INDIANAPOLIS – Coming off a 1-15 record in 1991, with a prized prospect at quarterback, the top two picks in the NFL Draft but no head coach, Jim Irsay had many options. What he needed was certainty.
Ted Marchibroda offered precisely that, so Irsay – then the Colts’ general manager – brought Marchibroda back for a second run as the head coach, not only to turn around the team but develop Jeff George, the first overall pick in 1990.
The results, however remarkable, were nonetheless predictable.
As he did in 1975, when he guided the Colts to a 10-4 record in his first season after the team went 2-12 the year before, Marchibroda authored another of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history as the Colts went 9-7.
Those two seasons, both of which brought improvements of eight wins, ranked at the time as two of the NFL’s four biggest one-season improvements ever (along with the 1976 Patriots, who improved to 11-3 from 3-11, and the 1988 Bengals, who improved to 12-4 from 4-11).
"The thing about Ted coming in here wasn’t, ‘Maybe he can do this’ or ‘We hope he can do that,’ ” Irsay said at the time. “You don’t wonder if this guy knows what he's talking about because there are decades of proof.”
Though George was hampered by injuries much of the season, the Colts went 6-4 in his 10 starts, and he had three games of at least 300 passing yards.
The draft yielded two players hoped to be cornerstones of the defense for years to come: number one overall pick Steve Emtman, a burly defensive tackle from Washington, and number two pick Quentin Coryatt, an athletic linebacker from Texas A&M. Both players had promising starts to their respective careers but neither would last the season.
Coryatt was lost for the season with a broken bone in his left wrist in Week 7, while Emtman tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 9.
The draft also yielded defensive back Ashley Ambrose in the second round, running back Rodney Culver and defensive tackle Tony McCoy in the fourth, safety Jason Belser in the eighth and linebacker Stephen Grant in the 10th.
With George entrenched at quarterback, the running game needed to be addressed. Eric Dickerson’s productive, yet stormy tenure with the team came to an end in April when he was traded to the Raiders for a pair of draft picks. Albert Bentley, who had offseason knee surgery, was released in the final cut of training camp.
That left the ground game in the hands of a pair of former Notre Dame standouts, Anthony Johnson and Culver, who combined for 913 rushing yards.
George had a solid receiving corps with Reggie Langhorne (65 receptions), Jessie Hester (52) and Bill Brooks (44) along with tight end Kerry Cash (43), and a veteran offensive line anchored by center Ray Donaldson.
The defense was young but talented and turned out to be the strength of the team, with the rookies complementing stalwarts Tony Siragusa, Jon Hand, Chip Banks (nine sacks), Jeff Herrod, Eugene Daniel and Mike Prior (six interceptions).
With punter Rohn Stark and punt returner Clarence Verdin both earning Pro Bowl nods and kicker Dean Biasucci producing three game-winning field goals, special teams were once again an anchor.
These Colts had a knack for thrillers, playing three overtime games (winning two) and ending the season with a five-game win streak, with none of the games decided by more than six points. The defense stood tall in that run, limiting opponents to 49 points (9.8 per game), including its first shutout in four years (6-0 at New England on December 6).
"One of our early goals heading into the season was to get our guys thinking they could win," Marchibroda said as the season came to a close. “We have achieved that to some degree, but I still feel we have a ways to go. We haven’t arrived as a team, but we are working hard and making progress.”
RECAPPING THE 1992 SEASON
Most memorable game: The Colts were 3-3 entering their October 25 game against the 6-0 Dolphins, who looked to be an invincible opponent in Miami. But the Colts stunned Dan Marino and the mighty Dolphins by rallying for a 31-20 win. Verdin sparked the comeback win with an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown to tie the game in the third quarter, and George later directed a 73-yard drive, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run with 1:32 remaining. The verdict was not sealed, however, as Marino drove the Dolphins the Indianapolis seven-yard line before Emtman intercepted a fourth-down pass and raced 90 yards for a touchdown – the longest in NFL history by a defensive lineman – that locked it up. The downside of the victory was a rash of injuries, including a fractured wrist suffered by Coryatt, who missed the rest of the season.
Best seasonal performance: Well-established as one of the most productive kickers in team history, Biasucci came through in the clutch repeatedly in 1992, nailing three game-winning field goals of at least 40 yards – two in overtime and one in the closing seconds of regulation. He hit a 47-yarder in overtime to beat the Jets, 6-3, on October 11, made the 40-yarder to upset the Bills on November 29, and hit a 42-yarder with 49 seconds left to give the Colts a 16-13 victory over Phoenix on December 20. With 72 points, Biasucci accounted for exactly one-third of the team’s total points. He finished the season as the team's all-time leader in field goals made (134), while his percentage of .687 ranked second all-time.
Other individual highlights: There is no telling how good Emtman might have become had he been able to remain healthy but even in playing just nine games, he had a brilliant rookie season. He finished with 49 tackles, three sacks, six quarterback pressures, one forced fumble and of course one memorable interception. … Johnson had a breakthrough in his third season, producing more than 1,000 total yards (592 rushing and 517 receiving) to rank 20th in the league. … Rookie runner Culver racked up a team-high nine touchdowns. … Cash had at least one reception in the final 15 straight games and finished with 43 receptions, most for a Colts tight end since 1972. … Langhorne led the team with 65 receptions. … Herrod led the team in tackles for the fourth straight season with 138. … Belser had three interceptions, most by a Colts rookie since Eugene Daniel’s eight in 1984. … Stark earned his fourth Pro Bowl nomination, ranking third in the NFL with a 44.8 average. … Verdin also was a Pro Bowler after taking two punt returns to the house, the 84-yarder against Miami and a 53-yarder against New England.
Turning point: The Miami upset gave the Colts a 4-3 record but they then fell on hard times, dropping four in a row heading into their November 29 meeting with the Bills, where Marchibroda had served as offensive coordinator before coming to Indianapolis. Surprising the Bills by dropping the no-huddle offense that had been a staple, the Colts rallied from a 13-3 deficit in the fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime. Starting for the second week in a row in place of the injured George, Jack Trudeau marched the Colts 75 yards, with Culver's four-yard run cutting the deficit to 13-10. On the ensuing possession, Tony Stargell intercepted Jim Kelly, setting up Biasucci’s game-tying 23-yard field goal with 1:01 remaining. The Colts won the overtime coin flip and promptly moved 56 yards in eight plays before Biasucci nailed the 40-yard game-winner for a 16-13 decision, the team's second overtime win in three tries. “There were some observers who thought we wouldn’t win again,” Marchibroda said, “so this is awfully nice.” Charles Arbuckle, who had never caught a pass in his career, pulled in nine receptions for 106 yards against Buffalo, the most by a Colts tight end since Raymond Chester in 1977. Trudeau passed for 337 yards. The victory sparked a season-ending run of five consecutive victories for the Colts, none by more than six points.
Significant moment: The signature play of the season was Emtman's interception return in Miami, not only ending the Dolphins’ perfect start but giving the Colts a much-needed lift. The Colts led, 24-20, but Marino appeared to be driving the Dolphins for a game-winning score, pushing the Dolphins to the Indianapolis seven-yard line in the closing seconds. But Emtman snagged his fourth-down attempt and rumbled the distance. “Once I hit the 50, my legs went dead and I didn’t know where I was going and I couldn’t see anything ahead,” Emtman said. “The worst part of the whole thing was when I got to the sideline, they’d already unhooked the oxygen.” Jubilant teammates gave Emtman the business. “Hey Emtman,” yelled Cash across the locker room afterward, “there were 17 seconds left when the ball was snapped and it took you all of that to run 100 yards. That's not speed.” Maybe not, but nobody chased him down.