Tough season teaches Colts to temper talk about expectations
ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) The Colts' first training camp practice had a familiar look.
Fans watched quarterback Andrew Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton hook up on the field Wednesday. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis and cornerback Vontae Davis went back to work, and general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano chatted on Anderson University's sun-drenched campus.
But after a lost season in which they faded from Super Bowl contenders to an 8-8 record and out of the playoffs, things don't sound the same.
''Last year we had a lot of expectations coming in and a lot of guys probably didn't know how to answer a lot of those questions,'' inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. ''This is a new year, same (head) coach, some new coaches, but we are going to come in and guys are ready to work and get this year started off the right way.''
The Colts still want to hang a second Super Bowl banner inside Lucas Oil Stadium. But unlike 2015, when they were tabbed as the biggest threat to dethroning the Patriots in the AFC, the offseason discussion about expectations has been much more measured.
From recently established veterans such as Luck and Hilton to those who have been around a bit longer, like Jackson and safety Mike Adams, everyone seems to embrace the concept of keeping the Super Bowl talk mostly private unless they are pressed.
On Tuesday, Luck was asked if he's planning to play the first week of February.
''Yeah, absolutely,'' he said, smiling. ''And win that game.''
It's not that Pagano or anyone else has banned ''Super Bowl'' from the Colts' vocabulary. They've just learned some valuable lessons about coping with others' expectations.
For three years, Luck & Co. made winning look easy.
The rookie quarterback engineered a nine-win improvement in 2012, taking a team projected to be the worst in football to an 11-5 mark and an improbable playoff appearance. In 2013 and 2014, Indy won division crowns with 11-5 records and reached the divisional round of the playoffs the first year and the AFC Championship second. They wound up losing both times at New England.
So the natural assumption entering last season was that another year of experience and what appeared to be a soft schedule would lead to a breakthrough season for Indianapolis.
Instead, Luck took too many hits behind a leaky offensive line and wound up missing nine games. Indy struggled to run the ball, too. Without a consistent second option and a 40-year-old backup quarterback, the Colts watched defenses prevent Hilton from making his usual array of game-breaking plays.
The Colts defense stayed on the field far too long, and the ensuing losses created speculation about whether Pagano and Grigson would return for 2016.
Though both got contract extensions, the struggles forced Colts' players to take a long, hard look at what went wrong.
''Unfortunately, I've been through that story a lot in my career,'' Jackson said. ''For me, when everything was happening, we weren't winning the games that we thought we should've won that is when my expertise came out and I tried to keep guys focused and just stay the course. I think it helped this football team.''
Now, the Colts are trying to turn last year's growing pains to their advantage.
Luck arrived at camp saying he's 100 percent healthy. The emergence of Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett should help free up Hilton. Indy is counting on four draft picks to solidify the offensive line that must keep Luck healthy And they're asking new coordinator Ted Monachino to create a winning defense.
Even the annual slogan, which once was ''Hoist The Lombardi,'' has been tempered to ''For The 'Shoe.''
''Obviously, you listen to the owner of the team and you listen to GM and you listen to the head coach and your teammates,'' Luck said. ''As far as expectations internally, it's been the same since I've been a rookie here. Probably the same since before I was a rookie here. It's you win. This is a winning franchise. You find a way to make the playoffs and give yourself a chance to win the Super Bowl.''
NOTES: Five players left practice early with what the team described as a precautionary move on a warm day in Anderson. Following practice, the Colts said safeties T.J. Green and Winston Guy, offensive lineman Le'Raven Clark, defensive lineman Sterling Bailey and running back Josh Ferguson all made early exits because of cramps. Green was Indy's second-round draft pick and Clark was the Colts' third-round pick. ... Coach Chuck Pagano said he respected the decision running back Tyler Varga made to retire. Varga spent most of last season on injured reserve because of a concussion.
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