Andrew Luck hopes to avoid any semblance of a sophomore slump this season and the former No. 1 overall pick has a pretty good chance to keep things on solid ground this week as he leads the Indianapolis Colts in their home opener against the lightly-regarded Oakland Raiders.
A year ago, coming off a 2-14 season that if anything was uglier than the record indicates, the Colts bid farewell to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and a two-time playoff coach in Jim Caldwell.
They were on the verge of starting anew with a rookie passer and a respected but untested sideline boss. Put that all together and, it certainly didn't add up to an 11-5 finish with a playoff berth but that's exactly what the Colts accomplished.
The encore to that figures to be much harder to pull off, though.
Second-year QB Luck and coach Chuck Pagano are back after the former threw for more than 4,000 yards en route to the Pro Bowl, and the latter served as a season-long inspirational touchstone before returning to the sideline for the Week 17 finale and the one-week playoff barometer.
Pagano left the team after a 1-2 start to get treatment for leukemia, then came back for a 28-16 defeat of Houston that clinched the unlikely postseason berth. The Colts lost, 24-9, to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, but Pagano remained in good health throughout the offseason and is focusing on high-end football goals to begin 2013.
His players, meanwhile, see the changes in their leader as a positive in their football approach.
"I don't know what effect his fight with cancer had, but it feels like people here have football in proper perspective," said Matt Hasselbeck, who joined the team in the offseason as Luck's backup. "I think they've almost found that lightning in a bottle that every coach tries to manufacture. It's just sort of legit. What motivates you? What are you doing this for? Around here, we all seem to know."
Pagano and Co. will repeat the journey without Bruce Arians, the offensive coordinator who took over as interim coach and was 9-3 in 12 games. He left the organization in the offseason to take over as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, who parted ways with Ken Whisenhunt.
Arians was replaced by Pep Hamilton, the former offensive coordinator at Stanford University, where, conveniently enough, he called plays for Luck and tight end Coby Fleener.
"It's been great," Luck said. "I'm fortunate not to have to learn a completely new offense. I've got a lot of residual information floating around from Stanford, and it all came back quickly. Just knowing his personality, knowing how to communicate with him, that's almost as important as the football side of things."
For Oakland "just win, baby" has quietly turned into "hey, maybe we can win a few."
Gone is the swagger which once defined the Al Davis era, replaced by an organization trying to find its way. Since general manager Reggie McKenzie took over the job as Raiders' personnel chief back in January of 2012, Oakland's roster has undergone a major makeover.
Of the 90 players assembled for training camp, only 15 were on the Raiders roster dating back to the 2011 season. Additionally, only star kicker Sebastian Janikowski, the longest tenured Raider, has been with the Silver and Black for more than six seasons.
It almost seems like the Raiders have started a "new era" every year or two since their last playoff appearance, the 2002 Super Bowl XXXVII loss to Tampa Bay. The 2013 season figures to be no exception with third-year pro Terrelle Pryor expected to handle starting QB duties.
Former Green Bay and Seattle backup Matt Flynn was supposed to be the man but a poor preseason performance put Pryor into the mix and the Ohio State product took the baton, at least according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"That's my goal, to be a starting quarterback and to lead a team to wins," said Pryor. "I won't stop until it happens. Until it happens and keeps on happening, I'll keep on pushing."
Raiders head coach Dennis Allen remains tight-lipped and won't actually confirm the starter until Sunday, hoping for any competitive advantage he can get.
"I'm sure all of you have your questions on who the starting quarterback is going to be and what we're going to do there," Allen said earlier this week. "I'm really not going to get into that for competitive reasons. We've got a plan. Unless we start out in the wildcat, we're going to have a quarterback out there on the first snap of game, so we'll just leave it at that."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
A year after losing the presumed starting role in Seattle to third-round rookie Russell Wilson, Flynn is now on the wrong end of the Raiders' gig, finishing second to another third-round pick in Pryor.
The decision makes sense because the Raiders don't have the type of talent to compete on a consistent basis so they are going to need some unconventional plays to win games, something Pryor can put together with his freakish athleticism. Flynn, on the other hand, is more of a game manager with minus NFL arm strength.
Indy brings in a revamped front seven featuring new nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin as well as ex-San Francisco defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and former Packers linebacker Erik Walden. The intent is getting more consistency up front and a pass rusher to complement Robert Mathis. Against Oakland, however, it should be all about gap control and making sure the raw Pryor isn't able to make things happen with his legs.
The Colts' defensive backfield features a new cornerback in Greg Toler as well as heavy-hitting safety LaRon Landry. The unit doesn't project to be one of the NFL's best but it should be more than enough to stop a Raiders passing game which features average pass catchers like Denarius Moore and Rod Streater.
Offensively, Indianapolis wants to develop a more consistent running game whether it comes from Vick Ballard, Donald Brown or ex-Giant Ahmad Bradshaw. The intention is to open up play action for Luck and his receivers, Pro-Bowler Reggie Wayne, field-stretcher Darrius Heyward-Bey and ascending second-year player TY Hilton.
Oakland leads its all-time series with the Colts by a slim 7-5 margin and is an impressive 4-1 as the visitor.
Good west coast teams tend to have trouble traveling across the country and playing early afternoon games. The Raiders may be the least talented team in football although Allen is trying to stay optimistic and upbeat.
"I like the players we have on this team," he said. "I like the way they come to work every day. I like their unselfishness. I like the fact that they want to come out to work every day and they want to try to get better. That's what I like about the 2013 Raiders."
Fair enough but that doesn't change the fact that this shapes up as a fairly easy second-season opener for Luck and Pagano.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 27, Raiders 10