INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts’ 1991 season proved to be a prolonged exercise of dealing with injuries and wrestling with disappointment.
The injury list in 1991 was longer than Head Coach Ron Meyer’s inseam. That, perhaps more than any factor, cost the Colts as they never gained traction and finished 1-15. The team finished, too, with an interim head coach, Rick Venturi, filling in for Meyer after the latter was fired following a September 29 loss at Seattle.
A shortage of offensive firepower hurt the Indianapolis club all season. The Colts totaled just three rushing touchdowns and 10 passing scores. Twice they were shut out. In 11 games, they scored seven or fewer points.
However, for one enjoyable week, the Colts’ offense ratcheted up production in a big way. And it did so without suspended running back Eric Dickerson.
The Colts went on the road and defeated the New York Jets, 28-27, on November 11. The weather, windy and rainy, was miserable. The victory, so long in coming in 1991, left a comforting feeling.
“Beautiful day, just beautiful,” Colts receiver Clarence Verdin told the Indianapolis Star.
Quarterback Jeff George led the triumph, completing 16-of-26 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
The Jets were up 14-0 before George connected with Jessie Hester for a 49-yard score just before halftime. That changed the complexion of the game, and Indianapolis wound up with four touchdowns over a span of 13 minutes, five seconds. Verdin contributed with an 88-yard TD return on the opening kickoff of the second half.
“The beautiful thing about this game,” Venturi said, “was that it was a team effort in every way.”
Added defensive end Donnell Thompson: “This time we were victorious. We can take that plane ride home and know we didn't fall short. We won and that's all that's important.”
Problem was, that early-November victory was the high point in a 1991 season marked by a steady drumbeat of bad news.
It started with nine straight losses. And the infirmary list added its first of numerous big-time contributors when all-purpose back Albert Bentley went down with a season-ending knee injury in the year’s second game at Miami.
“Albert is the heart and soul of our offense,” Meyer said. “He's our most productive player and he's our leader. This is a huge blow. Devastating.”
The Colts scored a league-low 13 points in their first three games. Injuries to starters – especially in the offensive line, including a broken leg for Pro Bowl center Ray Donaldson – continued to pile up. The club’s record dropped to 0-5 with the September 29 defeat at Seattle.
That’s when Meyer and Leon Burtnett, the team's offensive coordinator, were relieved of their duties. Venturi, the defensive coordinator and a member of the Colts' staff since 1982, took over for the final 11 games. He set reachable goals for the team.
“We want to try to get good at a few things, hang our hat on some things, and gain confidence that way,” he said.
But the offensive woes continued, including one stretch of 16 quarters without a touchdown. Dickerson, who was suspended at mid-season for “insubordination and conduct detrimental” to the club, returned to the Colts for a December 1 home game against Cleveland. The Colts lost, 31-0. Dickerson rushed for 117 yards, his only triple-digit game of the season, passing Jim Brown for third on the all-time rushing list.
The Colts lost in overtime the next week at New England and finished the year with losses to AFC East-champion Buffalo and Tampa Bay. Their 1-15 record brought the first overall pick in the 1992 draft, with which they selected defensive lineman Steve Emtman. The Colts also had the second overall selection, which came from Tampa Bay when the Buccaneers traded for quarterback Chris Chandler, and Indianapolis picked linebacker Quentin Coryatt.
After the 1991 season, the Colts hired Ted Marchibroda as head coach. Marchibroda led the team to the AFC Championship Game in 1995.
RECAPPING THE 1991 SEASON
Significant moment: The Colts' lone victory in 1991 came on November 10, a 28-27 outcome over the New York Jets. Quarterback Jeff George passed for 239 yards and three scores. Running back Ken Clark, filling in for a suspended Eric Dickerson, rushed for 50 yards. “It feels good to be up and to see everyone else up,” Clark told the Indianapolis News. “It feels good just to get that first win and feels good to contribute. In this league, it comes down to what teams make the big plays and what teams prevent the big plays. Today we did both.”
Best seasonal performances, Part I: Linebackers Jeff Herrod and Duane Bickett finished one-two in tackles for the 1991 Colts, combining for 285 stops. Their consistency was notable during a difficult year for the club. Bickett also tied for the team lead with 5.0 sacks.
Best seasonal performances, Part II: Defensive end Donnell Thompson also persevered in 1991, turning in a strong performance with 76 tackles and 5.0 sacks. “I try to go out and do my job every week, and do it to the best of my ability” he told the Indianapolis News. “Then, when the game is over, I try to come back the following morning and get ready to do it all over again.” Thompson, 33, retired from the NFL after the 1991 season.
Unsung hero: Linebacker Scott Radecic received little publicity, but that did not bother the Penn State grad. He never shorted his team on effort. Radecic finished third in defensive tackles with 117. The nine-year veteran also led the Colts with 12 stops on special teams.
Turning point: When H-back Albert Bentley suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game, it was a sign of things to come. Following Bentley to an overflowing injured-reserve list were key contributors such as guards Bill Schultz and Randy Dixon, center Ray Donaldson, quarterback Jack Trudeau, safety Mike Prior and H-back Anthony Johnson. With so many lineup changes, the Colts’ progress slowed to a crawl. “I have faces in the huddle,” quarterback Jeff George said, “and don't even know their names.”
Memorable moment: The Colts and Packers were regular combatants before the 1970 NFL Merger. The teams met twice annually most seasons from 1953 until then. Green Bay played a few games each season in Milwaukee rather than at Lambeau Field. All told, the Colts and Packers met 10 times in County Stadium. The final such meeting came in 1991. The Colts dropped a 14-10 decision on November 24 in their final appearance in Milwaukee, leaving the series record at that venue tied, 5-5. It still stands as the last game the Colts played where the bench areas for both teams were located on the same side of the field.