Ed: After going 4-12 a season ago the Colts are 8-6 and fighting for a wild-card spot. Whether they make the playoffs or not, has this been a successful season for Indianapolis?
Chris: It would be the icing on the cake to make the playoffs, but it absolutely has been a success whether it happens or not. The Colts have accomplished so many major things this season that it is almost easy to lose count. Most importantly, they returned their franchise quarterback to good health. Without Andrew Luck this team was lost, and getting him back was a huge boost for the future.
In addition to that, they managed to fix an offensive line that allowed Luck to be hit at a ridiculous pace, and turned them from a weakness to a strength for the team. They are now tied for the fewest sacks allowed on the season.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment this season was to build an identity within this young team of what kind of team they would be and what kind of culture they would have as a group. Frank Reich has done an outstanding job of developing this team and changing the internal culture of this team and getting them primed to move forward.
Combine all these things with solid contributions from their draft class and this team has a bright future, whether that starts this postseason or not.
Ed: The Colts hit a home run in the draft. They got Quenton Nelson in the first round and traded down to do it, also ending up with starting RT Braden Smith in Round 2 thanks to that. On top of which, the Colts got LB Darius Leonard 36th overall. Can you describe the impact of this draft class, particularly Nelson and Leonard?
Chris: It is tough to describe how impactful this class has been. Of their 11 picks, 9 have taken quite a few meaningful snaps this season for the Colts. Obviously the early picks have had the greatest impact on the team.
Quenton Nelson has been instrumental in a shift for this offensive line. He has brought a bully mentality to the field that immediately became infectious. The coaching staff has talked about the offensive linemen coming to the sideline after a series and comparing their number of knockdowns, the going back on the field to outdo one another.
The results have been clear in the way the line has played. Braden Smith is much less heralded, but was drafted as a guard and was given snaps at right tackle because Matt Slauson had the guard spot locked up early on. The right tackle position was a revolving door early in the season and Smith locked it down and made himself a key part of the line there.
On the defensive side of the ball, Darius Leonard has been absolutely incredible to watch. Coming from a small school, it was tough to know what he could do in terms of raising his level of play to the NFL. What he has done is have arguably one of the best rookie seasons by a linebacker in NFL history, and certainly the best by any Colts player that comes to mind. Add to that the fact that he is humble, a great guy for the community, and a player who pumps up his teammates, and he is exactly what this defense needed.
Ed: We know about Andrew Luck’s long fight to get back from his shoulder injury. Is there any perceptible difference in the post-injury Luck from the pre-injury Luck?
Chris: There are actually quite a few very clear differences. First is how he uses his legs. Luck is a ridiculous athlete and has always been able to scramble really well. This year, however, he has changed the way he does that. He is keeping his eyes downfield and always looking for the pass in a way he hasn’t always done before. Because of this he is taking fewer big hits and has been more effective.
The other notable change is in his willingness to take what defenses give him. Luck is, as are all franchise quarterbacks, a very competitive person. He wants to take the kill shot every time. That trait has won the Colts a lot of games and made a lot of highlight reels for Luck over his career. It has also led him to some big hits and turnovers. This season we have seen a Luck who will take those shots, but who has learned that sometimes taking the check down receiver is the right call, and that keeping the drive moving make more sense than throwing the ball to a double covered receiver 50 yards downfield.
In short, this experience and the pairing with Frank Reich, have made Luck a smarter, more efficient quarterback, and the team is benefitting from that.
In terms of his actual arm, there has been no noticeable difference, apart from early in the season when his strength was still not quite what it had been. As we near the end of the season though, he is clearly firing on all cylinders and is able to make any throw he needs to.
Ed: Frank Reich, obviously, was not the Colts’ first choice for head coach. What has he brought to the table that has ended up making this the right move for Indianapolis?
Chris: He has been perfect for this team in a number of ways. Maybe the most underrated and important characteristic of his is that he is a teacher. For a roster that is one of the youngest in football (our numbers are skewed upward by Adam Vinatieri) they desperately needed a coach who could develop young guys and grow them into great players. Frank Reich has that, and has built a staff that is strong in that area as well.
In addition, Reich’s offensive mind and game planning have been instrumental in the Colts’ success this season. Despite having a less than stellar group of pass catchers, this offense has managed to get them open with regularity and to move the ball well. What’s more, Reich has gotten this team bought in to the mentality of finishing games. Under the Chuck Pagano Colts, we watched this team fritter away wins so often that it was infuriating. This team more often than not wins the games it should, and that is new territory.
Ed: If you could take one player off the Giants’ roster and put him in the Colts’ lineup, who would it be? Why?
Chris: That is a really tough question, because I can think of three players I’d really like to have in particular. Landon Collins, Saquon Barkley, and Odell Beckham Jr. would all be huge additions to this team in areas of relative weakness.
While I know some of my fellow Stampede Blue writers might not agree, for me the choice is pretty clear. I would love to have a playmaker like Odell Beckham on the Colts’ offense. T.Y. Hilton is a fantastic receiver, but if you were to have to face an offense with those two on opposite sides of the field and Andrew Luck dealing the ball to them, it would be the nastiest offense in the NFL, and I don’t think it would be particularly close.
Our thanks to Chris. Be sure to check out Stampede Blue for more about the Colts. Also, look for Stampede Blue’s Matt Danely to drop by the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast later this week.