INDIANAPOLIS – So many things changed in 1985, some by plan but many by fate.
Start with the head coach. Rod Dowhower, renowned as one of the top passing-game tacticians in the NFL from his years as offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Cardinals, was hired as the second coach in two seasons in Indianapolis. A personable coach who took a vastly different approach than previous Indianapolis mentor Frank Kush, Dowhower was considered a big departure from his predecessor.
Also welcome was the team’s sparkling new complex that opened in August, housing the franchise’s administrative and coaching offices as well as practice facilities. Though it has expanded in the years since, the West 56th Street complex remains the Colts’ home to this day.
Like any coach, Dowhower hoped to build an offense around a consistent group of starters. Quarterback Art Schlichter and running back Curtis Dickey were prominent performers for the club in seasons past. The 1985 season would prove to be different in their cases. Schlichter started for the club in the season opener. A knee injury interrupted the afternoon, and he was replaced by Mike Pagel. Schlichter never would play again. Dickey, who had missed five of the final six games of the 1984 season with a knee problem, had undergone arthroscopic surgery in hopes of bouncing back. He spent the early part of the season on injured reserve. He then appeared in six games, but was released in November and retired the following year after trying to come back with the Browns.
Dowhower and the Colts made the necessary changes. Pagel took over as the starting quarterback, and he eventually started 14 of 16 games. Indianapolis had two newcomers in the backfield. Albert Bentley was acquired from the USFL Oakland Invaders in the Supplemental Draft, and Owen Gill was claimed on waivers from Seattle to augment the running game.
As it turned out, Dowhower’s offense was marked not by a creative passing attack but a powerful running game. Fullback Randy McMillan had the best season of his career with 858 yards, a 4.5 per-carry average and seven touchdowns. George Wonsley rushed for 716 yards and ranked third in the NFL with a 5.2 per-carry average.
The Colts led the AFC and were fifth in the NFL with 2,439 rushing yards but ranked 26th with 2,811 passing yards.
The run proved pivotal to their successes. Five times, they rushed for at least 200 yards and won all five games. And they won big, with the offense averaging 33.0 points with a victory margin of 18.6 points.
As a growing team with a first-year coach, the Colts hung in as tough as they could, but the team did suffer seven double-digit losses among the 11 setbacks during the 5-11 season.
There were other individual highlights. In his second season, Eugene Daniel snagged eight interceptions, tied for second in the NFL and bringing his two-year total to 14. He manned the right corner position after being an eighth-round pick the previous year.
Special teams were productive, as Rohn Stark led the NFL with a 45.9 punting average (one of his three league punting titles), Bentley was seventh in kickoff return average (25.0) and Robbie Martin was sixth in punt-return average (11.1).
RECAPPING THE 1985 SEASON
Most memorable game: The Colts racked up 496 total yards, the team’s most since 1975, and produced six turnovers (four interceptions) in rolling to a 37-10 victory over the Green Bay Packers on October 27 at the Hoosier Dome. Making his second start, wide receiver Wayne Capers caught five passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns and a 20-yard touchdown run on a double reverse. Cornerback Eugene Daniel had three interceptions in the first half and recovered a fumble, setting up the offense for three scores. Daniel called it “the best game I’ve ever played,” while standout Packers receiver James Lofton called it an “All-Pro performance.” Capers and Daniel both were named AFC Players of the Week. Fullback Randy McMillan led the rushing attack with 126 yards and a touchdown as the ground game racked up 230 yards.
Best seasonal performance(s): First-round pick (fifth overall) Duane Bickett was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for his remarkable debut season in which he racked up 141 tackles, six sacks and an interception.
Turning point: What appeared to be a breakout performance against the Packers turned into more of a breakdown. The Colts were 3-5 after their 37-10 victory over Green Bay but could not establish any momentum from that performance, losing their next six in a row. Three of the six losses came at home to division teams.
Significant moment (1): It had happened only two prior times in club history, but it happened again on October 6, when McMillan (112) and Bentley (100) each rushed for 100 yards. The only other times it happened in franchise history was in 1956 (Lenny Moore, 120; Alan Ameche, 108 at Cleveland 11/11) and 1973 (Lydell Mitchell, 133; Don McCauley, 109 vs. New Orleans 9/30).
Significant moment (2): Dickey's career with the Colts came to an end when he was released after a November 24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Bothered by a knee injury that caused him to miss five of the final six games of the 1984 season and limited him to just two appearances that yielded 34 rushing yards on nine carries in 1985, Dickey signed with Cleveland but could not regain his health and retired in 1986. Dickey was a prolific running back in six seasons with the Colts, racking up nearly 4,000 rushing and receiving yards and 34 touchdowns.
Significant moment (3): Schlichter's NFL career came to an end on October 7 when he was cut by the Colts. The roster move brought an end to his career with the club after he was the fourth overall pick in the 1982 draft.
Significant moment (4): Actually the final two games, victories at Tampa Bay on December 15 and versus Houston on December 22 were noteworthy as the club rushed for 257 and 299 yards, respectively. These were the fourth and fifth outings of the season where the club rushed for more than 200 yards. McMillan performed at his steady pace, while Bentley showed flashes in both contests that previewed what was to come with him in later seasons.