INDIANAPOLIS – There are plenty of new protocols at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center this summer.
Even the building itself has changed. The weight room and certain meeting rooms have been moved to new locations, plexiglass dividers have been installed between lockers to facilitate social distancing and the team’s infectious control officer, Dave Hammer, has made some hallways one direction to cut down on foot traffic.
But one overriding philosophy still governs the Indianapolis Colts’ home base: No complaints.
“There’s never an excuse,” general manager Chris Ballard said. “I think both of us are good at this, but (head coach) Frank (Reich) especially, he never makes an excuse. ‘Whoever we got, we got. Let’s go. It’s our job to find a way to win.’”
Still, the obstacles in front of accomplishing that job have never been more unique.
Quarterbacks took the practice field for individual work for the first time Thursday. Rookies have been in training camp for about a week and have been through a few walkthroughs, but veterans will continue to trickle into camp – and into the coronavirus testing program – through the weekend.
On-field work with the entire roster present won’t begin until Monday, and full practices with pads can’t start before Aug. 17.
That doesn’t leave much time to evaluate young players, sort out a few camp competitions and finalize a 53-man roster before the regular season opens Sept. 13 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Reich and his coaching staff will seek a delicate balance between getting enough work in and pushing the envelope too far. The phased schedule is designed to ease players back into competition and ramp up the intensity as the regular season nears.
“My mindset is when we are in a (practice) period, when we are in a phase, you’re taking the reins off and you’re going hard,” Reich said. “You’re being physical. You’re playing hard. You’re playing fast. Everything in the schedule is built to protect them from overdoing it.
“I feel confident about that. So our job will be to push, understanding the schedule is built the way it is, and then we will adapt as needed as we go.”
The Colts welcomed new leaders on offense and defense with veteran quarterback Philip Rivers signing as a free agent and all-pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner arriving in a blockbuster trade with the San Francisco 49ers. Both men said during the spring they feel comfortable in their new roles because of a history with the system they’ll be playing in.
Rivers spent three years with Reich and five years with Indianapolis offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni during his 16 seasons with the San Diego and Los Angeles Chargers. So he already has a baseline knowledge of the offense and caught up quickly during virtual meetings this spring.
Buckner has no prior experience with the Colts’ coaching staff, but the role he’s being asked to play is extremely similar to the one he performed the past four seasons in San Francisco.
The task is more difficult for young players making their NFL debuts. Reich still is getting to know the team’s nine draft picks, even after bouncing between Zoom calls all spring to get a feel for as many positions as possible. And the challenge facing undrafted rookies is substantial.
The roster will be trimmed from 90 to 80 players by Aug. 16 without a padded practice being conducted, and even the undrafted players who remain on the roster through camp will have fewer opportunities to turn heads.
“We all think we are pretty good evaluators in this building, so naturally I think we feel confident we’re going to be able to figure out who it is that should make our team and who is going to help us the most,” Reich said. “But realistically, does it hurt them? Yeah, realistically it does hurt them a little bit. There is a little bit of a nuance there that (is lost) without those games.”
Reich and Ballard said the team will ramp up the physicality of certain practice periods and look for opportunities to increase exposure whenever possible. Reich will have units running simultaneously on two fields at times to get as many reps in as possible, and the team hopes to make good use of two practices at Lucas Oil Stadium that will include elements of the game day atmosphere.
But there’s no way to fully prepare for the unexpected challenges that could lie ahead.
In that regard, at least, the Colts have plenty of experience.
Indianapolis turned a 1-5 start into a playoff appearance in 2018 and entered last season with Super Bowl aspirations. Then quarterback Andrew Luck announced his surprise retirement in late August, and the Colts got off to a 5-2 start before injuries and inconsistency sunk their season.
The whole experience has accelerated the maturation process for a young roster and perhaps helped prepare the players for a most unusual 2020 campaign.
“We’ve seen a lot, and we’ve had to handle a lot,” Ballard said. “The team has had to handle a lot. I do think when you show people – when there is a problem, when there is something bad that happens — that you’re not going to flinch and you’re not going to cave to pressure of the situation, I do think it helps. I think it’s going to help our team.”