RAKE'S TAKE BY GREG RAKESTRAW
The magic carpet ride is over. Some seasons seem to take forever, this one flew by. After unfurling a year that no one could have expected, except for those in the locker room, the Colts season has come to an end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.
Any sense of disappointment in the immediate exit from the playoffs for the most part has already been replaced by a tremendous sense of gratitude and pride for what this team accomplished in the first year under the helm of Chuck Pagano on the field, and Ryan Grigson in the front office. Common locker room attire for Colts players all season long was a simple blue T-shirt, with a white horseshoe. Inside of that shoe were the letters 'BTM.' That stood for 'Build the Monster.' On the back of that shirt was a listing of early season power rankings, with the Colts rated dead last, spot number 32.
The Colts might not have reached that number one spot, but they finished a heckuva lot closer to the top of that list than most anyone expected. I had the chance to be in the locker room the day after the loss in Baltimore, and players were in the process of saying their goodbyes for a few months and cleaning out what had been their home away from home for the last 5-7 months. Players are allowed to work out in the facility, provided they are under contract to the team once the new league year kicks in around late February or early March. There can be no instruction or work with coaches, however, until mid-April under collective bargaining agreement rules. Even the most dedicated player needs some time to heal both mentally and physically after such a grind.
The cardboard box was the popular item of the day, and multiple players were getting footballs and other apparel signed by teammates, knowing they might not set foot in that locker room again.
“It's the business of the NFL,” stated vet safety Antoine Bethea, who just completed his seventh season in blue. “This locker room will never look the same again.”
With that realization, let's now shift our attention to what this team will look like when the team recommences after the NFL draft, and then hits the practice fields in Anderson in late July.
While there won't be the seismic shift on the roster as there was in 2012, nearly half of the active roster were playing on the last year of their deals with the team. The vast majority of players signed one year deals; especially those picked up during training camp, or after the season kicked off.
The obvious headliner to the list is Dwight Freeney, who just finished his 11th season as a member of the Colts. Many fans, including Dwight himself, understand that this might have been his last go round in Indy. Freeney was very reflective over the final two weeks of the regular season, including after the game in Baltimore. He told reporters that no matter what happens this offseason, he'll always consider himself a Colt. While conventional wisdom tells you that Freeney will likely be applying his craft elsewhere next season, that same wisdom last year told you Reggie Wayne was a goner. His return shocked the majority of Colts fans, and his presence on the field and in the locker room was a major catalyst in this surprising season. If Freeney is willing to take a pay cut to finish his days in Indianapolis, he could be back. I'd still consider it unlikely.
The next player in terms of value and familiarity with the fans is the lovable punter that refers to his leg as 'The Boomstick.' Pat McAfee's season should have netted him a Pro Bowl position. McAfee averaged more than 48 yards per boot, and placed over a third of his kicks inside the opponents' 20 yard line. His ratio of times he pinned opposing teams inside the 20 compared to kicks that reached the end zone for a touchback was over three-to-one. A trend that you've seen develop over the last few years to keep specialists on the roster is to use the franchise tag on kickers and punters. That could be used if needed by the Colts, but I'd expect to see McAfee signed to a long term deal. Add the fact that he's the kickoff specialist, and his popularity in the locker room and community, I don't think Pat's going anywhere anytime soon.
The next player in terms of veteran cache to speak of is Jerraud Powers. With his season-ending injury just past the midway point of the year, Powers faded from the spotlight. His play during the first half of the season was not his best. The outstanding play of Vontae Davis over the last four weeks of the season eased the blow to some degree of Powers' absence, and may also spell the end of his tenure in Indy. With the Colts having ample space under the cap to go after top free agents, you've gotta think the starting cornerback opposite of Davis in 2013 is not likely on the roster now. Could Powers be back in a supporting role for less money? Perhaps. But is he likely to get more money elsewhere with a crack at a starting spot? Probably.
The other intriguing free agent is Winston Justice, a guy who was here on a one-year deal. When healthy, he was solid at right tackle. Injuries played a big part at seemingly every spot on the offensive line, and Justice had to deal with a concussion, an arm injury, and barely lasted a quarter in the postseason loss. What can be said about investing in a big name corner likely also applies to a big name veteran tackle. The Colts could spend significant dollars on a tackle, either placing that player on the left side and moving Anthony Castonzo over, or leaving Castonzo put, and putting the vet on the right side. Justice might be a safety net if the Colts don't feel there's an option worth investing major money into in open market. Same applies as Powers, he could be a starter and pick up more cash elsewhere.
The other major change that could happen would be in the coaching staff. For the wonderful job that Bruce Arians did in manning the ship during Chuck Pagano's absence, that served as a great 12-week job audition to be a head coach in the NFL. I don't think going into the year that Bruce had any aspirations of being an NFL head coach. Now the opportunity seems too good to pass up. I've told folks for the last few weeks that I don't think he'd take just any job, but with openings in places with good quarterbacks already on hand in Chicago and San Diego, it might simply be too good to pass up. Arians is invaluable to the Colts and the development of Andrew Luck. But you can't fault the guy for taking a shot at the brass ring.
Those are the key pieces that may or not be back. Here's a list of the players that we all hope will be here for a long time: Luck, Wayne, Ballard, Allen, Fleener, Hilton, Castonzo, Mathis, Bethea, Davis, Redding, Freeman. There are others that I'm leaving off. The core of this team will be here for years. And there's anywhere from $40 to $60 MILLION (depending on how you do the math) to spend to bring in new players to help shore up weaknesses on an 11-5 team.
Don't forget, there are guys like Josh Chapman and Brandon McKinney who never played a down for this team this year. Chapman is a guy that virtually everyone feels will be a steal once he's healthy enough to see the field. These days, simply saying you played a significant role at Alabama is all the resume you need to feel like a sure-fire pro. McKinney is another Baltimore vet who knows the defense and will take up space along the front line next year. And if Ryan Grigson did such a great job in later rounds of the draft this season, what's to say he won't do the same again in 2013.
This team is ridiculously ahead of the curve from where most thought they'd be after 2012. The bar has been raised. Chuck Pagano stated that numerous times during his goodbye press conference last week. The Colts schedule will get tougher as well. They'll travel cross country to play the 49ers and Chargers. They'll host Seattle, not to mention having the Colt-pocalypse by having Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos come to Lucas Oil. The team could be better and not get to 11 wins in 2013. That's just the way things work in the NFL.
But one year removed from falling off a cliff, and cleaning out virtually the entire organization, a playoff team has its quarterback position set for the next decade and has cap space to burn. And their head coach is leukemia free, let's not forget to mention that as well. If 2013 is even half as good as 2012, it'll be another amazing ride.
(Greg Rakestraw is the Indianapolis Colts post-game show host on the Vectren Radio Network and the senior contributor for 1070TheFan.com, covering college sports. And if that is not enough, he is a veteran high school sports commentator for HTSN and the IHSAA Champions Network. Rake’s column appears monthly in the Sports Journal.)