The Indianapolis Colts rode the wave of emotion, inspired by ailing coach Chuck Pagano, to an incredible win. Now what?
Now comes the even harder part: Moving forward in the new normal.
It won't be possible to conjure the same level of emotion, the same “Win for Coach!” mentality, when the Colts travel to play the New York Jets on Sunday, or in any of the games to come. Yes, they'll want to salute Pagano, as he fights acute promyelocytic leukemia. There's an undeniable bond there.
But the NFL is a grind, week after week, and it'll take more than emotion to sustain the caliber of play the Colts displayed in the second half of their 30-27 win over the Green Bay Packers.
“I don't think there's any doubt the last 30 minutes is the standard that we set for ourselves now,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “We played smarter, we played faster, we played up to our ability. Now we have to maintain that. I told the guys today this car cannot have a rearview mirror. We can't ever look back at this moment and pat ourselves on the back or we'll get our butts kicked by the Jets.”
Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, who continues to display maturity far beyond his 23 years, put on a performance that many labeled as his true “arrival” as a top NFL quarterback. Like all things in our 24/7 sports culture, it's a reactionary label. History and instinct tells those who have followed sports that a first-year player will have struggles and setbacks at some point, even one as talented as Luck.
But what's not in doubt is Luck's maturity in assessing bigger picture of the win over the Packers. He was as emotional as any player, running after his touchdown to slap the “#CHUCKSTRONG” sign in the end zone. He is as rational as any player this week.
“We realize it is one game, one win. It doesn't translate into anything else,” Luck said. “We realize our work is cut out for us this upcoming game against the Jets. We'll try to build off the positives. I think it is a lot easier to try and correct your mistakes after a win than maybe a tough loss.”
The Colts haven't played a road game since opening day in Chicago. Their offense hasn't faced the sound of an opposing crowd, disrupting play calls with constant noise. Arians estimated the Colts were in no-huddle 80 percent of the Green Bay game. That's an effective offense as long as the communication is there. That communication will be much tougher.
The patchwork offensive line did a nice job against the Packers, especially center A.Q. Shipley, who was playing in only his second NFL game. It'll face new challenges in a road setting.
There are other issues at play, NFL reality issues of injuries. Robert Mathis, the most effective, dynamic, intense player on the defense (along with Cory Redding), suffered a knee injury. He's questionable for the trip. The secondary is banged up, although Cassius Vaughn had an effective game in place of Vontae Davis.
Dwight Freeney returned and recorded a sack, but he's still working his way back into his game rhythm and the quirks of his new role in the new defense.
Freeney can help in the locker room, however, having been through a number of tough times during his career with the Colts, in which off-field tragedies have made focusing on the games tougher than normal.
“For all the years I've been here, we've had high moments and we've had low moments,” Freeney said. “That was great that week or that was disappointing that week, or whatever week that was. That can't help us for this week.”
This week will be a real challenge for Arians, who has waited for years to be a head coach only to have it happen under the most difficult of circumstances. He plans to keep in regular contact with Pagano. Pagano watches practices on his iPad. But there's no denying that Pagano will have days, unfortunately, where his illness is likely to overwhelm his ability to stay in constant contact.
Arians has to make decisions and moves to set the tone for the team now. Petulantly throwing a challenge flag as some sort of protest on a touchdown play needs to be one-time occurrence. That's not the type of focus and control a team needs for the long haul.
Otherwise, Arians has made the right moves so far. He has set an example of honoring Pagano by fighting like crazy for a win, no matter the circumstances. Finding a way to push the team toward their strong second half was his biggest accomplishment so far.
The NFL grind is about to hit now, three months with no breaks. Road trips, injuries, setbacks.
Emotion is a great thing. The Colts can still draw on that, but they'll need more. They'll need to establish a new normal.