INDIANAPOLIS – A year ago, Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay was knee-deep in restructuring his organization.
It was an organization that had had one of the most sustained stretches of success in NFL history, but had just endured a 2-14 season.
Irsay made the bold move of hiring Ryan Grigson as general manager on January 11. Two weeks later, Chuck Pagano was tabbed as the head coach, and those were the first of many moves that set in place a memorable 29th season of Colts football in Indianapolis.
A year of twists and turns thrilled fans with an 11-5 record that secured the AFC’s fifth playoff seed with a week to play, but the season ended yesterday with a 24-9 loss at Baltimore in the Wild Card Playoffs.
“This year was incredible,” said Irsay after the game. “It was special and unique in so many ways. It was one of the most special seasons in the Colts history and probably NFL history.”
Irsay has been a part of many special moments in his years with the Colts. The period of 2000-09 alone saw the NFL’s best regular-season victory total (115) for a decade established, and the Colts won seven division crowns, two conference championships and a world championship.
His teams also set a league record with 12 or more wins in seven straight seasons, while tying another by reaching the playoffs for nine consecutive years.
Each team and season has its own identity, and the 2012 Colts certainly held firm to that truism.
Pagano missed 12 games while fighting leukemia. Bruce Arians subbed for an ailing friend, and his 9-3 mark tied the league record for victories by an interim field leader.
Pagano returned for the finale and directed the team in Baltimore, but Arians missed the playoff game while hospitalized.
During the season, Grigson funneled personnel onto a team that needed 68 players and 42 starters to get through 16 games.
Virtual strangers were coached quickly and inserted into lineups that included numerous rookies and veteran newcomers, and the Colts became just the second team ever to win 11 or more games one season after having two or fewer victories.
The team’s nine-game jump tied the third-best ever in history and even though Irsay presided over a 10-game jump from 1998 (3-13) to 1999 (13-3), this season had a special meaning for him.
“I couldn’t have imagined how this season would have played out,” said Irsay. “We had a coach fighting for his life, we re-organized, won 11 games and went to the playoffs. We just didn’t get it done, I knew we would fight.
“What a ride it’s been, one of the most special years not only in Colts history, but in the history of the NFL, 90-plus years. … In 40 years, I haven’t seen one like it. I really haven’t.”
The 24-9 loss ended a memorable year. The youthful Colts were playing a playoff-tested Baltimore team, and Indianapolis could not muster the execution needed to advance.
Still, 361 days after selecting Grigson, more ground has been covered than most could imagine. Though future success never is a given, it seems to hold a great opportunity for the club.
“We’ve had the greatness,” said Irsay. “I felt the Lombardi Trophy in the rain in Florida, so many different things that we’ve done through the years. This year was incredible. It was special and unique in so many different ways.
“To go through the adversity with injuries and a coach fighting a life-and-death illness, and then have the coach that was holding it together ending up in the hospital (Sunday). What can you say? There’s not much you can say except if adversity builds greatness and strength and those things, then we just added a lot of adversity in our bank.
“To say the future is bright is an understatement. … I couldn’t be more excited.”