INDIANAPOLIS – The 1996 season got started quickly after the conclusion of the previous campaign. Within a month of nearly reaching the Super Bowl, Indianapolis had a new head coach. Change came abruptly. It came from within. Another key component left the coaching staff for an NFL head coaching position, and the man who guided the Colts to lofty heights in 1995 became the new head coach in Baltimore. It was a period of significant change for the Horseshoes.
By early February, Ted Marchibroda was engaged in contract talks with the Colts. Vice President and Director of Football Operations Bill Tobin offered a deal that did not meet Marchibroda’s aspirations. After a brief period of discussion, the offer was withdrawn. What resulted was Marchibroda becoming the head coach of the newly-born Baltimore Ravens, the city where he debuted as the Colts’ head coach in 1975. Indianapolis defensive coordinator Vince Tobin left the club to become the field leader of the Arizona Cardinals. Bill Tobin, Vince’s brother, named Lindy Infante as the Colts’ new head coach. Infante had served the prior two seasons as the club’s offensive coordinator, a period of time when the team achieved solid on-field success. The shuffling was a dramatic period for the organization, and it underscored again how quickly things can change in the NFL.
As the team assembled for the first off-season workout four months to the day after it had battled in Pittsburgh for a Super Bowl berth, the leadership was clear, the charge was the same and most of the cast of characters returned.
Infante, a gifted strategist, prepared his team to make a second consecutive playoff run. The Colts had not made consecutive playoff appearances since a three-year run under Marchibroda from 1975-77. Marchibroda had a talented Bert Jones under center then. Infante directed the club with Jim Harbaugh under center, now his third season with the club.
Adding talent in the draft with the selection of wide receiver Marvin Harrison, the Colts zipped to four season-opening victories. The start made Infante the first Colts head coach to win his initial four games, and it marked then only the third time in club history (1958, 1967) the Colts were the NFL’s last unbeaten team. Among the season-opening wins, the Colts beat the Tobin-led Cardinals as Harrison scored his first career touchdown, won at the Jets in a game halted for 32 minutes in the fourth quarter by weather conditions, rallied for a compelling 25-24 win at Dallas after erasing an 18-point deficit and surviving a 57-yard field goal attempt that hit the crossbar as time expired and defeated Miami in the team’s first Monday Night appearance in four years.
The club suffered its first defeat at Buffalo in a difficult defensive battle that included 23 punts and nine sacks, with the winning score in the 16-13 bout coming 5:38 into overtime.
The week following that, Indianapolis hosted Baltimore and Marchibroda. The coaching situation for the contest played second-billing to the first meeting of the Colts and a Baltimore NFL team. Indianapolis emerged from the fray 26-21 victors.
With injuries mounting, Indianapolis dropped four straight games before topping the Jets in the RCA Dome on November 17, 34-29. The contest featured 13 scores, eight turnovers, six lead changes and four two-point conversion attempts. Both teams scored eight points in the fourth quarter, with the Colts scoring the final eight on a sack-safety and two field goals.
After a loss at New England, Indianapolis rallied with three straight wins. The Colts beat Buffalo in overtime, 13-10, marking the first time in team history and only the second time in NFL history two teams played two overtime games against each other in one season. Indianapolis then produced a rousing 37-10 victory over visiting Philadelphia before a national audience. Without an injured Harbaugh and back-up Paul Justin (who was felled in the third quarter), quarterback Kerwin Bell directed the Indianapolis offense in the second half. Marshall Faulk (101 rushing) and Harrison (106 receiving) topped 100 yards in their respective categories, and Indianapolis pirated three passes, including a 35-yard scoring return by defensive back Jason Belser. Bell tossed a scoring pass to Harrison, and it marked Bell’s first-ever NFL career appearance after being a Miami draft pick in 1988. The Colts then invaded Kansas City for the first time since their Divisional Playoffs win the previous season, and the club again earned a victory, 24-19. Harrison helped lead with way with three-, 37- and five-yard scoring receptions, the first of nine three-TD performances he would post during his remarkable career.
A week 16 loss at Cincinnati, 31-24, kept the Colts from their first 10-win season since 1977, and it cost Indianapolis from hosting a playoff game. The Colts ventured to Pittsburgh for the second time in 50 weeks to meet the Steelers in a playoff game. After dropping the AFC title tilt there on January 14, 1996, Indianapolis fell again on December 29, 42-14. A compelling season had come to a close.
RECAPPING THE 1996 SEASON
Most memorable moment: The third step in opening 4-0 came in outstanding fashion as the Colts rebounded from a 21-3 first-half deficit to win, 25-24, at Dallas, the defending Super Bowl champions. The Colts opened the game on a 16-play, 66-yard march that consumed 10:05 before kicking a field goal. Dallas countered with three touchdowns before K-Cary Blanchard added 25- and 52-yard boots to end the first half. Tight end Marcus Pollard broke a series of tackles on his first career reception to score on a 48t play early in the third period. After the Colts grabbed a 22-21 lead late in the third quarter, Dallas kicker Chris Boniol hit from 52 yards to give the Cowboys a 24-22 lead early in the final quarter. Blanchard, who once played in Texas Stadium in high school, added a fourth field goal from 43 yards out with :51 remaining. Boniol’s 57-yard effort at the gun hit the crossbar and bounced back as the Colts won. It was a memorable moment for Blanchard, who would boot 36 field goals on the season, then the second-highest seasonal NFL total and now the second-highest seasonal Colts total.
Best seasonal performance: Though Jim Harbaugh threw for 2,630 yards and 13 touchdowns and Marvin Harrison was 64-836, 8 TDs receiving, including the first of nine career three-TD games, Cary Blanchard connected on 36-of-40 field goals and totaled 135 points, then all seasonal-bests in club history. Blanchard had 41 attempts in 1997, while Mike Vanderjagt hit 37 field goals in 2003 and scored 157 points in 2003 and 145 in 1999 to set the club seasonal marks. Blanchard’s 36 field goals fell one shy of John Kasay’s 37 in 1996 as the two battled throughout the year to set the then NFL mark (since eclipsed) for the most seasonal field goals.
Turning point: Beating the Jets, 34-29, on November 17 ended a four-game losing streak and put the club back over .500. The Colts beat the Bills on December 1, 13-10 in overtime, to again to get back over .500. Those efforts were part of a four-week stretch against every divisional opponent and helped put the club back into playoff contention after a 4-0 start. The club validated the win over Buffalo by posting a 37-10 victory over Philadelphia on December 5 in the most complete performance by the team during the season.
Significant moment No. 1: Replacing a head coach quickly after a playoff run marked the first dramatic moment of 1996. Ted Marchibroda left the club and Lindy Infante was installed as head coach. Marchibroda returned to Baltimore to coach the Ravens. Indianapolis was able to post a second consecutive playoff berth. The teams met in week five of the season in another important moment, with Indianapolis winning, 26-21.
Significant moment No. 2: Winning on the road against a defending Super Bowl champion as the Colts did on September 15 at Dallas always ranks as significant, as was the following week’s 10-6 nationally-televised win over Miami in front of 60,891 in the RCA Dome, then the second-highest attendance figure in the club’s Indianapolis era. It capped the club’s first-ever four-win month of September.
Memorable quotes: “In being around Jim Harbaugh, I feel many people have sold him short in terms of his talent. Jim is a leader by example. … Jim has the ability to create plays and the knack to operate on offense smartly. Early in his career, Jim was a quarterback who would tuck the ball and run. He still has that ability, but he has matured into looking for getting the ball into his teammates’ hands,” said Lindy Infante…“To me, Marshall (Faulk) has three superb qualities—vision, patience and acceleration. Marshall must have the greatest vision of any player I have seen. He knows where everyone is at all times. He senses every potential tackler. That is a talent that isn’t taught,” said Infante…“I have told Jim Harbaugh that he doesn’t have to compete with the Jim Harbaugh of 1995. I want him to be himself this year,” said Infante…“In order, I was selected behind Troy Aikman and ahead of Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders and Derrick Thomas, all players who are Super Bowl champs or perennial Pro Bowlers. Sometimes I thought, ‘Why me?’ Now it is my time to hopefully do something about that answer. I am stronger than I ever was at Green Bay. My attitude is better, too. Football is fun again. This is another opportunity. If it doesn’t work, then at least I’ve answered some questions in my own mind,” said offensive tackle Tony Mandarich after trying out for the club in 1996, a year he would start six of 15 appearances. “I thought to myself, ‘If there’s anything you could be doing right now, what would you be doing?’ I had a deep-down feeling that I wanted to play again, not just to play football, but I wanted to have fun doing it. I didn’t have fun playing at Green Bay, and that’s not Green Bay’s fault. That’s my fault because it was my approach to the game that didn’t make it fun. It was money that motivated me. I was motivated by the wrong reasons. Money was a motivator coming out of college. I sold myself and I talked a lot. I guess one of the reasons I talked so much was because I wanted to sell myself. I paid the price. The only person I can point the finger at for that is myself. For somebody that’s taken with the second pick overall, you sure wouldn’t expect them to play the way I had played. But that’s all right. It’s a lesson in humility, and I’ve learned from it. I’m taking the good things and moving on. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’d rather not hear it or rather not have people remember (his struggle in Green Bay). But it’s true. It was pretty bad not being able to dominate people on the field like I knew I could. For me, that added to the misery of playing or not having fun,” said Mandarich… “He’s a winner. He’s a stallion. He’s a champion. He’ll be eating snails when the other kids are eating cotton candy,” said Harbaugh, on the birth of his son, James Joseph, on 9/4…“They say it’s the first 2-0 start for us since Elvis left the building,” said Harbaugh after week two…“When I played basketball, I always wanted to get a fast break and a dunk. So, I compare it (48t play on first career reception against Dallas) to that. But really, it doesn’t even compare. My first catch and first touchdown, against the world champions,” said Marcus Pollard who played collegiate basketball, not football…“(With us) it’s a 60-minute game. This ain’t no Mike Tyson fight,” said safety David Tate after Colts topped Dallas with a great comeback…“I’ve played in a lot of games and several leagues, just not in the NFL. I worked my butt off for years and it all came together tonight. I may retire, just to finish on a good note,” said Kerwin Bell after seeing first-ever career action against Philadelphia and going 5-5-75, 1 TD (for perfect 158.3 rating) after being a Miami 1988 draft pick.