INDIANAPOLIS – Shortly before the 1988 season began, Eric Dickerson attempted to lend context to his flourishing NFL career.
“A lot of fans don’t appreciate what I do,” the Colts running back said. “But someday, it will get to the point where they can’t go to the stadium and see Eric Dickerson play on Sunday. That’s when they’ll say, ‘This other guy, he just doesn’t make it look as easy as Eric used to make it look.’ And that is when I think they’ll appreciate the things I did.”
Four months later, Dickerson had provided fans with even more to appreciate as he finished the 1988 season with his fourth rushing title in six years.
But the season also left Dickerson, as well as Colts fans, wanting more. It ended with the 9-7 Indianapolis team hauntingly close to a post-season berth that wound up going to the Cleveland Browns.
“The rushing title is good,” said Dickerson, who finished with 1,659 yards, “but I’d rather go to the playoffs.”
When the Colts looked back at 1988, it was easy to pinpoint where their playoff hopes went awry. They opened the year with a 1-5 record. They couldn’t overcome that getaway, not even with their impressive 8-2 finish.
The good feelings remaining from 1987’s playoff accomplishment – the Colts’ first as Indianapolis residents – dissipated as the team dropped its first three games of 1988. The offense struggled, converting only seven-of-30 third downs in that difficult start. The team lost quarterback Jack Trudeau for the year with a knee injury in the third game at Cleveland.
Rookie quarterback Chris Chandler took over in the fourth game, becoming the NFL’s youngest starter at 22. He played respectably as the Colts beat Miami, 15-13, ending the three-game skid. However, most responsible for the win was kicker Dean Biasucci, who hit five field goals, including two of 50 or more yards.
Chandler retained the starting job. He gained confidence each week. The Colts responded.
On October 17, 1988 – four days after his 23rd birthday – Chandler completed 20-of-33 passes for 246 yards in a 35-31 outcome over Tampa Bay. The Colts started converting third downs, making firsts on nine-of-12 in the game. And the win initiated a push of five straight victories for the Colts.
“He really came of age,” John Becker, the Colts’ offensive coordinator, said about Chandler.
The Colts’ defense awakened one week later in the team’s 16-0 shutout at San Diego. The Chargers never penetrated the Colts’ 25-yard line. Biasucci hit field goals in each of the first three quarters.
“It's a great feeling,” said linebacker Barry Krauss, “because it’s hard as heck to get a goose-egg in this league.”
Against the Chargers, Coach Ron Meyer unveiled the Colts’ newest wrinkle – the wishbone offense. It was just the beginning.
The Colts played on Monday Night Football the next week in what turned out to be a game for the ages. As Indianapolis stunned John Elway and the Denver Broncos, 55-23, in the Hoosier Dome, Dickerson totaled 159 rushing yards with four touchdowns in the game’s first 19 minutes. The Colts led at the half, 45-10, a point total that still stands as the club record for the most points in a half of one game. It was the club’s first Monday Night appearance during its Indianapolis era, and the Halloween Night crowd reveled in the atmosphere. ABC broadcasters Al Michaels, Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf were honored as likenesses of their faces were put on masks and distributed to the sellout crowd. The visual created by the masks was remembered for years, and that night remains a favorite of many long-time Colts fans. Other sporting events have showcased the city to a national audience, and this was the first in an NFL sense.
Again, the wishbone entered into game strategy. Eighteen of the Colts’ 61 offensive plays against Denver were run from the formation, traditionally a college alignment.
By season’s end, the Colts ran 75 plays in the wishbone, totaling 375 yards and eight touchdowns, and the Colts were 5-1 in games when the offense was used. The Colts signed former Washington State and Canadian Football League quarterback Ricky Turner specifically to operate the wishbone, though Hogeboom was enlisted and even defensive back Willie Tullis took a snap, too.
“It’s not the panacea, the cure-all, but it is tough to prepare for and it makes it tough on your opponent,” Meyer said.
When the Colts called, Turner was two years out of football and running a construction company in Washington.
“(It's) sort of like Fantasy Island,” Turner said. “The scope of this situation is really unbelievable.”
However, the wishbone was doing little for Dickerson’s numbers. Defenses started to focus on stopping Dickerson and backup Albert Bentley on the pitch play out of the option offense.
And even in the Colts’ regular offense, Dickerson struggled over a late-season stretch. At one point, he picked up only 244 yards on 80 carries – including 40 attempts of two yards or fewer.
“I just want to win; I don't care how,” Dickerson said. “We can do it with the run game, the pass game or special teams. All that matters is, we keep winning.”
The Colts did just that until a hurtful 34-16 loss to the New York Jets in the 15th game. Indianapolis went into its season-ender against Buffalo with a post-season chance but needed help from elsewhere in the league.
The Colts accomplished their part, beating the Bills, 17-14, at the Hoosier Dome. Hogeboom replaced an injured Chandler and led fourth-quarter scoring drives of 80 and 75 yards. The Hoosier Dome rocked with anticipation.
Still, when the Colts players retired to their locker room, they refused to celebrate until a post-season berth became official. It never happened. Shortly after their win, the Colts got word that Cleveland beat Houston and knocked them out of the playoffs.
Said Dickerson: “When a season ends like this one, with a game like this one, it’s enough to make you want to seek psychological help or something.”
Dickerson played in the Pro Bowl after the season, joining Colts offensive linemen Ray Donaldson and Chris Hinton.
RECAPPING THE 1988 SEASON
Most memorable moment: An easy choice here – the Halloween game against Denver, which marked Indianapolis’ first home appearance on Monday Night Football. Forty-five points in the first half put the Colts in control. Eric Dickerson rushed for 159 yards and four touchdowns before Coach Ron Meyer rested him. “He (Meyer) asked me if I wanted to keep playing and I said no,” Dickerson noted. “I don't like to run up the score on people just to get yards. I felt I had a chance to get 200 yards, but it can come some other day.”
Best seasonal performance No. 1: Eric Dickerson embraced another rushing title, but wide receiver Bill Brooks quietly put together a strong season while connecting mostly with rookie quarterback Chris Chandler. Brooks led the Colts with 54 catches for 867 yards. In his first two NFL seasons in 1986 and 1987, Brooks totaled 65 and 51 receptions while often playing with another young quarterback, Jack Trudeau. A knee injury ended Trudeau’s 1988 season. “Jack and I kind of broke in together and now, with Jack’s injury, it’s Chris and me,” Brooks kidded with the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. “They keep this up, I’m going to start charging a baby-sitting fee.”
Best seasonal performance No. 2: Defensive end Jon Hand had his finest season after being the club’s first pick in the 1986 draft. The 6-7, 300-pound Hand totaled 73 tackles and led the Colts with five sacks. “I just figure no matter where I line up now, I can get to the passer if I keep driving into the backfield,” he said. It was a good year for the Colts’ defensive ends as Donnell Thompson totaled 111 tackles and three sacks.
Turning point: The Tampa Bay game on October 16 represented something of a breakout for Chandler, who completed 20-of-33 passes for 246 yards in a 35-31 victory. The Colts went on to win five straight and eight of 10 to finish. “I think I’m more comfortable now than I was a few weeks ago,” the rookie quarterback said after the victory over the Buccaneers. “I’m making better decisions and I’m making them a little bit quicker than I did before.”
Significant moment: Veteran quarterback Gary Hogeboom dealt with a difficult season and sometimes was even relegated to running the Colts’ scout team offense. But Hogeboom came off the bench to lead touchdown drives of 80 and 75 yards in the club’s rousing season-ending victory over Buffalo. “It was satisfying. It’s been a different kind of year,” Hogeboom said. It marked Hogeboom’s final game in a Colts uniform.