INDIANAPOLIS – Coming off consecutive playoff berths, including a trip to the AFC Championship game in 1995, the Colts entered the 1997 season with unprecedented optimism.
With the veteran leadership of quarterback Jim Harbaugh, star power at the skill positions in running back Marshall Faulk and wide receiver Marvin Harrison and key additions to a revamped defense, the Colts had high hopes entering Lindy Infante's second season as head coach.
“I hope our underdog era is finished because when people call us an underdog or a Cinderella, that tells me they still think we’re really not that good,” said veteran free safety Jason Belser. “I never liked that role. It’s defeatist but I went along with it because it gave us a, ‘Let’s take on the world’ attitude.
“Now, it should be the rest of the teams that get a queasy feeling when they have to play us.”
Defensive tackle Tony McCoy took it one step further.
“This is a season I feel we can get to the Super Bowl,” he said. “I really feel the talent is there. You can take away some of our players but you can’t take away the heart of this team. We’ve still got a lot of people on this team with great character, great work habits and that’s what is going to pay off for us.
“There are a lot of teams that are going to talk about going to the Super Bowl. … We’ve got people believing we can do it.”
But the key plays that had marked the previous two seasons, when the Colts won a total of 14 games by seven points or less, went the other way in 1997. The Colts would lose seven games by a touchdown or less, setting a franchise single-season record, on their way to a 3-13 finish that prompted a passing of the torch.
One day after the season ended, Vice President and Director of Football Operations Bill Tobin and Head Coach Lindy Infante were relieved of their duties.
“We gave it a good run,” said Tobin. “We did an adequate to excellent job for some three years. This year it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“There’s such a fine line in this business between winning and losing on a given weekend,” said Infante. “It’s been well-documented that we’re probably 23 or 25 points away from being in the playoffs right now. But it didn’t happen.”
Bill Polian would be hired as team president in December, with Jim Mora soon to follow as head coach.
The tenure of Harbaugh, the popular populist quarterback dubbed “Captain Comeback” during the Colts’ playoff runs, would also come to a close. The benefit of the team’s record was the top pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, which yielded none other than Peyton Manning.
RECAPPING THE 1997 SEASON
Most memorable game: Taking an 0-10 record into a game against the defending Super Bowl champions did not bode well for the Colts but behind quarterback Paul Justin, Faulk, Harrison and kicker Cary Blanchard, Indianapolis stunned the mighty Green Bay Packers 41-38 on November 16 in the RCA Dome. Blanchard's game-winning 20-yard field goal as time expired was his fourth of the contest and gave the Colts a win over the defending Super Bowl winners for the third consecutive year. Justin completed 24-of-30 for 340 yards, Faulk rushed for 116 yards in 17 carries and Harrison caught eight passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. The defense produced two touchdowns as end Al Fontenot scored on a 33-yard fumble return and Belser took an interception to the house from 50 yards out. “It is hard to put into words,” said Infante, who was the Packers’ head coach from 1988-91. “We have a bunch of guys who have suffered through so much and to get a win means a lot but to get it against last year’s Super Bowl champion is special. We wanted to prove to the world we are not as bad as our record.” The Colts beat previous Super Bowl winners Dallas, 25-24, in 1996 and San Francisco, 18-17, in 1995.
Best seasonal performance: Despite running behind an inexperienced offensive line featuring rookie starters Adam Meadows and Tarik Glenn at left and right tackle respectively, Marshall Faulk broke 1,000 rushing yards for the third time in his four NFL seasons, winding up with 1,054 yards, a 4.0 per-carry average and seven touchdowns. “For me, I’ve been there before,” said Faulk. “It's not so much for me as it is the offensive line. They've been through a lot and they have taken a lot of crap. People forget that they’re young and when you get thrown into the limelight or a starting role, people expect you to produce. They’re not going to step up and just dominate. They have to have time to grow with it.” Glenn and Meadows would anchor the Colts’ offensive line for six straight seasons. Faulk, who also had 47 receptions for 471 yards, ranked eighth in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 1,525.
Other individual highlights: Harbaugh was eighth in the NFL in passer rating (86.2) despite being sacked 41 times, fifth-most in the league. He was first in interception percentage (1.3) and second in completion percentage (61.2). He passed for 2,060 yards and 10 touchdowns. … Cary Blanchard was seventh in the NFL with 117 points, tied for first with 41 field goal attempts and was second with 32 field goals made. … He tied an NFL record with four field goals in the second quarter on September 21 in Buffalo. … Blanchard also set a club record on October 20 against Buffalo by making at least one field goal in his 21st consecutive game. … His 50-yarder in a 41-0 blanking of Miami on December 14 made the Colts the only team in NFL history to have at least one 50-yard field goal in 12 consecutive seasons, a streak that would reach 13 in 1998. … Marvin Harrison continued to emerge as a future star in his second season, grabbing 73 passes for 866 yards and six touchdowns. … Dan Footman led the team in sacks with 10.5, including a streak of six games in a row with at least one sack, tying then the club record set by Joe Ehrmann in 1976. … Aaron Bailey broke his own club record with 213 kickoff return yards against Seattle on September 14, including runbacks of 53 and 61 yards. … Belser made the most of his two interceptions, returning them for 50 (and a touchdown) and 71 yards. … Tight end Ken Dilger caught three touchdown passes in the second quarter of the big win over Miami, tying Lenny Moore (1958) and Eric Dickerson (1988) for most in a quarter by a Colts player.
Turning point: Though the Colts were down after dropping their first three games, failing to score an offensive touchdown in the process, they were not out. Heading into Buffalo on September 21, they appeared poised for a potential season-turning victory when they jumped out to a 26-0 lead in the first half. But 14 penalties and the inability to fully capitalize on five Bills turnovers proved costly. The Colts took over in Buffalo territory eight times but produced just one touchdown. Once the Bills found their stride, they took off, outscoring the Colts 30-3 to take a 37-29 lead. Justin guided the Colts 80 yards in six plays, including a 2-yard touchdown pass to Harrison to cut it to 37-35 with 14 seconds remaining but the two could not connect on the potential game-tying two-point conversion. Buffalo’s recovery from a 26-point deficit was the second-largest comeback in NFL history. “This is an absolute reversal of last year,” said Infante. “As a football coach, it’s as frustrating as it can get.” The Colts went on to lose their next three in nail-biting fashion, giving them four consecutive losses by a total of 11 points, leaving them determined to keep fighting. The last game in that run was a rematch with the Bills on October 20 that produced a 9-6 home loss.
Significant moment: The entire franchise had to deal with a jolt long before the season began when Robert Irsay, the President Emeritus and patriarch of the franchise, passed away on January 14, 1997. Control of the franchise was left to his son, Jim, who was named Owner and CEO in February. “There are no schools to prepare you for NFL ownership,” said Jim Irsay. “That’s why it was so important for me to be around it as a kid – the players, the training camps, the other coaches and general managers, being by my dad’s side for so many years learning the business side of it. It’s truly a unique environment. I’ve been around this all my life. Everything I’ve done was based around knowing that owning the Colts was my dad’s wish. He said a thousand times, ‘This team’s going to be Jim’s.’ This is what I was trained for.” The younger Irsay joined the Colts front office in 1982 and was elevated to Vice President and General Manager in 1984. He went on to establish himself as a gifted steward.