INDIANAPOLIS – Though an extremely challenging schedule loomed in 1986, there were several reasons for optimism heading into Rod Dowhower's second season as head coach.
The biggest was the presence of Gary Hogeboom, who had been acquired from Dallas. The veteran quarterback brought a big arm, a track record of success with the Cowboys and strong leadership skills to the Colts.
The draft yielded three premier talents in defensive end Jon Hand of Alabama, quarterback Jack Trudeau of Illinois (who was selected with the pick the Colts got from Dallas in the Hogeboom trade) and wide receiver Bill Brooks of Boston University.
As the season opened, 31 of the 45 players on the roster had been acquired since the franchise moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
They were still one of the youngest teams in the league.
“All of our experience is in the front line (starters),” Dowhower said before the season began. “If something happens to our front line, you’re going to see some youngsters grow up in a hurry.”
Dowhower proved prescient when Hogeboom suffered a separated shoulder in the second game of the season, thrusting Trudeau into the starting lineup. Though the rookie from Illinois performed admirably under the circumstances, passing for 2,225 yards and eight touchdowns, the Colts’ offense struggled.
The running game that had been dominant the year before lost traction and produced nearly 1,000 fewer yards as its per-carry average slipped from 5.0 to 3.7. And the defense, despite the presence of linebackers Duane Bickett, Johnie Cooks and Cliff Odom, defensive end Hand and cornerbacks Eugene Daniel and Leonard Coleman, also had some growing pains.
After dropping their first five games by an average deficit of 21.4 points, the Colts nearly snapped the streak on October 12 against New Orleans.
The Colts rallied from a 17-0 deficit behind Coleman, who had three interceptions, and Trudeau, who passed for 315 yards including a paid of second-half touchdowns to Matt Bouza.
Trudeau drove the Colts from their own 36 deep into Saints territory in the closing minutes but tight end Mark Boyer fumbled after a reception at the New Orleans 12-yard line and the Saints escaped.
Another close outcome came October 26 against Miami. Indianapolis trailed by 10 points just prior to halftime and cut the margin to four midway through the final period. A Miami turnover at its 45-yard line with 3:37 to go gave the Colts a last chance. Trudeau guided the club to the 22 before throwing three incompletions. His fourth-down attempt was gathered in by running back Owen Gill who was tripped up from behind after an eight-yard gain. He had only open field in front of him. Miami held on, 17-13.
When the losing streak reached 13 with a 17-3 loss to San Diego on November 30, it prompted a coaching change.
Former Patriots mentor Ron Meyer replaced Dowhower. Meyer, who earned NFL Coach of the Year honors with New England in 1982, was a much more forceful personality and brought an infusion of energy, confidence and personality.
With Hogeboom's return coinciding with Meyer’s hiring, the Colts produced a remarkable turnaround, winning their final three games including two on the road. With Hogeboom flashing his strong-armed ability, the offense averaged 27.3 points in the final three games after scoring no more than 21 in the first 13.
After stunning the Falcons, 28-23, with a miracle finish in Meyer’s debut, the Colts topped Buffalo, 24-14, as Hogeboom passed for 318 yards and two touchdowns.
They followed that up by rallying from a 17-3 deficit for a 30-24 victory over the Raiders as Hogeboom passed for 240 and two more scores and Albert Bentley erupted for 162 rushing yards, including a 70-yard touchdown. Tackle Harvey Armstrong had a big game, defensively, recovering two fumbles and forcing another.
RECAPPING THE 1986 SEASON
Most memorable game: With a 14th consecutive loss just moments away, Tate Randle etched his name in franchise lore and helped spark a turnaround in Meyer’s first game as head coach. With Atlanta leading 23-21 late in the fourth quarter, Randle blocked Rick Donnelly’s punt and Eugene Daniel picked up the loose ball and returned it 13 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left to give the Colts a stunning 28-23 upset of the Falcons on December 7. The Falcons threatened a miracle finish of their own as Turk Schonert completed two long passes to the Colts’ 12-yard line but his final attempt was incomplete and time expired.
Best seasonal performance: Rookie wide receiver Bill Brooks, a fourth-round pick from Boston University, burst onto the scene and had an immediate impact on the passing game. He pulled in 65 passes for 1,131 yards (a 17.4 per-catch average) and broke John Mackey’s team rookie record with eight receiving touchdowns. At the time, he was just the third Colts receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season (following Raymond Berry and Roger Carr). His consecutive 100-yard games (177 against the Jets on November 16 and 105 against the Oilers on November 23) were the first for a Colts receiver since Jimmy Orr in 1969. His yardage total was the third-highest in NFL history for a rookie.
Other individual highlights: Bentley continued to emerge in his second season, rushing for 351 yards and catching 25 passes for 230 yards, contributing a 21.5 average on 32 kickoff returns. His average of 9.8 yards per touch ranked second in the NFL and his 70-yard scoring scamper against the Raiders was the third-longest in the league. Bouza had a team-high 71 receptions and five touchdowns, while Leonard Coleman produced four interceptions and Duane Bickett had six sacks, one more than Hand, who opened his NFL career with five. Left tackle Chris Hinton earned his third Pro Bowl selection, punter Rohn Stark his second, while center Ray Donaldson made his first appearance.
Turning point: Though a number of factors, including a string of ill-timed injuries to key players, made for extremely challenging circumstances for Rod Dowhower, the arrival of Meyer helped spark a turnaround. The Colts won their final three games of 1986. They went on to reach the playoffs the following season.
Significant moment: Hogeboom was lost for an extended time in the second game against Miami at the end of what otherwise would have been a highlight play. After scooping up a fumble by Bentley, Hogeboom raced 50 yards but rather than step out of bounds opted to try to challenge Dolphins safety Lyle Blackwood, who slammed the quarterback to the ground. The hit resulted in a separated right shoulder that would require surgery. After the game, Hogeboom said, “Hey, I’m hurt and I should have stepped out of bounds. It’s hard to undo the situation. I guess I’ve learned for the year.” Though it was originally feared Hogeboom would miss the rest of the season, he returned for the final three games.