If the Indianapolis Colts are going to endure a tougher schedule and higher expectations in 2019, it’s going to require some magic from Andrew Luck.
Even without a trophy, the Indianapolis Colts sure have a lot to celebrate.
The 2018 season was a magical one for Jim Irsay’s franchise, a team in transition with a new(er) front office led by Chris Ballard and a new coaching staff captained by Frank Reich. What began as a footrace toward irrelevance at 1-5 through Week 6 ended with a miraculous postseason run that included a road win over the rival Houston Texans on Wild Card weekend.
In the process, Reich was championed as an unearthed coaching gem in the wake of the Josh McDaniels hiring debacle. Ballard was crowned the NFL’s next great general manager. Andrew Luck’s comeback looked better than even the most assured fan could have predicted, and Darius Leonard became a household name. Even the Colts’ most reliable weakness—the team’s offensive line—became a strength due to Ballard’s draft acumen.
By all indications, the Colts are still just getting started with the Reich-Ballard team at the helm. Luck is healthy once again, working with a young line that will grow together for the next few years. Ballard will continue to work his magic in the draft, adding talent and depth to a team with obvious holes, and the Colts have cap space aplenty if they’re interested in the right player.
In short, fans have every reason to believe a solid foundation has been laid for long-term success in the AFC South and beyond.
That might prove true in the long run (and with Ballard in control of personnel, it’s a solid bet), but it doesn’t necessarily mean such a road lays in a linear path. Instead, next season is bound to be a bumpy ride for a franchise that got used to winning very quickly.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
It happens every year, and the Colts only need to look at their rivals in the South to see the wave coming their way. One year ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars were the darlings of the AFC—an up-and-coming team riding a hellish defense coming off of a season in which they gave the Patriots fits before falling in the conference championship.
The ensuing stories were all about Jacksonville’s revival. Blake Bortles had turned a corner. Leonard Fournette had proven the difference (and silenced draft critics). The defense was the NFL’s next great unit. For a game supposedly won and lost in the trenches, the Jags looked like a safe bet to repeat in the South and make noise in the playoffs.
Then everything fell apart. The Jags lost 11 games. Bortles is good as gone. Fournette looked as replaceable as, well, any other running back in football. The once-heralded defense fell apart against stronger competition. It was a shock to many that Doug Marrone even kept his position as head coach.
Here’s the thing: this isn’t about the Jags. It’s an annual tradition that hits every team that thinks too highly of itself after feasting upon the league’s easiest schedule. In 2016, the Miami Dolphins had the third-easiest schedule in football. They won 10 games and made Adam Gase a young coaching phenom. On Monday, Gase was introduced as the new head coach of the New York Jets. The reason? The roster couldn’t rise to meet the challenge of a much tougher schedule.
The Colts face this same potential storyline heading into 2019. It’s easy to be seduced by the Colts given the win streak, the presence of Luck and the belief in the up-and-coming team. Kyle Brandt of Good Morning Football believed so deeply in the Colts against the Kansas City Chiefs that he had to wear a barrel to work on NFL Network in an exercise of eating one’s words.
Judging next season’s opponents by this year’s win percentage, the Colts have the seventh-toughest schedule in 2019. They will play five opponents who had 10 wins or more in 2018—a list that includes road games against the Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints. Let’s not forget the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, and Denver Broncos—all of whom could prove to be tough outs. Of course, the typical South rivals will also rotate through twice.
The single most important thing that separates previous AFC pretenders from this year’s Colts comes down to who is playing the single most important position. The Miami Dolphins have waffled on what to do with Ryan Tannehill for a couple seasons now. Blake Bortles has never been seen as the face of the franchise in Jacksonville. It’s no surprise at all, then, to see both teams seriously struggle when they shift from party to parity.
Luck’s return to health should be the biggest storyline in the NFL these days, because of what it means for his team and the league itself. The former No. 1 overall pick is another truly great player for the league to market and he keeps the Colts relevant year after year. Without him, they flounder to pre-Manning status; with him, they are always in the conversation.
Next year will be a difficult year for the Colts and there’s no way around it. The opponents are going to be much tougher, but this team is also going to continue to grow. Chris Ballard will make sure the Colts are deeper, tougher and more talented than in any of the previous two seasons, and Luck’s presence means the Colts will always be in the conversation. The record might worsen a bit, but the team should avoid being the next AFC favorite to fall apart.