INDIANAPOLIS – In 1984, the Colts fielded the youngest team in the NFL, averaging 24.5 years of age and 1.9 years of experience per player.
Oftentimes, the youthfulness showed.
The 1984 season, the Colts’ first in Indianapolis, started with high hopes and aspirations but ended with a 4-12 record and an interim head coach. Yet at its conclusion, after injuries in the line hampered the offense and yielding big plays hurt the defense, Colts owner Robert Irsay thanked the Indy fans who packed the Hoosier Dome all season.
“I appreciate the way people here took the fact we didn’t have a real good record,” Irsay told the Indianapolis News. “The last game here, the people were saying, ‘Stick with it, Bob. We’re with you.’ ”
The Colts opened training camp at Anderson, Ind., in the summer of 1984 riding a wave of excitement following their move from Baltimore. The team lost its preseason opener at Miami to a powerhouse Dolphins team but came back a week later to beat the New York Giants in their first preseason game in the Hoosier Dome.
Indianapolis fans were buzzing over the win, though it was only August.
It didn’t hurt local interest, either, that Art Schlichter emerged from the game as something of a hero.
Schlichter, who was coming off a gambling suspension, hit 5-of-8 passes for 95 yards and directed the Colts to two touchdowns and a field goal in the second half. The Hoosier Dome spectators instantly embraced the former Ohio State quarterback, whom they had watched win many Big Ten games over Purdue and Indiana.
However, Head Coach Frank Kush was not convinced. And that preseason game proved to be the beginning of a season-long drama at the quarterback position as Kush wavered between Schlichter and Mike Pagel, with former Purdue star Mark Herrmann also entering the mix.
The Colts returned from camp in Anderson and moved into their temporary Indianapolis headquarters, a former elementary school. They held team meetings in old classrooms, and many of the amenities throughout the structure were equipped for young students.
But the players did not mind. They were happy to have a fresh start in Indianapolis.
The Colts opened the regular season with a home loss to the New York Jets. They won at Houston the following week, but would falter twice more.
Then, on September 30, came the first regular-season win in the Hoosier Dome. Fullback Randy McMillan rushed for 114 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the club’s 31-17 victory over Buffalo.
The Colts also saved the season’s most exciting win for the home crowd. It came on October 21, and Pagel, not always the favorite of Indianapolis fans, was called off the bench to engineer it. The team’s rallying triumph over Pittsburgh on that day would be etched into fans’ memories for many years to come.
With the Colts trailing 16-10 with 1:35 left after Pagel led drives producing a field goal and a touchdown, the Indianapolis quarterback aimed a pass at receiver Bernard Henry, his old Arizona State teammate. Pittsburgh cornerback Sam Washington, in tight coverage, deflected the ball. It popped into the hands of Colts receiver Ray Butler, who went 54 yards for the game-winning score.
“That’s the ol’ ricochet play,” Pagel said. “Haven’t you heard of that?”
The Colts won only one more time in their final eight games. They lost their last five in a row, including the final home game to Miami, 35-17, as Dan Marino completed 29-of-41 passes for 404 yards. Miami, 14-2, won the AFC East Division in 1984 as the Colts finished fourth.
The Colts placed nobody in the Pro Bowl following the 1984 season. Chris Hinton, who made the all-star game as a rookie offensive lineman in 1983, spent much of 1984 on injured reserve after suffering a fractured leg. His injury was one of many in the offensive front.
Cornerback Leonard Coleman, who was the Colts’ top draft pick, did not reach contract agreement with the club and never suited up for the 1984 team. He signed with the USFL before joining the Colts in 1985.
Kush himself left for the USFL, departing Indianapolis with one game remaining in 1984 to coach the Arizona Wranglers. His three-year record with the Colts was 11-28-1.
Offensive line coach Hal Hunter took over for Kush in the 1984 finale, which Indianapolis lost, 16-10, at New England.
“I enjoyed it,” Hunter said about his only game as an NFL head coach. “It was just nice attending the dance.”
RECAPPING THE 1984 SEASON
Most memorable moment: Ray Butler hauled in Mike Pagel’s 54-yard, deflected pass for a touchdown that defeated Pittsburgh, 17-16, on October 21. A sell-out crowd in the Hoosier Dome screamed its tonsils out. Colts Head Coach Frank Kush called it “serendipity.” A headline the next day in the Indianapolis Star blared, “Verdict: The Butler did it.”
Best seasonal performance: Linebacker Johnie Cooks divulged his plan in the 1984 training camp. “I made up my mind in January that if I was ever going to be anything in this league, I had better start now. I have myself mentally ready, and I’m determined to do well this year,” the 1982 first-round draftee said. Cooks went on to lead the Colts with 11.5 sacks from his outside linebacker position. He also totaled 54 tackles and two forced fumbles.
Turning point: The Colts struggled all season to jump-start their club. When the offense played well, the defense struggled – and vice versa. But one game, in particular, left the team and its fans in a funk. On September 16, after an exciting all-around effort by the Colts, a 46-yard field goal by St. Louis’ Neil O'Donoghue with seven seconds remaining beat the home team, 34-33.
Significant moment No. 1: Cornerback Eugene Daniel, a rookie and eighth-round draft pick from LSU, was inserted into the starting lineup two weeks into the preseason. It proved to be a good move by Kush. Daniel wound up intercepting a team-high six passes in 1984. He remained a starter for 13 seasons before departing Indianapolis with 35 interceptions. He played in 196 career games for the Colts, ending his career with then the second-highest number of appearances, behind only Hall-of-Fame QB-John Unitas. QB-Peyton Manning eventually exceeded Daniel’s total, then snapped the club’s overall mark.
Significant moment No. 2: Fullback Randy McMillan typically was overshadowed by Curtis Dickey, the more famous of the two backs in the Colts’ two-back set. But McMillan commanded the spotlight on September 30, when he rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns in the Colts’ 31-17 victory over Buffalo in the Hoosier Dome. It marked the Colts’ first home victory as residents of Indianapolis.