By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
From the touchdown on Andrew Luck’s first pass of the preseason to Bruce Arians’ sudden hospitalization just hours before Sunday’s playoff game, it was an unpredictable and eventful season for the Indianapolis Colts.
Picked as the worst team in the NFL in The Associated Press’ preseason power poll, the Colts overcame long odds to post an 11-5 regular season record and claim a wild card playoff berth in the AFC.
Along the way, Indianapolis rallied around first-year head coach Chuck Pagano — who missed 12 games while receiving treatment for leukemia — and captured many hearts and minds among the nation’s football fans.
It was a rapid rise following a 2-14 season that saw much of the front office and coaching staff fired and brought major personnel changes to the locker room.
And it all ended abruptly Sunday, with a 24-9 road loss against the Baltimore Ravens.
“It’s weird,” Luck said while cleaning out his locker at the team’s practice complex Monday. “You’ve been going 100 miles per hour for 20-something weeks. Now you’re at zero miles per hour with nothing to do. It’s weird coming in here and cleaning out your locker. You ask the veterans what to do. From what I’ve heard so far, it’s, ‘Get your rest. Make sure you get your rest.’ It’ll be weird. It’ll be interesting, I guess.”
It’ll have a hard time matching Luck’s first professional season in that department.
The first-year quarterback set a slew of rookie records, including throwing for 4,374 yards to surpass Cam Newton’s one-year-old NFL standard. He led the team to nine wins in its last 11 regular season games and engineered a record-tying seven victories in the fourth quarter or overtime.
The latter mark tied a record for all NFL quarterbacks — not just rookies — since 1960.
His 11 wins surpassed the franchise rookie record of nine by Chris Chandler in 1988 and set a new NFL record for quarterbacks taken with the No. 1 overall pick during the Super Bowl era. Luck also became the first QB to be taken at the top of the draft and make a playoff appearance in the same season.
The fact all of this was accomplished with two rookie tight ends, a rookie wide receiver and a rookie running back in the regular rotation has fans thinking about even bigger and better results next season.
But the Colts took a moment Monday to savor how special this season was first.
“Well, you know, the 2012 team had a lot of optimism,” rookie tight end Dwayne Allen said. “But 2013, only time will tell. A lot of changes are going to happen this offseason. That’s just the name of the game and the way that this league works. A lot of new faces are going to be here. That team’s character is going to be built this offseason and in training camp.”
That building could begin as early as this week.
Arians, the team’s offensive coordinator and interim head coach who went 9-3 in Pagano’s absence, has drawn a great deal of interest from teams with head coaching vacancies. Arians remained hospitalized Monday after being diagnosed with an inner ear infection just hours before the loss to the Ravens.
Pagano said the offensive coordinator will be allowed to return to Indianapolis once his blood pressure stabilizes. The Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles have been granted permission to interview Arians, and the San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns also are believed to have interest.
The Colts, who will have roughly $43 million in salary cap space after the Super Bowl, also have decisions to make on several in-house free agents — including starters Donnie Avery, Dwight Freeney, Antonio Johnson, Winston Justice, Pat McAfee, Fili Moala and Jerraud Powers.
McAfee and Powers indicated a desire to remain in Indianapolis as they cleaned out their lockers Monday, and there’s no denying the bond inside the locker room.
“It’s just an unbelievable group of men and a great team, great family,” inside linebacker Pat Angerer said. “A lot of people counted us out and we kept fighting, kept believing. All we had was each other. We had each other’s back, and it made for a good season.”
It’s also risen expectations.
As veteran outside linebacker Robert Mathis said, Indianapolis has lost the element of surprise. It will be expected to contend for the AFC South title and make a return to the playoffs, at the very least, next season.
The monster Pagano talked about building on the first day of offseason workouts still is under construction. But the early work has been well-received.
“The foundation has been laid,” Pagano said. “It’s a solid foundation, and it’s one that we can build on. I’m really looking forward to the future. I feel like we have a bright, bright future ahead of us for many years to come.”