Dec 16, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts safety Julian Blackmon (32) celebrates his interception with teammates in the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Four reasons why the Indianapolis Colts are contenders

Since Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, hired Shane Steichen as the head coach, the team has faced many challenges. However, under Steichen’s leadership, the Colts have responded well to the adversity and are currently in contention for the division title.

This impressive performance has also put Steichen in the running for the NFL Coach of the Year award. A prestigious award voted on by the Associated Press. Here are four key reasons why Indianapolis is a contender as we head into the business end of the NFL season.

Four reasons why the Colts are contenders this season

The coaching setup

After Steichen was hired from the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, some people thought it was a repetition of the Frank Reich experiment. They thought this because he came from the same role after Josh McDaniels withdrew from the Colts head coaching job in 2018. At least this time, Steichen could bring in his coaches rather than work with those hired for someone else like Reich did.

During the pre-season, it was evident that the Colts were facing several challenges. The team’s star running back had expressed his unwillingness to play for the team and the fans were disappointed with their decision to draft the No. 3 ranked quarterback instead of the two that were selected ahead of him. The coach was in his rookie year and was untested, there were no significant free-agent signings and the city of Indianapolis did not associate any culture with the team. As a result, the team’s prospects at the beginning of the season were not very promising. In fact, they were faced with nothing but adversity.

One of the true marks of a great coach is the ability to galvanise a team through adversity and Steichen has done that from day one. Due to his work with Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia, it didn’t take fans long to see and appreciate what Steichen could potentially do with top draft pick Anthony Richardson. It also showed how Richardson could be a better fit than C.J Stroud or Bryce Young in the offensive system despite them being drafted ahead of him.

Unfortunately, Richardson was lost for the season early, but when Steichen came to Indianapolis from Philadelphia, he brought with him a quarterback who knew the offense. That quarterback was backup Gardner Minshew. Minshew has won everywhere he’s played and because of Minshew’s knowledge of the system and its terminology. As the season has progressed, everyone has rallied around each other and bought into the same goal. It’s obvious the great culture that was lost has now returned to the Colts.

Assistant Coaches

Steichen’s expertise lies in the offensive side of the ball, and it was great that he had the opportunity to assemble his offensive staff. One notable addition is offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Credit should also be given to offensive line coach Tony Sparano Jr. for coaching the talented offensive line to such a high level once again. Additionally, former Colts great and future Hall of Fame receiver, Reggie Wayne, has done an exceptional job with the wide receiver group in just his third season as a coach. The young and talented group led by Michael Pittman Jr has been outstanding.

This current coaching staff has incredible experience in all aspects of coaching in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has 34 years of coaching experience and has the likes of defensive backs coach Ron Milus and linebackers/run game coach Richard Smith on the defensive staff. It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do with a defensive unit that has been playing well above its overall talent level all season.

Special teams coordinator Brian Mason came to the Indianapolis this season from 13 previous seasons coaching in the NCAA. Last season, he excelled at Notre Dame and hasn’t missed a beat on his jump up to the professional game.

General Manager Chris Ballard

Since being hired in 2017, General Manager Chris Ballard has done an excellent job building the Colts’ roster, which is one of the main reasons they are now contenders. Since his first season, he’s implemented a standard and criteria that every player has to meet before becoming a member of the Colts family. This has paid dividends when you look at the quality of character and talent on the roster today.

In his 22 years of experience in the NFL, Ballard has worked with three teams. He began as an area scout with the Chicago Bears in 2001 and worked his way up to become the Director of Scouting in 2012. In 2013, he was hired by the Chiefs to serve as the director of player personnel. He held this position until 2017, when he was appointed as the General Manager. Since then, he has emerged as one of the finest executives in the NFL.

Free agency

Since his appointment in 2017, Ballard has primarily built the current roster through the draft. However, some key players on the team were acquired in free agency or through trade. One of Ballard’s earliest and most significant free agent signings was defensive back Kenny Moore. Moore was picked up off waivers in 2017 after being cut by the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. Since then, he has proven to be a phenomenal addition and an essential player on the current roster.

Another key acquisition outside of the draft was defensive tackle Deforest Buckner. Buckner was acquired via trade with San Francisco in 2020 in exchange for a first round draft pick. Many thought it was a mistake to give up a first-round draft pick at the time, but the value was there and it’s more than paid off with Buckner’s elite play.

The most effective free agents on this current roster acquired by Ballard recently are  Minshew and running back Zach Moss. Both Moss and Minshew were expected to be viable backups at their positions coming into the season, but both have been key contributors to the team’s success. With Minshew playing for Steichen in Philadelphia, it was always an option for him to start knowing he’d be comfortable in this system.

There was a strong possibility that Minshew would be the starting quarterback on the first day of the season while top draft pick Richardson familiarized himself with the league. However, he has displayed so much potential during the pre-season that he earned the opportunity to start on opening day. Now, it is apparent that Minshew has developed into a starting quarterback and a mature team leader. He will likely have the chance to start somewhere next season. However, this will depend on how this season plays out, as ‘Minshew Mania’ is very much alive and well in Indianapolis today.

The draft

Of all the General Managers in the NFL, Ballard is at the top regarding getting value through the college draft system. On the current depth chart, all but five starters were acquired through the draft. One of those five is kicker Matt Gay. On offense, Minshew is the only player whom the Colts did not draft. On the defensive side of the ball, only Buckner, Moore and defensive end Samson Ebukam were acquired outside of the draft.

Since Ballard arrived in 2017, the Colts have had impressive draft results. Many of his late-round picks have become quality starters, with a few playing at a Pro Bowl level this season. In his first draft, he acquired defensive tackle Grover Stewart in the fourth round. In 2018, he acquired starting linebacker and league-leading tackler Zaire Franklin in the seventh round. In 2019, he acquired starting linebacker E.J. Speed in the fifth round and in 2021, he acquired starting right guard Will Fries in the seventh round. Both seventh round picks in 2022 and 2023 are starting defensive backs, with Rodney Thomas at safety and rookie Jaylon Jones starting at cornerback.

Every starter on the offensive line except perennial All-Pro guard Quentin Nelson was drafted after the first round and none of the skill players on the offensive side of the ball were first round picks. On defense, every starter except defensive end Kwity Paye and Buckner were drafted after the first round.

Most of the team’s value has came in the second and third rounds, with every starter playing well above their projected value and making the team a genuine contender this season. The elite production out of draft picks like Jonathan TaylorJulian Blackmon and Michael Pittman Jr is so impressive. With the likes of Josh Downs playing at such a high level in his rookie year, it’s promising that the method is working well as the draft is certainly the best way to build a contender in such a parity driven league.

So much of Ballard’s drafting success has to be given to the college scouts with whom he’s in constant contact and works so well because of his own experience as a scout.

How far can Minshew Mania take the Colts this season?

With a three-way tie at 8-6 in the AFC South among the Colts, Jaguars, and Texans, the Colts are currently in the seventh seed if the season ended today.

With only three weeks remaining in the regular season, Indianapolis will face the Atlanta Falcons on Christmas Eve, followed by a matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders in week 17, before concluding with a divisional game against the Houston Texans.

The most impressive thing for me is how well the offensive line is playing. They dominated against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week as both the 3rd and 4th string running backs made great yardage in the running game. If Nelson can anchor them and give Minshew the threat of the play-action pass, then the Colts can potentially go far into the playoffs.

There are standouts and leaders at every position group on the defensive side of the ball. This is a sign of a good defensive unit and the return of Stewart at defensive tackle will be huge for them over the next few weeks.

An area of concern is the inexperience at cornerback with two rookies in Juju Brants and Jones starting but with a successful pass-rush, they can continue to hold up behind. The back end is held up by Moore, who is a top nickel back in the league and safety Julian Blackmon continues to play at such a high level.

It’s so impressive how this team has come together in the face of so much adversity and with Steichen’s attention to detail and faith in his coaching staff, the future is looking very bright in Indianapolis.

Main Image: © Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

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