkus and Gale Say­ers achieved the feat in 1965.

Now, with Luck head­ing into his first healthy off-sea­son in four years, a vet­eran coach and proven play­ers, Re­ich knows the ex­pec­ta­tions will in­crease next sea­son and he prom­ises to be ready.

“We had an op­por­tu­nity to learn so many les­sons this year,’’ he said. “We lost four or five and then won 10 or 11. So we’ve had a taste of that. I think han­dling suc­cess and high ex­pec­ta­tions is al­ways more dif­fi­cult but I be­lieve in the guys, the play­ers, the lead­ers to get that done.’’

AP PHOTO

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Mur­ray (21) tack­les In­di­anapo­lis Colts wide re­ceiver Ch­ester Rogers (80) dur­ing the first half of an NFL di­vi­sional foot­ball play­off game in Kansas City, Mo., Satur­day.

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