Anderson — For fans planning to attend any of the Indianapolis Colts training camp practices, which begin Sunday at Anderson University, make sure you grab a roster. These aren’t the same old Colts anymore. Far from it. With players set to report Saturday for the start of preseason workouts — players must check in by 2 p.m. — fans are going to be able to watch how the beginning stages of how a National Football League team is flipped. Coming off a disastrous 2-14 season in 2011, there’s been a major shift in the makeup of the franchise.
Chief Operating Officer/President Bill Polian, Vice-President/General Manager Chris Polian, and Head Coach Jim Caldwell were all fired. Most of the team’s assistant coaches under Caldwell are gone.
The roster also took a huge hit as such long-time stalwarts as QB Peyton Manning, C Jeff Saturday, RB Joseph Addai, TE Dallas Clark, LB Gary Brackett, S Melvin Bullitt, WR Pierre Garçon, OT/OG Ryan Diem and WR Anthony Gonzalez have all been released, cut, waived, not re-signed or retired. Indianapolis now has a new general manager (Ryan Grigson), a new head coach (Chuck Pagano), new offensive and defensive coordinators (Bruce Arians and Greg Manusky), and a new starting quarterback (2012 No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck).
And with Arians and Manusky running things on both sides of the ball, there are new offensive and defensive systems and terminologies to learn and master in a relatively short amount of time. It helps that there are some valuable veterans returning such as WRs Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie, DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and S Antoine Bethea.
Offensively, the Colts will want to stress the run much more than they did under previous coordinators Tom Moore and Clyde Christensen. And defensively, Indianapolis is moving toward a hybrid 3-4 alignment and away from the 4-3 Cover 2 setup that the team has been using since 2002. Indy hasn’t run a 3-4 defense since 1992.
Needless to say, the last few months have been hectic ones for Grigson and Pagano. A major changing of the culture is underway in Indianapolis. “It is amazing and it is because (the returning Colts players have) all bought in. They bought into the system. Anytime that you are going to bring in new systems on both sides of the ball and on special teams, the guys have got to be here and they’ve got to be willing (to learn),” the Colts’ first-year head coach said recently.
“They put the time in and they put the work in. So what we have seen from the process, working the process day-to-day, has been amazing. Leading into training camp, obviously, we are pleased with where we are at.”
Building team chemistry from the ashes of last season is not easy. Especially when there has been such a major front office, coaching and roster makeover with the franchise. But having the likes of Wayne, Collie, Freeney, Mathis and Bethea back, and the fact that they have all accepted the changes without complaining, is a major plus.
“The stakes are high and we are all judged by one thing and one thing only, and that is winning and losing. But they are having fun, they are enjoying each other,” Pagano stresses. “They are enjoying being out (on the field practicing in OTAs and minicamps) and spending time together.
“We’ve got a great locker room, the chemistry is great, and that is a testament to our coaches, these players and our veteran leadership.”
Taking over for Manning at quarterback will be No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck, and the Colts drafted a pair of rookie tight ends — Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen — to fill the void left by the departures of Clark and Tamme.
Indianapolis also added a pair of first-year receivers — T.Y. Hilton and LaVonn Brazill — in an effort to offset the losses of Garçon and Gonzalez.
The Colts defense is also undergoing a major face lift as Pagano is installing the same hybrid 3-4 system that he used in Baltimore. Indianapolis will still line up in a 4-3 scheme at times, but will also switch to a 3-4. Indianapolis added three former Ravens — defensive end Cory Redding, nose tackle Brandon McKinney and safety Tom Zbikowski — to help fast track the change in defensive systems.
OFFENSE: Coordinator — Bruce Arians
WHAT WE KNOW: Luck is the man to replace Manning as the quarterback for the Colts. The Indianapolis offensive coordinator has had a lot of experience working with and developing young quarterback talent (Manning, Ben Roethlisberger), so he has a definite plan for piecing together an offensive system that will be relatively easy for Luck to pick up on the run.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: As easy as Arians will try to make the transition from a Manning-led offense to one directed by Luck, there are going to be bumps in the road. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie have to learn a new way of running their pass routes and that will take some time to pick up.
DEFENSE: Coordinator — Greg Manusky
Style: Hybrid 3-4
WHAT WE KNOW: Pagano and Manusky have a tough job ahead of them as they attempt to transition from the Colts’ 4-3 alignment to the hybrid 3-4 setup that was used by the Ravens. Pagano says that Indianapolis will continue to play 4-3 on some early downs.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: How are Pagano and Manusky going to make all the pieces fit for the Colts? Indianapolis hasn’t used a 3-4 defensive package since the early 1990s, so the personnel on hand when the new coaching staff came in was not conducive to making a quick transition.
To properly play a 3-4 defense, the linebackers and down linemen must be big and physical. Indianapolis hasn’t had those kind of players in place, preferring to go with smaller, quicker and more athletic personnel.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Coordinator — Marwan Maalouf
The first-year coordinator has a good place to start with the return of placekicker Adam Vinatieri and punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee. Both have been steady performers during their NFL careers with Vinatieri being one of best clutch kicks in league history. McAfee rebounded last year from an inconsistent 2010 season to become one of the NFL’s best two-way kickers. Another veteran, Justin Snow, is also back as the Colts’ long snapper. Maalouf, though, has a lot of work to do in developing the rest of the Colts’ special teams. Finding a dependable playmaker as a kick and punt returner is crucial. Much-needed improvement on the kickoff and punt coverage units is also priority.
COACHING: Pagano replaced most of Jim Caldwell’s former staff, opting to keep quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen (who was the offensive coordinator under Caldwell), running backs coach David Walker and assistant conditioning coach Richard Howell. He brought in two proven coordinators in Arians (Steelers) and Manusky (Chargers), while also going back to his roots as an assistant in Cleveland and Baltimore to fill out the remainder of his staff.
Camp goal No. 1: The Colts have plenty of work to do. Luck missed valuable practice time in the spring due to school commitments at Stanford. But he has already gained a pretty good read on the playbook and will be given free rein with the Colts offense this season. It will be interesting to watch his learning curve develop.
The Indianapolis defense is also a work in progress due to the shift from a 4-3 alignment to a new 3-4 hybrid scheme.
Camp goal No. 2: Indianapolis has gone from one of the most experienced teams in the NFL to one of its youngest in a short period of time. So coming together as a team, finding that chemistry on both sides of the ball, will be paramount during training camp.
Pagano thinks that the groundwork for a new Colts franchise was set during the offseason. He came away from the spring workouts impressed with the work ethic and drive displayed by the team’s returning players. The former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator liked the tone that was set by veterans such as Wayne, Collie, Freeney Mathis and Bethea.
Player to watch: In the case of the Colts, it’s probably more appropriate to say players to watch. Both are rookies. Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are expected to produce big results in 2012. With the losses of veteran TEs Dallas Clark (released, signed with Tampa Bay) and Jacob Tamme (not re-signed, now with Denver), Fleener and Allen are expected to give the Indianapolis passing attack a lift. They should prove tough to defend, both down the seam (Fleener) and in goal-line/short yardage situations (Allen). Fleener has size and speed. Allen has bulk and speed. Both are athletic. Arians liked to use a double tight-end alignment when he was in charge of Pittsburgh’s offense, so look for the combination of Fleener and Allen to get plenty of work this fall.
On the hot seat: With the change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 hybrid defensive alignment, Freeney will get a chance to play outside linebacker. That means he’ll be dropping back in pass coverage on occasion, something he did occasionally earlier in his Colts career. But Freeney hasn’t done it on a regular basis during his NFL career. To his credit, the Pro Bowl veteran has — publicly at least — welcomed the change and was a regular at the team’s offseason OTA sessions. Manusky understands Freeney’s limitations as a pass defender. But he also thinks that Indianapolis’ former No. 1 draft pick can fill the same role that Terrell Suggs did for Pagano in Baltimore. How much Freeney will be dropping back into coverage remains to be seen.