At his end-of-season press conference, Colts general manager Chris Ballard let out a chuckle.
He had been asked about how excited he was, about how much pressure was off his shoulders, knowing that the Colts have a coach and young quarterback in place to build around.
So that slight laugh wasn’t just about the stability now in place. It was also about the bright days that seem to be ahead in Indianapolis.
“A much different tone than when we were sitting here a year ago, when we didn’t have either one of them [a coach or a quarterback],” Ballard said.
That was a theme throughout Ballard’s remarks, which lasted more than 50 minutes. He spoke as if a burden had been lifted. And it’s hard to blame him. The Colts on paper appear to be primed for long-term success after a surprising 9-8 campaign with a rookie head coach in Shane Steichen. And with a quarterback in Anthony Richardson just a year into his rookie deal, Indianapolis has more financial flexibility than it’s had in years. From 2019-22, Indianapolis had big money tied to non-franchise quarterbacks (Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett).
That’s no longer the case.
The Colts also have $58.9 million in 2024 salary cap space, fifth-most in the league, according to Overthecap.com.
“I feel really good about where we’re going,” Ballard said. “Even with the ending [the Week 18 loss to the Texans], it probably was one of the more satisfying, fun teams to be around on a day-to-day basis.”
From a coaching standpoint, Steichen has brought stability and direction to the franchise, which was in chaos in the 2022 season. There was Frank Reich’s midseason firing followed by the interim hire of Jeff Saturday, a team legend who had never coached above high school.
Despite missing the playoffs for the third straight year, Indianapolis more than doubled its win total this past season. The offensive playcaller, Steichen also guided an offense that was top-10 in scoring (23.3 points per game) despite being without Richardson for 13 games, star running back Jonathan Taylor and right tackle Braden Smith for seven, and center Ryan Kelly for three. Backup quarterback Gardner Minshew was added to the Pro Bowl roster Tuesday as an alternate, speaking to how deftly Steichen was able to tweak the offense on the fly to accentuate Minshew’s strengths.
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Indianapolis’ success was all the more impressive considering its very significant deficiencies in the secondary, where it leaned primarily on rookies and undrafted talent at cornerback, and inexperience at safety. According to FTN Data, the Colts ranked 25th in pass defense DVOA, which ranks the success of each play compared to the league average. Standout nose tackle Grover Stewart also missed six games due to a suspension for PEDs, which impacted the run defense. Former All-Pro Shaq Leonard was waived. The Colts defense overall allowed 65 explosive plays (passes and rushes that went for 20-plus yards), 11th-most of any team in the league, according to Sportradar.
Despite its defensive flaws, Indianapolis was one win away from a playoff berth.
That makes team observers think about the possibilities of a healthier offense and reinforced defense in 2024.
“There is never a lack of confidence or seed of doubt in his mind in what he’s doing, and he sees the big picture,” Ballard said of Steichen. “This is not just an offensive coordinator that became a head coach who calls plays. No, he sees it all. That’s an impressive thing.
“Even after games, I’d go in, and we’re both emotional, but he’s always got such great recall about what happened in all three phases and what we need to fix. He’s a tremendous problem-solver, which I think is an important skill set for anybody in leadership positions to have. … He’s extremely demanding, not only of players, but also of staff — of all of us. He’s going to press because he wants to win. He understands what needs to be done, what needs to happen to win. It’ll be fun to watch his growth even more.”
Richardson’s development remains key, though.
The No. 4 overall pick showed tantalizing potential in his abbreviated rookie season, enough that team decision-makers have already referred to him as their franchise quarterback. Perhaps nowhere was that potential more evident than in the Week 4 overtime loss to the Rams, when Richardson guided a 23-0 run to end regulation — two passing touchdowns, two successful two-point conversions, a rushing score — to force extra time.
He became the first quarterback in league history to score a rushing touchdown in each of his first three career games.
“I’m going to tell you one of the things that really surprised me with Anthony because I was concerned about it, but this guy is a passer,” Ballard said. “I mean, this guy is a legitimate passer, and I believe that. I think he’s going to continue to get better and improve the more he plays.”
But his rookie season ended after just four games, a routine tackle in Week 5 against the divisional-rival Titans leading to an AC joint injury that required season-ending shoulder surgery. (He expects to start throwing again in February.) It added fuel to the debate of whether Richardson, who also missed time due to a concussion, can properly protect himself. There’s also the question of his relative inexperience after starting just 13 games at Florida.
The Colts’ ability to build on the success of this past season, to view their long-term outlook favorably, ultimately hinges on Richardson’s strides in a second season that is his de facto rookie season, because of all the time that he missed for on-field growth.
“It allowed me to slow my mind down a little bit,” Richardson said of missing 13 games, “sit back and really learn the game a little bit despite playing a few games this year.”
At this time next year, Ballard hopes to keep smiling.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.