Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne feel young again.
The few, proud remaining Indianapolis holdovers are getting acclimated to dozens of new teammates, a brand new coaching staff, revised playbooks and redefined roles. It’s like they’re rookies all over again.
While the trio recognizes this marks the start of a major transition in Indy to the Andrew Luck Era, none of the three will accept anyone in this locker room using the R-word.
“I don’t feel like rebuilding is in our repertoire,” Mathis said this summer. “I feel like we’re just as dangerous as any team in the league.”
Clearly, this is not the same cast Peyton Manning turned into a playoff regular and an annual Super Bowl contender. The only four-time MVP in league history and the longtime face of the franchise was released in March after missing all of last season after neck surgery. His successor, Luck, gets an immediate chance to start building for the future.
Team owner Jim Irsay, general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano made it a complete overhaul. In addition to Manning, Indianapolis cut a handful of key veterans — defensive captains Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt, running back Joseph Addai and tight end Dallas Clark — because of high salaries and long injury histories. Longtime right tackle Ryan Diem retired.
Receivers Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez, tight end Jacob Tamme and center Jeff Saturday all departed in free agency. Indy didn’t bother bringing back any of last year’s starting quarterbacks, Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky, putting Luck in charge of one of the league’s youngest rosters.
More than three dozen Colts, including Luck, have fewer than two years of NFL experience. Even veterans such as receiver Donnie Avery, center Samson Satele, safety Tom Zbikowski, defensive linemen Brandon McKinney and Cory Redding, quarterback Drew Stanton and offensive linemen Winston Justice are newcomers to Indianapolis.
So it seems like 2012 will be another lost season in Indy — to everyone but the Colts.
“I don’t think anybody is viewing it as a rebuilding season,” Luck said. “There are great players on this team, guys that have made playoffs for X amount of years in a row, and then maybe missed out last year, so I know they are hungry. I just hope that I can help them achieve that goal.”
It will take a lot more than Luck to get back to the postseason. Pagano and Grigson have repeatedly said they want to put power back in Indy’s running game and have revamped the offensive line with bigger bodies to help give former first-round pick Donald Brown a chance to meet his potential.
But changing styles won’t fix all of Indy’s ills. The Colts need Avery to return to his pre-knee injury form so he can provide a deep threat opposite Wayne. They’re counting on Wayne’s experience and leadership along with Luck’s already strong relationship with second-round pick Coby Fleener, a college teammate, to smooth the transition to the rigors of the NFL for the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up.
“I think anytime you have the timing already there from having practiced together for so long is beneficial” tight end Fleener said. “It’s still something we need to work on and we’ll be doing that.”
The changes will be just as massive on defense. Pagano will switch to a 3-4 scheme, a stark contrast to the Tampa 2 system Tony Dungy brought to Indy in 2002. The change means two of the league’s most feared pass rushers, Freeney and Mathis, will be wreaking havoc as outside linebackers.
“It feels great,” Freeney said. “It is something new and something that is proven. We have guys (like Redding) to help me out and make sure I am in the right place.”
Are the Colts making the right moves? After going a league-worst 2-14 in 2011 with an aging, high-priced roster, Irsay didn’t feel he had much choice but to start over. This year’s mass exodus created challenging salary-cap constraints this year, but should free up money for the Colts to become a big player in free agency in 2013.
Meanwhile, Luck, widely considered the most NFL-ready quarterback to enter the league since Manning in 1998, will have a year to get acclimated to the NFL, all those new receivers, and the confusing defenses Manning spent years dissecting.
Irsay has pleaded for patience and reminded fans that Manning went 3-13 as a rookie and didn’t win a playoff game until his sixth season in the league. But the returning Colts veterans insist they can do better in both respects.
“It’s not set in stone that we’re going to suck. Who knows, we might shock the world. This time next year, you might be writing that these Colts are some bad boys,” Wayne said after taking less money to stay in his adopted hometown. “I guess we’ll be in tune to find out what happens. Until then, I’m just going to sit here with the guys we have and keep working at it. Hopefully we can get something going real soon.”