The third year of the Chuck Pagano-coached Indianapolis Colts will be pivotal.
The third year, 2014, will show if the blueprint is right for long-term success, if Pagano and his staff are getting what they want from the players they have in place. The third year, they need to quit flirting with being a Super Bowl contender and become one.
Consecutive playoff seasons and 11-5 records puts them in a great position. They have to seize it.
Pagano's first year produced an incomplete grade due to his fight with leukemia and the fact the Colts were rebuilding almost from scratch. Their 11-5 record was a pleasant surprise. Pagano's second year was hampered by the offense switching to a new coordinator while losing key player after key player. The defense was too erratic for a second season, especially with the stated intent to be a defensively strong team. Yet the 11-5 record was more impressive given the tougher schedule and that first playoff win (vs. Kansas City) was a step forward before the 43-22 loss at New England ended the season on Saturday night.
Year Three is pivotal.
Year Three will show whether Pagano and company can be the right fit for the Andrew Luck era, a Tony Dungy-type dominant run in the making. Or will Pagano and his staff be the equivalent of Jim Mora Sr. and his staff, decent but not the best to deal with the an emerging star quarterback?
As much as I've disagreed with some of Pagano's game-day decisions and the approach of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, it would be foolish to switch gears on that now. Too many injuries limited the offenses growth this season, and Luck has already had two offensive coordinators and approaches in two years. You can't switch offenses three times in three years. That would stunt Luck's growth.
Hamilton has potential, especially considering how late in the season he became more flexible, more willing to run no-huddle and use Luck's skills as a mobile and quick-thinking quarterback. He was stubborn for long stretches, especially when the Colts were focused on using Trent Richardson.
We can't be sure what the Colts offense would look like if all the parts where healthy. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen were especially debilitating losses. Allen will be back to form. He's young and able. Wayne's age is a curious factor, but he might overcome that with his unparalleled work ethic. There's a good chance the offense will flourish in a second season in Hamilton's system, with all the weapons at Luck's disposal.
The Colts face a dilemma with what to do with pending free agent running back Donald Brown. He had a superb season and eventually took the starting spot from Richardson. With Vick Ballard set to return and the team obviously invested in Richardson, it'll be fascinating to see where Brown fits in. His stock is up. This has financial decision written all over it, based on the market for Brown's skills. Ahmad Bradshaw is also a free agent.
The Colts' task at putting together an offensive line capable of consistent run blocking and protection of Luck remains a work in progress. The cornerstones of left tackle Anthony Castanzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus are solid.
Defensively, the Colts' acquisitions in the last offseason proved a mixed bag. There were times when LaRon Landry, Greg Toler, Erik Walden, Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin made plays. But they weren't the impact players some expected, and Toler in particular was injury-riddled for much of the season. The Colts' run defense was exposed again as suspect by the Patriots.
Giving up a first-round pick for Richardson was a bad call in retrospect. If Richardson had been a superstar, or even a star, giving up a first-round pick would have been worth arguing over. As it is, Richardson was serviceable at best. The lack of a first-round pick means the Colts aren't likely to add another starter at any position in the draft. That will hurt.
The Colts franchised punter Pat McAfee so there's a decision to be made there, as well. Teams don't like to spend on punters, but McAfee's a weapon who could be the field-goal kicker when Adam Vinatieri eventually ages. Vinatieri is also a free agent. Another tough call
We can quibble, and we do, about the Colts' “power-running” intent and in-game decisions on offense. Pagano is too fond of punting and too confident in an erratic defense. But those things grow and mature as a staff stays together.
Pagano has had only one full year as a head coach. He made mistakes and had some trouble getting the Colts to start games with the urgency and aggression they so often employed at the finish. If any coach should have the most pressure, it's defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. He has to produce more consistency and less reliance on Robert Mathis being a superstar. The Colts have decisions to make on safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Vontae Davis, both free agents.
Year Three could be the year when it all comes together, a year of good health and good decisions and surprise contributions. Year Three needs to be that type of season.
The Colts took a step forward in 2013. It's a more-challenging step in Year Three. And a necessary one for all.