Derek Schultz: Foundation over finish

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Cheer up, guys!

Dealing with the heartbreak of another crushing, late-season loss to a division rival, Colts fans don’t want to hear that. The players clearing their lockers, heading home or somewhere warm—perhaps both—for the start of the offseason certainly aren’t in the mood for it, either, not after letting what ended up being the AFC South championship slip from their grasp.

Saturday night, the Colts’ season terminated in the regular-season finale, a 23-19 loss to Houston. For the Texans, they’re off to host a home playoff game. Here in Indianapolis, it’s the seventh time in nine years there will be no playoff football for the Colts and the ninth straight year there won’t be a division champions banner to awkwardly raise to the rafters.

I could go for one of those lame banners right about now.

While the sting of the Houston loss at Lucas Oil Stadium will stick around for a while, and there’s no tangible accomplishment to remember another playoff-less year by, the 2023 season did provide something important moving forward: a foundation. Even if “foundation” wasn’t the f-word you were yelling after Gardner Minshew missed Tyler Goodson on the fateful fourth-down play that ended Indy’s hopes.

Remember how shaky the ground was where the Colts stood at the conclusion of last season? Nearly one year to the day of Saturday night’s defeat, the same two teams played in the same location in the same regular-season finale for totally different stakes. The 2-13-1 Texans entered the 2022 season finale with a chance to lock up the NFL’s worst record and top overall pick, while the free-falling Colts were riding a six-game losing streak to join them in the league’s basement. That game, a 32-31 Colts loss, was the final insult in one of the worst seasons in their Indianapolis history—a different kind of dejection from what we saw last Saturday.

Rookie head coach Shane Steichen had an impressive debut season with the team, Schultz writes. (IBJ photos/Mickey Shuey)

That’s because the Colts weren’t supposed to be in a win-and-in situation or anywhere within shouting distance of playoff position this season. They weren’t supposed to be here with a rookie head coach in Shane Steichen, or after Anthony Richardson, the lone reward for 2022’s embarrassment, succumbed to a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5 or with Jonathan Taylor missing seven games. Yet, here they were, with an opportunity at an unfathomable 10-win season and playoff berth at their fingertips.

The postseason was possible thanks to Zach Moss, the Colts’ backup running back, who had a couple of crucial 100-yard performances filling in for Taylor at the season’s start. Indianapolis was there because Minshew, a backup quarterback (sensing a theme here?), did his best to keep the ship steady during Richardson’s absence, despite his obvious limitations. It all happened because Ronnie Harrison Jr., Nick Cross, Will Mallory and Trey Sermon, buried on the depth chart or not on the active roster at all when the season began, played key roles or made critical plays that led to victories.

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is embraced by fans during last Saturday’s game. (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

Saturday’s season-ending loss stings because you actually had hope and expectations—two things that were nonexistent for this franchise not long ago.

Even if the season didn’t go beyond the first week in January, the Colts took steps forward these past five months. The 2023 season included a season sweep of the hated Titans, snapping a six-game losing streak in the rivalry, and a steamrolling of the playoff-bound Steelers, which included a run of 30 straight unanswered points. It was highlighted by a gritty, ugly and wild overtime win in Baltimore over likely MVP Lamar Jackson and the top-seeded Ravens.

The offensive line rebounded dramatically from a disastrous 2022 campaign, led by Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith and promising second-year left tackle Bernhard Raimann. Michael Pittman Jr. proved himself worthy of the WR1 label (and a hefty payday) with a career-best season, reaching the 100-catch milestone accomplished by franchise legends like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Twenty-four-year-old Dayo Odeyingbo sparked a Colts pass rush that raced past their Indianapolis-team record for sacks with 51. Zaire Franklin led the AFC in tackles (179), taking the torch that was prematurely passed to him with the rapid decline and ultimate release of Shaquille Leonard.

Colts defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo. (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

Those individual performances can’t take away the loss to the Texans, but they can be built upon to prevent a similar result from happening in the future. This spring, Richardson will enter his sophomore season in a much better situation than he did a year ago. Taylor will be back, along with the long-term extension he desired, and the same result likely awaits Pittman. Steichen will be a year wiser, even after being wise well beyond his years during an impressive debut season wearing the headset. Even with free agency and another draft class yet to be decided in the coming months, most of the core of this team is set to return along with legitimate expectations for more than just progress or moral victories.

If you judge your team’s season strictly on the result, you’ll be disappointed with the 2023 Colts, just like virtually any other season that doesn’t result in a championship. However, that result isn’t always feasible in the moment. In those cases, you hope to move closer to that achievement. Perhaps this season was that—a step forward in the journey to a desired destination, out of the depths of league laughingstock a year ago, and toward a brighter future.

If you look at it that way, maybe it’s fitting that this Cinderella season ended the way it did. A Colts team that no one thought belonged in the playoffs ultimately fell short of reaching that goal. A backup quarterback who wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a temporary solution couldn’t dial up a simple 4th-and-1 throw to overcome a poor finale. And a recently elevated practice-squad running back, who probably didn’t belong on the field during the most critical moment of the season, was unable to salvage his QB’s errant attempt.

Tyler Goodson reacts after missing a catch from quarterback Gardner Minshew on the fourth down during last Saturday’s game, dashing the team’s playoff hopes.

Indianapolis rode the good vibes of a surprise year all the way to the season’s final week and final moment: just 15 yards from the postseason and a drought-busting division championship. It was at that moment, though, that everything turned, with the backups once again looking like backups and the 2023 season transforming back into a pumpkin just before midnight struck.

The season that was never supposed to be, was, at least for a fleeting five months. It’s a long, eight-month wait to see where the Colts go from here, but if the progress made was truly real and the destination is soon realized, the 2023 season can be meaningful after all.•

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From Peyton Manning’s peak with the Colts to the Pacers’ most recent roster makeover, Schultz has talked about it all as a sports personality in Indianapolis for more than 15 years. Besides his written work with IBJ, he’s active in podcasting and show hosting. You can follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @Schultz975.

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One thought on “Derek Schultz: Foundation over finish

  1. Good article. I agree this year was good for the coaching staff to gain experience. But for players? If the future franchise QB (Richardson) gained experience then I would agree. But two of the strengths of the team – the OL and DL – will be another year older and non-QB careers seem to be getting shorter and shorter.

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