Published January 11, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Irsay's decisions seem so logical now.
A year ago, he wanted new blood in the front office and on the sideline. He needed a plan for the future, and he had to clear a spot for a new franchise quarterback to grow, even if it meant cutting Peyton Manning.
Longtime Indianapolis fans and hordes of critics thought Irsay was crazy to turn the page on one of the most successful runs in league history and start completely over. But after one of the most remarkable one-year turnarounds in NFL history, all those moves may prove to be the future model for major rebuilding projects around the league.
"I didn't want to flip it because I like continuity," he told The Associated Press this week. "It was just, it needed to change. No one wanted to see or realize that it was over. But it was over."
What Irsay could see so clearly then was the sun setting on the Manning era in Indy. If he wanted to give Indianapolis another decade to remember, he had to rebuild while he had the chance.
Buried under salary cap limitations and having to contend with more frequent injuries to aging stars, Irsay knew Indy wasn't just getting older — it was sliding further and further from the Super Bowl. The Colts had gone from 14-2 in their 2009 AFC championship season to 10-6 and a first-round playoff exit in 2010 to 2-14 and the No. 1 overall pick last season.
So in the NFL's version of a blink, Irsay made a clean, abrupt break with the past.
"It was just an incredible year," Irsay said. "It's one of those things that I think 15, 20 years from now, people will look at the way we reorganized our team and what we did and I can see where there might be an owner asking a GM that question about turning it around that fast and the GM will say that's too unrealistic to think about. And I can see the owner saying, 'Well, the Colts did it.'"
Duplicating what the Colts did in 2012 may be nearly impossible, though.
After losing coach Chuck Pagano for 12 weeks as he battled leukemia, Indy went 9-3 under interim coach Bruce Arians and made its first playoff appearance without Manning since 1996. The nine-win improvement, to 11-5, was better than all but two teams in NFL history — the 1998 Colts and the 2008 Dolphins, who each won 10 more games than the previous season.
Andrew Luck delivered one of the best rookie seasons by any NFL quarterback and the newcomers produced more combined yards rushing and receiving than any rookie class since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. They did all that with a completely new offense, a shortened offseason program and a quarterback who really only got about two weeks to work with his teammates before training camp opened.
That's why Irsay believes it's only a start.
"I think if you go out and win six games with a rookie quarterback, that's a hell of a year when you're comparing it to Peyton's 3-13 or Cam Newton's 6-10," Irsay said. "Winning 11 games and beating the Texans, who had so much to play for that last week, that was literally like winning a playoff game."
Irsay knows the team still needs more help protecting Luck and more play-makers on defense. And if general manager Ryan Grigson does as well in this year's draft as last year's and spends wisely in free agency — the Colts are projected to be more than $40 million under the cap — Indy could be a significantly stronger club in 2013.
In some ways, all this is familiar to Irsay.
When he walked off the field at Minnesota in the 1997 season finale, Irsay knew he'd be choosing which of the two presumed franchise quarterbacks available, Manning and Ryan Leaf, he would take with the No. 1 pick. He cleared the way by firing general manager Bill Tobin, coach Lindy Infante and trading Jim Harbaugh, known as Captain Comeback, to Baltimore.
Fourteen years later, Irsay walked off the field in Jacksonville in a familiar predicament. Again he had the No. 1 overall pick and again he was choosing between two presumed franchise quarterbacks, Luck and Robert Griffin III. And again he fired his front office leaders, Bill and Chris Polian, and coach Jim Caldwell, and then let Manning go.
Irsay knew then it was the right thing to do — not the easy thing — no matter what anyone else thought.
"It was a year that took a toll on me. It was terribly emotional with Peyton and everything that went on here," Irsay said. "We just realized it was better for him to go to a veteran team that had won a playoff game and it was better for us to try and get a new era started. We both didn't like it. But we knew it was in the best interests of everyone involved.
"It was unfortunate that the chess board shifted. But I felt it was necessary to start again and really have that total change come about. It was no different than 1998."
Irsay pleaded with fans to be patient, reminding them that Manning won only three games as a rookie, made the playoffs in his second season, didn't win a playoff until Year 6 and didn't bring home the Lombardi Trophy until after the 2006 season.
Turns out, the Colts didn't need patience.
They just needed Irsay to make the tough calls and stick to his convictions.
"The way the chess board lined up for us couldn't have been worse as (last) season wound down," Irsay said. "I walked out of that locker room in Jacksonville and it just couldn't have been tougher. So when you look back at this season, you take so much pride in what you were able to do. I am just amazed at what we accomplished."