By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — If you can't beat them, join them. Or, at the very least, follow their blueprint.
The Indianapolis Colts eventually did beat the New England Patriots — most notably and memorably in the 2006 AFC Championship Game — but owner Jim Irsay said Friday he's using his rivals' past success as a model for his own club's future.
Specifically the 2004 team that won the franchise's most recent Super Bowl title and finished as the NFL's fourth-highest scoring team and second-best defense in points allowed.
"It was one of the most complete teams that there was, and there wasn't humongous offensive statistics and (Tom) Brady didn't throw 50 touchdown passes," Irsay said. "But it was such a well-balanced team in all areas, and it was a tough team to get past. That's what we're looking for."
Those Patriots twice beat Irsay's Colts — 27-24 in the season opener and 20-3 in an AFC Divisional Playoff game. Brady had nice numbers — 3,692 yards and 28 touchdowns — but nothing like the eye-popping totals he put up in later years.
And therein lies Irsay's point. Brady didn't have to be superhuman because New England had the league's seventh-best rushing offense and ninth-ranked total defense.
That's the kind of balance he wants to see in Indianapolis, and he believes general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano took a step in that direction this offseason.
"We really targeted guys (in free agency) that we felt could really help us," Irsay said. "That's not always the big-name player that makes the big splash. You don't want weak links. Sometimes you can have a play where 10 players do the right thing and one player doesn't, and it looks like the play completely was a disaster when you just had one person break down."
Irsay said he's grown tired of the inconsistencies on defense — noting the breakdown in the rush defense at Jacksonville just weeks prior to the team's Super Bowl championship in the 2006 season — and he's even targeted improvement on special teams.
"We want to have greatness and toughness on defense and be bigger and more physical," he said, "and special teams, we want to cure that, particularly coverage and some of the breakdowns everyone knows we've had in the past that we never really got solved."
The Colts addressed those issues by adding defensive linemen Aubrayo Franklin (6-foot-1, 320 pounds) and Ricky Jean Francois (6-3, 297), outside linebacker Erik Walden (6-2, 250) and strong safety LaRon Landry (6-0, 226) and hiring Tom McMahon as their third special teams coordinator in the past three years.
None of which should be misconstrued as Irsay turning his back on the passing game. He made his confidence in quarterback Andrew Luck abundantly clear Wednesday.
Luck has shown greater command and confidence during his first full spring and summer of offseason work, and Irsay said the quarterback is able to react more quickly on the field because he doesn't have to focus on learning so many new things off it.
"I think that's going to show in his play, even though I think he was unquestionably the rookie of the year last year and I don't think there's any denying that of what we accomplished," Irsay said. "He's just going to keep getting better."
Irsay hopes the same is true of his team.
He mentioned a 6-10 season in 2001 and a devastating playoff loss at the New York Jets in 2002 as examples of steps backward for the franchise after Peyton Manning's breakout season in 1999.
With Manning under center, the Colts won seven division championships, two AFC titles and one Super Bowl crown from 2003-10. That run of excellence will be extremely difficult to match.
But Irsay thinks it's possible. So long as the team surrounds Luck with the right talent.
The 54-year-old owner had a legion of doubters when he blew up his organization a year ago. So he isn't concerned about the critics who remain this season.
"Everyone was expecting 1-15, and who are the no-names that you've hired?" Irsay said. "Instead, obviously, the season was the complete opposite of predictions of the people that project those things."