Think back, if you will, to this past summer.
Imagine had someone approached you and said, “What if I told you the Indianapolis Colts would win 11 games, advance to the playoffs, but lose in a hostile environment in the opening round.”
You would take it, right? Without hesitation, right? You would have to possess a dented soda can for a brain not to after last season’s 2-14 disaster. Right?
It’s human nature for football fans to be downcast the day after their team gets eliminated from postseason competition the way the Colts did Sunday in Baltimore. In this Super-Bowl-or-nothing world in which we reside, anything short of the ultimate road trip gets filed away in the drawer labeled “Disappointing.”
Or so it’s been.
The 2012 Colts will forever be remembered — and revered — for their ability to alter our thinking for the better. A 17-game tap on the shoulder that human well-being is and always will be more important than divisional standings or, worse, how our fantasy football teams might be faring.
The news in September that head coach Chuck Pagano would be attempting to stare down leukemia placed football on a distant back burner. Had these Colts managed to eke out three, four or five victories, the masses would have understood given the emotional weight of such distraction.
Then a strange thing happened. Eleven days after Pagano began his radiation treatments Indianapolis upset Green Bay, 30-27, and awarded their weakened first-year coach the game ball. Then came four wins over the next five weeks capped off by a 5-2 record down the stretch.
For probably the first time, the Indianapolis Colts were America’s Team, a determined smorgasbord of veteran leaders, talented rookies too young to know any better and a revolving door of waiver wire acquisitions trying to learn a playbook on the fly.
Meanwhile, interim coach Bruce Arians at 60 found himself wading ankle-deep in his own fountain of youth.
As the Chuckstrong campaign gained traction, and dollars devoted to leukemia research rolled in, the franchise found admirers in all parts of the country. Even Foxborough, proving once and for all there actually are hearts beneath those Tom Brady and Wes Welker jerseys.
Their coach was getting better. Their team was winning. Who couldn’t be awed or inspired by that?
Anyone who has watched the Colts this season knows Sunday’s 24-9 loss to the Ravens wasn’t anywhere close to being among the team’s finer performances. The offensive line struggled at times trying to keep Luck vertical, while the defense appeared set on making Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco resemble Joe Montana in his prime.
To me, they simply looked out of gas. So much had been poured into getting Indianapolis to the playoffs so that Pagano could coach again this season that the same sharpness simply didn’t exist.
Not to take anything away from Baltimore, but those weren’t the same Colts that last week lowered the Houston Texans from a No. 1 to a No. 3 playoff seed.
Talk is that Arians is now a hot NFL head-coaching prospect, and understandably so. Expect the Colts to do everything in their power short of renaming their stadium after Arians in order to keep him.
With or without Arians, the Colts will field a team in 2013. In all likelihood a pretty good one.
Just know this: 2012 will be one tough act to follow.
Mike Beas is a sports writer for the Daily Journal, a sister paper to The Republic.