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January 18, 2014

SEASON IN REVIEW: Colts make progress in 2013 season

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts made plenty of progress over the course of the 2013 season.

And the Colts fought through some adversity as injuries hit the team hard at several positions, most notably at wide receiver (Reggie Wayne), tight end (Dwayne Allen), running back (Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw), offensive line (Donald Thomas) and cornerback (Greg Toler).

How bad did the injury bug hit? Seven starters were sidelined for the season and Indianapolis led the NFL with 17 players listed on injured reserve by the end of the year.

Add to the fact that Indianapolis had a first-year offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton, who changed most of what the Colts did a year ago. And head coach Chuck Pagano was back full-time after missing most of the 2012 season as he battled leukemia.

Still, Indianapolis posted a second-straight 11-win regular season, won the AFC South championship, had a 6-0 record in the division, qualified for the playoffs for the second year in a row and won a home playoff game.

The Colts, who were wild-card participants in 2012, advanced to the divisional playoff round this year before eventually losing to the New England Patriots.

And there were outstanding individual accomplishments as well. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis had a league-leading and franchise-record 19.5 sacks this past season. Quarterback Andrew Luck showed improvement in his second season. And T.Y. Hilton continued to blossom into one of the NFL’s best young receivers.

So, yes, there was a lot of progress. But there’s also a lot of work to be done this offseason in order for Indianapolis to take yet another step up the playoff ladder.

In the days after the loss to the Patriots, Pagano told his team to take some time off, get their collective batteries re-charged and be ready to get going when off-season workouts get underway in April.

“You have to get away from football for a little bit. You got to get away from it mentally. You got to recharge. You got to get your body back, all those type of things. But you can’t get away too long. We’re 14 weeks away from starting the offseason program which will start April 21st. We’re 29 weeks away from training camp. It’s going to be on us before you know it,” the Colts coach said.

“It’s very important, number one, to get away. Reacquaint yourself with your better half, with your loved one, your significant other, your children if you have them. Do those types of things. But the way the offseason is set up, we don’t have a lot of time with these guys in the offseason to develop guys, especially young guys. I stress the importance of getting away, recharging, and getting back to work.”

In looking back at the just completed season, Pagano liked what he saw.

“The sky is the limit for this group. I really believe we came very close. We were one of eight. Again, we took the next step, but three teams that are playing championship Sunday, if you will, we beat, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle. We beat all three of those teams. We didn’t reach our ultimate goal. We’re going to keep chasing it. We always will. That will never change. But the sky is the limit. We’ve got a great group here. We’ve got the foundation that we laid,” he said.

“Have we overachieved? I don’t think so because everybody in that locker room and our coaches expected this. Now we know what the expectations are going to be. They’re going to be even higher. But that’s where you want to be. The schedule is going to be harder. That’s just how it goes. We got the right men in that locker room for the job.”

There will be changes coming in terms of the roster. But no firm decisions have been made just yet.

“We will begin the evaluation process, starting with ourselves, starting with myself. Our coaches will turn every stone, offense, defense and special teams. We will look to get better in every area that we need to improve on,” Pagano added.

“That starts with the research and development. That starts with evaluating everything that we did this season in all three phases. So we’ll begin to do that and start preparation for the upcoming draft. We got the combine that will be on us before we know it. We have to deal with that.”

He might also have to deal with more off-season changes to his coaching staff. Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen might follow former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell to Detroit as the Lions’ offensive coordinator. Current Indianapolis offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton interviewed and was reportedly offered the head coaching job at Vanderbilt but turned it down.

They said it — Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was asked if he had any regrets for how the 2013 regular-season and post-season played out for his team:

“Never have any regrets. There’s always things that you can do better. Certainly I’ll take a hard look at myself. I always start with myself. I always look myself in the mirror and find out what I can do better. There’s a bunch,” Pagano said.

“Again, the minute you start to think you have all the answers and you know everything and you stop growing, that’s when you’re done. I’ll continue to dissect myself along with everything else and make sure we can make the next step next year.”

Quarterback Andrew Luck talked about the 2013 season coming to a close and the possibility that there will be several roster moves made during the off-season:

“It’s no fun. You look around and the harsh truth is not every face you see will be back. You build relationships with a lot of guys, a lot of friends. I don’t think you try to think about it too much,” Luck said.

“It can be a little depressing. It is nice to go around and talk to everybody and wish everybody the best whether it’s here, there, or wherever they end up in life.”

General manager Ryan Grigson looks ahead to the offeseason:

“We need to be more consistent as a whole. This year, if you look at our team and our wins, we’ve beaten the best. It’s already been stated, but three of the four teams in this, this team has beaten. And then the other team, we were down by seven in the fourth quarter to. But we’ve got to put it together for four quarters, we can’t have the roller coaster ride,” Grigson said.

“We are a very young team, led by a young quarterback. Everybody in this organization is pretty darn new and we all don’t have years and years of experience in our select positions. But we’re growing together as a family and we’re building this thing the right way.”

Grigson on plans for returning players.

“In terms of each position group, we’re going to do like we have even since year one, we’re going to create competition. Guys aren’t going to be allowed to rest on their laurels,” he said.

“We’re going to stay with the mindset of iron sharpens iron, that whole thing that you guys have heard a thousand times. That’s just the old fashioned way. Create competition, that’s when guys are at their best.”

Grigson on the Colts’ group of free agents:

“I’ve not talked to anyone. Those conversations will come later. You’ve got to remember, this is a long season. These coaches, and myself even, aren’t in the frame of mind yet to make good decisions. We need to get a little rest, eat three meals and maybe just kind of live normal for at least a few days before we start making huge decisions,” he explained.

“We need to step away. We’ve already had one meeting, kind of end of year meeting. I thought it was fantastic with the entire staff. Really got some great input. But those discussions and those calls and things like that, they are still down the road.”

Will the Colts be big players in free agency again this offseason?:

“I’m fortunate and our head coach is fortunate that we have an owner that’s supportive. Even in the locker room after the game, he’s so supportive in what we feel we need, he will let us get. He will be supportive of that and we can go get it,” Grigson explained.

Points of emphasis for the 2014 offseason for Indianapolis:

“We need to aspire to be one of those teams that doesn’t beat a great team one week and then get outscored by 40 the next. That’s all growing pains. We are a young, young team and I feel like we are going in the right direction because that’s typical of youth. It’s things I’ve heard since I started playing. You’ve got to learn how to win consistently,” the Colts general manager said.

“You can beat these teams that no one else had beat at one time or were undefeated, and then go and lose to someone that’s maybe not as good. We just have to learn, week-in, week-out to beat teams consistently and not have those big swings and have to be chasing. I thought we got better as the year went on.”

n Unrestricted free agents — ILB Pat Angerer, S Antoine Bethea, RB Ahmad Bradshaw,  RB Donald Brown, S Sergio Brown, ILB Kavell Conner, CB Vontae Davis, NT Aubrayo Franklin, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, OG/OT Jeff Linkenbach, S Corey Lynch, DT Ricardo Mathews, DT/DE Fili Moala, P Pat McAfee, OG Mike McGlynn, OLB Lawrence Sidbury, CB Cassius Vaughn, PK Adam Vinatieri.

n Restricted and exclusive rights free agents — CB Josh Gordy (RFA), ILB Justin Hickman (ERFA), OLB Cam Johnson (ERFA), ILB Scott Lutrus (ERFA), DT Jeris Pendleton (RFA), OG/OT Joe Reitz (RFA).

n Post-season roster moves — Indianapolis signed six players to reserve/future contracts after the AFC divisional playoff loss to New England:  OG Zach Allen, C Thomas Austin, LB Alan Baxter, CB Marcus Burley, QB Chandler Harnish and TE Martell Webb. All six had been members of the Colts’ practice squad during the regular season.

Position-by-position roster breakdown — Starters listed as they were at the end of the season.

QUARTERBACK

Starter – Andrew Luck. Backups – Matt Hasselbeck.

Luck did a nice job of limiting his turnovers and improving his completion percentage during the regular season. He only had nine interceptions during the year but was victimized by seven pickoffs in the Colts’ two playoff games. There’s still work to be done. Hasselbeck saw very limited work during games but provided a veteran presence on the sidelines for Luck to talk to.

RUNNING BACKS

Starter – Donald Brown. Backups – Vick Ballard (IR), Ahmad Bradshaw (IR), Donald Herron (IR), Chris Rainey (IR), Trent Richardson.

Brown began the year as the Colts’ No. 3 running back behind Ballard and Bradshaw. But a knee injury sidelined Ballard for the season and Bradshaw went down with a year-ending neck injury. Richardson was added in late September in an effort to help fortify the position. He struggled all year long and remains very much a work in progress. Rainey was a mid-season addition who was also hurt. Herron was a nice special teams player before he was sidelined. Ballard’s rehab has gone well and he expects to be ready for the start of training camp. Bradshaw may not be re-signed in the off-season.

TIGHT ENDS

Starter – Coby Fleener. Backups – Dwayne Allen (IR), Jack Doyle, Weslye Saunders.

When Allen went down early in the season with a groin injury that required surgery, Fleener was put on notice to improve his overall consistency. He certainly did that as he played pretty well over the course of the year. Doyle, an Indianapolis native, was signed off the Titans practice squad and helped to provide much needed depth. Saunders was sidelined early in the year as he served a league-mandated suspension but added good work off the bench when he returned.  Allen’s surgical procedure was a bit more extensive than originally expected. He may be cleared to start working out in late February but probably won’t practice until training camp starts.

WIDE RECEIVERS:  Starters – T.Y. Hilton, Griff Whalen. Backups – Deion Branch, LaVon Brazill, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Josh Lenz, Da’Rick Rogers, Reggie Wayne (IR).

When Wayne went down in the Denver game on Oct. 20, Hilton was forced to take a more active role in the Colts’ passing offense. He certainly did that. After getting off to a sluggish start as he became acclimated to the newfound attention from opposing defenses, he continued to develop into an outstanding young receiver. Whalen bounced from the active roster to the practice squad to being released and then back to the active roster. He became a valuable asset late in the season as a wide receiver and punt returner. Heyward-Bey was demoted to special teams work due to his inconsistency at holding on to the football. He proved to be a very good gunner on special teams. Rogers and Brazill showed flashes late in the season and could develop into pretty good receivers if they continue to work. Branch was added to the roster prior to the AFC divisional playoff game with New England.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Starters — LT Anthony Castanzo, LG Hugh Thornton, C Samson Satele, RG Mike McGlynn, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups:  G Justin Anderson (IR), C/G Khaled Holmes, G/T Jeff Linkenbach, T Xavier Nixon, G/T Joe Reitz, G Donald Thomas (IR).

The Colts were set at tackle in 2013 with Castonzo and Cherilis. But it was the middle of the offensive line that struggled. Satele and McGlynn showed inconsistency, although McGlynn’s play picked up when he filled in for an injured Satele at center. Thornton stepped into the starting lineup when Thomas was lost for the season with a quad injury. Linkenbach, Nixon and Reitz stepped in and played relatively well in relief roles, although Linkenbach and Reitz were both injured during the season. Anderson and Thomas are both expected back and ready to go by the start of training camp.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DE Cory Redding, NT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Ricky Jean Francois. Backups – NT Josh Chapman, T Montori Hughes (IR), E Ricardo Mathews, T/E Fili Moala (IR), T Jeris Pendleton.

Redding, Franklin and Jean Francois played relatively well during the course of the season. Jean Francois was sidelined late in the year with a foot injury but returned in time for the playoffs. Redding and Franklin were also nicked up but didn’t miss any playing time. Chapman continues to develop into a pretty good nose tackle but needs to be consistent in his play. Mathews and Moala filled in as starters and rotation guys during the year, although Moala ended the year on injured reserve with knee issues.  No word if he will require offseason surgery. Hughes continues to be a work in progress. Pendleton was a good late season addition who played well in the playoffs.

LINEBACKERS

Starters — SLB Erik Walden, Mike LB Kelvin Sheppard, Will LB Jerrell Freeman, Rush LB Robert Mathis. Backups — OLB Daniel Adongo, ILB Pat Angerer (IR), ILB Kavell Conner, ILB Mario Harvey (IR), OLB Justin Hickman (IR), OLB Cam Johnson, ILB Scott Lutrus (IR), ILB Josh McNary,  OLB Lawrence Sidbury (IR), OLB Andy Studebaker, OLB Bjoern Werner.

Walden was better than many outside observers figured he’d be after moving over from Green Bay. Sheppard had an up-and-down season, working as a part-time starter and rotating with the other Colts inside linebackers. Freeman continues to raise his game but had slight consistency issues throughout the year. Mathis led the league in sacks and set a single-season franchise record in the process. The problem is that Indianapolis didn’t have anybody to help take a pressure off Mathis as the solitary consistent pass rusher. Angerer played hurt most of the season and was forced to miss the last half of the year in order to undergo knee surgery. Conner and McNary played well, especially over the final month of the season. Werner, the Colts’ No. 1 draft pick, spent the year learning a new defensive scheme, which limited his effectiveness. Adongo, a former professional rugby player, may turn out to be a diamond in the rough. But he’s still got a ways to go yet.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Starters — LCB Josh Gordy, S Antoine Bethea, S LaRon Landry, RCB Vontae Davis. Backups — S Sergio Brown, CB Darius Butler, S Delano Howell (IR), S Corey Lynch, CB Sheldon Price, CB Greg Toler (IR), CB Cassius Vaughn.

Toler looked great in OTAs and training camp but struggled most of the year, especially after he suffered a groin injury against Denver on Oct. 20. He tried to play hurt late in the season and in the first playoff game but gave up big plays against Kansas City in the wild-card game. He may have to undergo surgery during the offseason. Davis was up-and-down with his performance this year. He has to even out his overall game on a weekly basis. Bethea is a free agent and may not be back in 2014. But he certainly had his moments this past season. He appears to have a lost a step in terms of sideline to sideline coverage but his overall hustle on the field remains strong. Landry battled injuries in the middle of the year and was inconsistent when he returned. Butler, Vaughn and Gordy provided much-needed depth at cornerback. Brown was outstanding as a gunner on kick and punt coverage. Lynch and Price were late-season additions to the active roster.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK Adam Vinatieri. P Pat McAfee. LS Matt Overton. PR Griff Whalen. KR Cassius Vaughn.

Vinatieri had another strong season, as did McAfee. McAfee also served as Vinatieri’s holder and was the Colts’ kickoff specialist. Vinatieri led the team in scoring and had one of his best seasons in a long NFL career. Overton earned a nod to the Pro Bowl for his work as the Colts’ second-year long snapper. Whalen took over for wide receiver T.Y. Hilton as Indianapolis’ primary punt returner. He also returned kickoffs. Vaughn ended up as the Colts’ primary kickoff returner after the team took chances of a couple other players earlier in the season.

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