Rebuilding Colts contending in middling AFC

Posted Oct. 31, 2012 @ 9:46 a.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

Long gone are the questions regarding Peyton Manning’s health. The Manning of old has clearly gotten comfortable in the Rockies, with five consecutive 300-yard passing games and a sterling 14-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that span as the Broncos have taken the lead in the AFC West.

Guess what other question is being asked a lot less frequently these days: Did Colts owner Jim Irsay make the right decision by jettisoning the most important player in franchise history and essentially hitting the reset button for his organization in the offseason?

Indianapolis’ Week Eight overtime win over the division-rival Titans in Nashville didn’t just put the Colts above the .500 mark for the first time since December 2010, it proved they’re the second-best team in the division. Insert AFC South jokes here if you wish, but this is no small feat given the type of personnel turnover GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano needed to make. It also proved the Colts are much closer to playoff contender than they are a candidate to pick at or near the top of the 2013 draft, as most expected before the season.

Andrew Luck, the new face of the franchise and No. 1 reason for the Colts’ swift turnaround, has been even better than advertised. His remarkable pocket presence has some Colts fans experiencing deja vu after watching Manning make up for the shortcomings of his offensive line for more than a decade. The rookie’s fancy footwork has been arguably the most impressive quality in a laundry list of areas in which we could gush about Luck.

But make no mistake: the Colts have shortcomings — beyond Luck’s shoddy protection — that are only natural for a team that has undergone such dramatic changes.

Defensively, the Colts have only three takeaways and 15 sacks through seven games. They have allowed 24.4 points and 137.4 rushing yards each week, hardly sustainable for a team with legitimate postseason aspirations.

Yet, in a conference where very little has been decided and the really good football teams (with the exception of the Texans) have yet to emerge, it’s hard not to marvel at the Colts, now 4-3 and squarely in the middle of the AFC wild-card conversation. Especially considering that they are where they are with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis having played less than one half of football together this season.

The Colts are in the thick of the postseason hunt despite their leader, Pagano, sadly and suddenly away from the team as he receives treatment for leukemia. In his absence, interim head coach Bruce Arians has compiled a 3-1 record, and his club is building momentum each week.

It’s easy to again chalk up all of the success to Luck. However, the rest of Grigson’s first draft class is paying dividends as well.

Fifth-round rookie RB Vick Ballard’s game-winning TD to beat the Titans, in which he left his feet at the five-yard line, twisting and turning in the air until he crossed the pylon, was simply awesome. Third-round TE Dwayne Allen (17-174-2 receiving) has proven to be so much more than an in-line blocker. WRs T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazil and TE Coby Fleener all have made timely contributions.

Grigson pushed the right buttons in free agency, as well.

Chances are you had never heard of former CFL star Jerrell Freeman, the NFL’s fourth-leading tackler and a revelation in the middle of the Colts’ defense, before the season. WR Donnie Avery, another player no one wanted, is on pace for his best season. DE Cory Redding and SS Tom Zbikowski are productive veterans and leaders.

And then there is Reggie Wayne, who looks 10 years younger and has made all the difference for Luck. Credit both Wayne and Grigson for ensuring the veteran wideout would finish his career where it began.

Remember, most believed Wayne, an aging free agent when the Colts were going with a youth movement, would spend the final years of his career playing for a contender. Very few, however, believed that contender would be calling Indianapolis home.