INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts’ season in 1989 came down to the final game at New Orleans. A victory would deliver the Indianapolis team to the playoffs. A loss would result in an 8-8 record and no post-season appearance.
The Colts fell, 41-6, in a game that Coach Ron Meyer described as deceiving if judged only by the final score.
“Everybody will look at the scoreboard and say, ‘Well, you got slaughtered.’ I don't see that at all,” Meyer said minutes after the loss to the Saints on Christmas Eve day. “The game ebbs and flows. Everything rolled their way.”
Ebbs and flows. That’s an idiom that also summed up the Colts’ year-long performance in 1989.
The Colts’ ups and downs started with a 4-0 record in the preseason, the only unbeaten mark in the NFL. Then the regular season began with two straight losses followed by three consecutive wins. Three more losses in a row at mid-season preceded a comeback of four wins in five weeks, setting the stage for the all-important season-ender.
There were reasons for the ebbs and flows of 1989. The Colts faced the toughest schedule in the NFL. They lost their starting quarterback, Chris Chandler, with a serious knee injury in the third game. Running back Eric Dickerson battled a sore hamstring much of the season, even sitting out one game during the three-game skid at mid-season.
On the upside, veterans such as offensive tackle Chris Hinton and defensive end Jon Hand turned in strong seasonal performances. Young players such as linebacker Jeff Herrod, who was a ninth-round draft pick in 1988, and safety Keith Taylor, who had been cut by the Saints, emerged to have surprisingly good seasons.
“I don’t think you can point the finger at any particular area as to why we were successful or why we weren’t,” Meyer said at his season-ending news conference. “Collectively, we were not good enough as a team.”
The Colts opened the 1989 season with a 30-24 home loss to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. Then came a 31-17 road defeat to the Los Angeles Rams in Dickerson’s first meeting with the team that traded him to the Colts in 1987.
Afterward, Dickerson, who rushed for 116 yards, was content to see the much-hyped game in his rear-view mirror.
“This was the longest week of my life. I can’t tell you how glad I am that it’s over,” he said. “I enjoyed seeing some of my old teammates, but for the most part I’m looking forward to going home to Indy.”
Rams quarterback Jim Everett, a former Purdue star, completed 28-of-35 passes for 368 yards and three touchdowns. He got a handshake for his impressive performance from Leon Burtnett, the Colts’ running backs coach who was Everett’s head coach with the Boilermakers. Rams receiver Henry Ellard caught 12 passes for 230 yards and three scores.
Then came the Colts’ three-game winning streak, but it started in unsettling fashion when Chandler went down with his season-ending injury against Atlanta. The Colts beat the Falcons, 13-9, with Jack Trudeau finishing game, and went on to topple the New York Jets, 17-10, and Buffalo, 37-14.
The Indianapolis defense rose to the occasion, giving up only two touchdowns in the three-game run. Linebackers Duane Bickett and Fredd Young, dubbed the “Smother Brothers” in an Indianapolis News headline, led the push.
After a loss at Denver and a victory at Cincinnati, the Colts’ fortunes took a downward turn. Consecutive defeats to New England, Miami and Buffalo – all teams from the Colts’ AFC East Division – exacted a toll.
Before the game against Buffalo, Meyer said his team had a “steep hill to climb” in the divisional race. After the club’s loss to the Bills, the coach said that hill “looks like Mt. Everest now.”
The Colts righted the ship for a pair of wins at home, starting with a 27-10 triumph over the Jets on national television. One week later against San Diego, Trudeau hit Bill Brooks with a 25-yard scoring pass in the final two minutes that resulted in a 10-6 victory.
A loss to New England in the 13th game left the Colts with a 6-7 record. Indianapolis knew it had to win its last three to make the playoffs.
Safety Mike Prior returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown to beat Cleveland in overtime in the 14th game. The Colts thumped Miami, 42-13, in the 15th game.
Then came the disappointing trip to play the Saints and the not-so-merry Christmas that followed.
“I wish it could have ended here three or four weeks from now in the Super Bowl, but it just wasn't meant to be,” Hinton told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in the Colts’ locker room at the Louisiana Superdome.
Hinton, Dickerson and center Ray Donaldson made the Pro Bowl after the 1989 season. The Pro Bowl for Hinton was his sixth but would be his last wearing a Colts helmet. He was traded to Atlanta in the offseason in a deal that brought Indianapolis the 1990 draft’s number one pick, with which the team selected hometown quarterback Jeff George.
RECAPPING THE 1989 SEASON
Most memorable moment: Following a longstanding tradition at NFL training camps, Colts veterans demanded that rookie Andre Rison sing for his dinner one night. But instead of belting out his college fight song, as most rookies do, the Michigan State receiver performed a rap song that he wrote with his wife. Rison, fiery and brash, went on to catch 52 passes for 820 yards and four touchdowns in 1989. He departed Indianapolis for Atlanta after one season in the trade that delivered Jeff George to the Colts.
Best seasonal performances: Linebacker Jeff Herrod, a ninth-round pick in the 1988 draft, led the Colts with 152 tackles. Safety Keith Taylor, who once was out of football after being waived by New Orleans, intercepted seven passes leading to 225 return yards and a touchdown. Before 1989, Taylor was best known as the younger brother of John Taylor, a Super Bowl hero for the San Francisco 49ers.
Most surprising performance: Defensive end Ezra Johnson was called “the old man” and “Pops” by his Colts teammates, but he recorded 8.5 sacks in 1989, second only to Jon Hand’s 10. A note about the pass-rushing specialist in a team public-relations release said: “Johnson, the operator of a fried chicken outlet in Shreveport, La., is the Colts' 'spring chicken' at 33.”
Turning point: The Colts dropped three games in a row at mid-season, all to teams in their AFC East Division. Running back Eric Dickerson, who finished the year with 1,311 rushing yards, was hampered during that hurtful stretch with an injured hamstring.
Significant or interesting moments: The significant moment would have to be the final game at New Orleans, where the Colts lost and yielded their opportunity to make the playoffs. On a lighter side, an interesting moment surfaced with the midseason signing of 38-year-old quarterback Don Strock, a veteran of 15 NFL seasons. According to the Indianapolis News, Strock described himself as “an old dog” who might be able to help the team’s other quarterbacks learn new tricks. Strock never threw a pass in 1989, his only Colts season and last as an NFL player.