INDIANAPOLIS – The 2012 season was the 29th for the Colts in Indianapolis, and like every year has its own identity, so did this one.
The Colts were under new leadership with General Manager Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano, and change was a certainty.
A bevy of new faces arrived after Grigson and Pagano, and the approach was to reload the roster of a team that went 2-14 in 2011, not rebuild. The term "rebuilding" never was a part of the team's identity, and no one wanted the team's identity to match the low expectations many outsiders placed on the Colts heading into 2012.
Grigson, Pagano and a retooled coaching staff wanted players to think big and expect results, even if the predominant minority on the roster would be returnees.
Veteran free agents and rookies blanketed, not dotted, the roster, and the first quarter of the season brought intriguing results in the form of a 2-2 record.
A tough opening loss at Chicago was followed by a dramatic comeback win over Minnesota. Indianapolis nearly pulled off a second last-minute win a week later until Jacksonville trumped a late score with one of its own.
The first quarter of the schedule was ended by the year's biggest development when Pagano was forced to leave the team for three months to battle leukemia, symptoms of which he had noted leading into the season and that he had diagnosed during the team's bye week.
The news was stunning. While some organizations could have been reeling, this one united in its support for Pagano, ushering in a "CHUCKSTRONG" fight until he could return.
Bruce Arians moved into the interim head coach position as the Colts produced an unforgettable 30-27 win against Green Bay to close the season's first quarter.
Owner and CEO Jim Irsay and Grigson presented the hospitalized Pagano with the game ball and his mandate of "60 minutes, one play at a time, all you've got" was the order of the season.
A look at the first two games of the 2012 season.
Game 1: CHICAGO 41, COLTS 21
Playing in his first NFL game, free agent linebacker Jerrell Freeman intercepted a Jay Cutler pass and returned it four yards for the Colts' first points of the season on the defense's second time on the field. Freeman's big play was the first of many for the Colts on the season, and it staked a young team to a 7-0 lead.
Chicago erased the Colts' lead with 24 points before halftime as Indianapolis gained two first downs on its opening four possessions. Indianapolis also suffered a turnover and missed field goal.
Meanwhile, Cutler found a rhythm and completed 15 passes for 228 yards in the opening half, and the Bears had 20 first downs and 287 net yards by halftime. On the day, he teamed with Brandon Marshall nine times for 119 yards, including a second-quarter touchdown that provided Chicago with a 14-7 lead it did not relinquish.
Chicago iced the game in large part with 10 quick points in the third quarter after a Devin Hester punt return set up the Bears offense for a short drive. A fumbled return by the Colts on the ensuing kickoff then led to a Chicago field goal.
Andrew Luck threw his first touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, a four-yarder to Donnie Avery. Luck was intercepted twice in the second half and was the victim of a sack-fumble. Luck targeted Reggie Wayne 18 times, hitting him on nine occasions for 135 yards.
Indianapolis was minus-four in turnover ratio, something that would hurt the club on more than one occasion on the road. The defense did a good job on Chicago's Matt Forte, limiting him to 80 rushing yards.
"You can talk the obvious. I just told them, 'This game is not for everybody, players and coaches included.' You can't be faint of heart. You're going to have some Sundays like this," said Pagano. "We just have to go back and evaluate the tape and make sure we're doing everything we can do to give ourselves the best chance to win.
"I always talk about the enemy. The enemy isn't necessarily always your opponent. Give Chicago credit. They played extremely well today. We certainly can do a better job of avoiding bad plays."
Turning point: The Colts cut the score to 17-14 before allowing a touchdown with 44 seconds left in the first half. After the season's first successful "hurry-up" drive, Adam Vinatieri unchacteristically missed a 37-yard field goal at the gun. Coupled with Hester returning a punt 23 yards to set up a 45-yard touchdown third-quarter drive and a fumbled kickoff return seconds later, the Colts were behind, 34-14. The deficit was too great to overcome.
Moment to remember: Just seconds into the game, Dwight Freeney was hit from behind and suffered a high ankle sprain that cost him two additional games. Freeney spent at least the first half of the season getting back into full health. The loss interrupted the development of Pagano's 3-4 hybrid scheme.
Note: Luck entered the NFL with great expectations, and he delivered fabulously in 2012. Luck became the sixth Colts rookie to start on opening day. His 309 passing yards set a club rookie debut record, and he became one of four NFL rookies ever to throw for 300-plus yards in a debut, joining Peyton Manning (1998), Cam Newton (2011) and Robert Griffin III (2012). With 12 tackles, Antoine Bethea became the sixth Colts player to top 700 career stops.
*Quote to note: *"We said going in we were going to play 60 minutes in every game. That's the one thing we've never had to coach around here – effort. We're going to play hard, we just have to play smarter." – Chuck Pagano
Game 2: COLTS 23, MINNESOTA 20
Loyal fans comprising another sellout were full of anticipation of their "new look" Colts, and they saw the team execute from the outset.
Though the Vikings had consecutive field goal drives of 12 and nine plays, the Colts scored on three-of-four first-half possessions to take a 17-6 lead at intermission.
The Colts were firing by moving 80, 40 and 64 yards on drives consisting of 13, nine and eight plays. After hitting Dwayne Allen on a three-yard pass for the club's first touchdown, Andrew Luck zipped the club on the third scoring drive in a "hurry-up" mode that took 1:04 off the clock. His 30-yard strike to Reggie Wayne with seven seconds left in the half was more evidence of his growth, and it gave a peek of things to come again.
The Colts gained 196 of their 278 yards in the opening quarters, while Minnesota's Adrian Peterson gained 41 of his season-low 60 rushing yards.
The Colts extended their lead to 20-6 on the first drive of the second half by using another sustained possession of 14 plays.
The game's fortunes then changed dramatically as the Colts punted on four ensuing possessions, and Minnesota made a move with 10 minutes to play. Christian Ponder threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Burton with 5:07 to go and when the Vikings got the ball back with 2:50 left, Ponder cashed in with another touchdown to square matters in the final half-minute.
Not since Archie Manning in 1971 had an NFL rookie quarterback directed a September fourth-quarter comeback victory and with 31 ticks left, Luck was about to match the accomplishment of his predecessor's father.
From his 20, Luck hit consecutive completions of 20 yards to Donnie Avery and Wayne. Two plays later from the Minnesota 35, Vinatieri hit a 53-yard field goal with eight seconds left as the Colts earned a dramatic victory.
"They're all tough in the National Football League. I'm just really proud of every player, every coach, every man in this organization for hanging in and playing for 60 minutes," said Pagano. "We'll never apologize for winning no matter how you win, how you get it done. These guys fought, hung in there and found a way to win at the end of the game.
"I'm really proud of the guys. Adam, (a) future Hall-of-Famer, just comes through again in the clutch for us," said Pagano. "Obviously, I feel great for all our coaches and players and all the time, trust and belief they put into this whole thing. What a great crowd, my hat goes off to our fans. When we needed them the most, they were there and they were loud and it was an electric atmosphere. It's pretty special."
The kick was the longest of Vinatieri's 24 game-winning field goals, and the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd of 63,912 had witnessed its first last-minute heroics of the home season. There would be others to come.
"It's always special," said Vinatieri. "Any time you can go out and help your team win a game and put points on the board, it's a great feeling. No matter what the distance is and what the circumstances are, it's nice to go out there and show them I still got some lead left in the pencil, so it's a good time."
Turning point: As Luck took the field with 31 seconds left, long scoring drives and two first-half scoring passes were distant memories. Quarterbacks, even rookies, are measured in such moments, and he was facing a Minnesota defense that had sacked him twice, hit him another three times and tightened its hold on the offense. A composed Luck fired two strikes to set up a seasoned veteran kicker. The two completions helped the club avoid a possible deflating home loss.
Moment to remember: Vinatieri has provided many highlights in his 17-year career, winning numerous games in the clutch. He long has said there is plenty of kick left in his leg and the only question for him is to deliver the ball between the uprights. With a young team that had yielded two straight scores to lose a 14-point lead, the prospect of falling to 0-2 loomed until he delivered. Vinatieri delivered with room to spare as the ball met the kicking net.
Note: A defense that would struggle later in the year held the NFL's eventual leading rusher to 60 yards. Avery provided a season-high 111 receiving yards, and the Colts defense had four sacks. Luck was 11-of-17 for 146 yards and two scores for a 131.0 first-half rating. Guard Mike McGlynn had to finish at center for Samson Satele, the first of many times the club's offensive line adapted to in-game adjustments. Reggie Wayne joined Glenn Doughty and Marvin Harrison as Colts receivers with scoring receptions from seven different passers. Wayne has caught touchdowns from Andrew Luck, Dan Orlovsky, Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins, Peyton Manning, Jim Sorgi and Joseph Addai.
*Quote to note: *"The way Coach Arians has it (the "hurry-up" offense) set up (is good), and it's very friendly to the quarterback. Not having to call 18 words for a play, it's two words and, 'Let's go.' I think Reggie Wayne, who's probably done 1,000 two-minute drills in his life, (has) seen every situation. He is a guy you can lean on. Donnie (Avery), did a great job using his speed in two-minute, but I think it comes down to practice time and the O-line really just pressing." – Andrew Luck