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TGS 2012 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW... INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


This, folks, should be pretty interesting. The beginning of the Andrew Luck era in Indianapolis figures to be one of the more-fascinating storylines in the NFL this season. And, just a couple of games into the preseason, Luck and the Colts are already beginning to generate a significant buzz.

Although, if making a connection between earthquakes and professional sports housecleanings, what happened to Indy following last season would probably rate a 9.1 on the Richter scale.

Indeed, the tectonic plates moved beneath Lucas Oil Stadium.

Just two seasons after an appearance in the Super Bowl, the Colts organization was turned inside out. And, according to NFL insiders, the litmus test was apparently who believed Peyton Manning should be retained as the quarterback, and who favored turning the reins immediately to Stanford rookie Luck, due to be the first pick in last April’s NFL Draft.

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In the end, all that mattered was the opinion of owner Jim Irsay, who apparently didn’t deliberate too long on which path he wanted his team to take. Andrew Luck was going to get the call; Peyton Manning would be released, although Irsay waited until late February (and the point in which Manning would be due a huge, $28 million roster bonus) before making public his decision to cut ties to his long-serving QB. But most sources suspect Irsay knew what he was going to do long before, which is a one reason why those in the organization still partial to Manning were deemed expendable. Including long-serving team prexy Bill Polian, his assistant, son Chris, and three-year head coach Jim Caldwell, all shown the door well prior Manning’s release in late February.

Indy fans weren’t sure what to think, because minus Manning (sidelined by serious neck issues) a year ago, it quickly went pear-shaped for the Colts, who had gone from playoff regulars and Super Bowl contenders to just a few games shy of matching the Detroit Lions’ winless 0-16 nightmare from 2008. And even if Luck proves an upgrade from Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky last season, there’s a long way to go between Indy’s 2-14 record in 2011 and playoff contention.

Las Vegas sports books are not expecting the Colts to be quite as bad as a year ago, although they still appear to need some convincing regarding Luck; their pricing suggests they believe the only connection between this season’s Colts and the playoff teams from the Manning years will be the familiar uniforms and the horseshoe on the side of the helmet. Indy’s season win total has been posted at a very modest five at almost all Nevada wagering outlets, and prices are among the longest on the board for the Colts to win their division (28/1), AFC (60/1), or Super Bowl (150/1).

Outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers post-LeBron James, seldom have we recalled a pro sports team going from championship contender to heavy longshot in such short order, mainly due to the departure of one key component, althoug Manning’s release was hardly the only change made in the offseason at Lucas Oil.

As for that “new look” for the Colts, it includes GM Ryan Griegson, who most recently had been the Eagles’ director of player personnel, and head coach Chuck Pagano (left), hired away from the Baltimore Ravens, where he had been defensive coordinator.

And, of course, Andrew Luck.

There are many NFL insiders who believe Luck is the most pre-cooked quarterback prospect to hit the league since Manning fourteen years ago. And there have been instances in recent years of rookies taking their teams into the playoffs (Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton come to mind) or making otherwise big splashes (such as Cam Newton last year with Carolina).

And, for what it’s worth, Luck has looked as good as advertised in the Colts’ first two preseason games. Apparently this is not your normal rookie QB.

But everything is new at Indy, from the QB to the coaches to the offense and defense. Given all of the changes at Lucas Oil, one wonders if even Manning in his prime might have had problems doing much with this particular situation.

Not only is the “O” minus Manning, but other recent linchpins such as WRs Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez, C Jeff Saturday, TE Dallas Clark, and on the defensive side, LB Gary Brackett, among the many who have departed since the conclusion of last season as well.

The new Colts strike force is being coordinated by Bruce Arians, a onetime head coach at Temple and longtime Steelers o.c. who tutored another QB of some repute, Ben Roethlisberger, during his wildly-successful rookie campaign of 2004. The thought in Indy is that Arians’ experience with rookie QBs could be invaluable as he stewards the offense with the rookie Luck at the controls this fall.

The draft is likely to provide most of the replacement parts for the strike force. Tight ends Coby Fleener (one of Luck’s favorite targets at Stanford) and Dwayne Allen (via Clemson and last year’s John Mackey Award winner; extremely impressive in eary preseason work) arrived in the second and third rounds, respectively, to take the places of Clark and Jacob Tamme, who also left Indy via free agency. Smallish but cat-quick wideouts T.Y. Hilton (Florida International) and LaVon Brazill (Ohio U) were also added later in the draft, ostensibly as replacements for Garcon and Gonzalez.

Veteran receiving targets Reggie Wayne (left) and Austin Collie remain in the fold, but both are going to have to learn new ways to runs their routes (not to mention getting used to a new QB) in Arians’ multiple-look schemes, which have several different variations from the old Tom Moore Indy offense. Collie’s status is also being monitored closely due to a preseason concussion, which has given rookies Hilton and Brazill a chance to get noticed in August.

Meanwhile, former Big East RBs Donald Brown (right, in preseason opener vs. Rams; ex-UConn) and bruising Delone Carter (ex-Syracuse) form a serviceable but hardly flashy backfield duo that could be augmented by Mississippi State rookie Vick Ballard and ex-Viking and Steeler journeyman Mewelde Moore. The latter two have a chance to make an impression in preseason with Carter currently sidelined by a rib injury.

Offense won’t be the only platoon undergoing changes at Lucas Oil this fall. Pagano will be transitioning the Indy “D” to the hybrid 3-4 alignments he used in Baltimore, although the Colts will still line up in a 4-3 scheme at times.

With those changes in mind, Pagano recruited three former Raven defenders--DE Cory Redding, NT Brandon McKinney, and SS Tom Zbikowski--to help fast-track the deployment adjustments.

An issue for Pagano, however, is that not only that the Colts haven’t been using a 3-4 package since the early ‘90s, but that most of the inherited stop unit personnel fit Indy’s previous defensive philosophy which stressed smaller, quicker, and more athletic personnel.

Star pass-rushing DE Dwight Freeney (left) will now be lining up as an OLB in the Pagano defense. So will Jerry Hughes, the former TCU ace who has mostly flopped as a DE since being drafted a couple of years ago but who, based on early preseason efforts, looks very comfy in his new role in the reconstructed Colts stop unit.

Yet, to properly deploy the sort of 3-4 that Pagano envisions, the linemen and linebackers should be big and physical, which the Colts partially addressed in adding those pieces from the Ravens in free agency, plus ex-Eagles Moise Fokou and Greg Lloyd in a subsequent trade, but were mostly unable to augment in the draft as offense took priority in April at Radio City Music Hall.

One draftee in particular, thick, 316-lb. ex-Alabama NT Josh Chapman (5th round), has the sort of size that Pagano likes, although Chapman’s rehab has been slow from a torn ACL that ended his 2011 Crimson Tide season early last October.

Ranking a poor 29th vs. the run last season and 28th in overall defense, the Colt “D” could use whatever upgrades Pagano deems appropriate.

Of course, Pagano enters 2012 with a clean coaching slate, including vs. the pointspread. The magnitude of the task in front of him is not only reflected in last year’s 2-14 mark, but an extended pointspread downturn that extends back into Manning’s last active season at Indy in 2010. The Colts enter 2012 having covered just 8 of their last 23 games on the board, all the more revealing since oddsmakers had stopped placing any sort of pointspread premiums on Indy, indeed replacing them with discounts, by early in the 2011 campaign.

Lucas Oil Stadium also ceased being a fortress late in the 2010 season, as the Colts have covered only 4 of their last 14 at home as well.

Let the Andrew Luck era begin!

Summary...This is the first time since the late ‘90s that Indy has been flying well under the radar heading into a season. And, on the surface, given the front office, coaching, and personnel changes since a year ago, it is hard to view the Colts as being anything other than in heavy rebuild mode this fall.

But we would nonetheless pay close attention to Andrew Luck’s progress on the learning curve, which has looked far ahead of schedule in training camp and the early preseason games. Sources also say the entire organization has been energized by new HC Chuck Pagano, who has waited a long time for his first NFL head coaching opportunity. The Colts might even emerge as a factor if Luck hits the ground running with the new offense in September. And while challenging AFC South holders Houston figures to a tall order, outdistancing division foes Tennessee and Jacksonville is hardly out of the question. Besides, after watching the Rams become an unlikely contender for a playoff berth in Sam Bradford’s rookie year in 2010, and the Bengals emerging from nowhere behind rookie QB Andy Dalton to qualify for the playoffs as an AFC wild card team a year ago, it's not too far-fetched to envision Indy and Andrew Luck threatening to do the same this fall.


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