INDIANAPOLIS – The unit that needed the most cohesion in 2012 was the one that had some of the most disruption over 16 games.
General Manager Ryan Grigson noted after last season the line was like "the walking wounded" by having to start seven different configurations, while never having more than three straight games with the same opening unit.
There were only four outings where the season-opening intended starters played together. Only two intended starters – Anthony Castonzo and Mike McGlynn – opened every game.
Enter, among others, A.Q. Shipley. Shipley made the club as a first-year free agent whom Grigson imported. By season's end, he had started five games at center and what made it a good year was the integrity Shipley showed after being waived after week one.
"When I was cut, I was disappointed and was frustrated," said Shipley. "Coach Pagano said, 'I expect you to still come to work every day and prepare as the starter.' That's what I did, and I think when my shot came that was part of the reason I was ready."
Shipley hails from Pennsylvania and traces his ethic back to family and geography. After being a Rimington Award winner at Penn State and after having practice squad stays with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Shipley did not let early disappointment with the Colts sway his dedication.
"Really, it's the only way I know how," said Shipley of his grinding nature. "Growing up in Pittsburgh, my dad always preached, 'Work ethic, work ethic.' It's being a true professional, that's what it comes down to.
"(Being cut last year) was heart-breaking because it was my first time making an opening-day roster. I was excited about that and getting cut a week later was like, 'Oh, man.' It's the only way I know how to approach this, just work as hard as I can and hopefully good things will happen."
Shipley rebounded to start in game four against Green Bay. It was the club's first outing after losing Chuck Pagano to a fight with illness. Making his first career start, Shipley helped the club erase a 21-3 halftime deficit in a 30-27 win.
The Colts won in four of Shipley's five starts, and he also played at left guard at Detroit, one of the team's seven fourth-quarter or overtime comeback victories.
Indianapolis went 11-5 with young talent like Shipley, a nine-game jump from the team's 2011 record. Still, Shipley says his season and that of the team did not surprise him.
"It's the expectations I've always had. I know I can play. I've just been waiting for a shot," said Shipley. "When we were putting this team together in April, I knew we had a ton of talent and could be good. We proved to be pretty good.
"I don't think it exceeded anyone's expectations. It never exceeded mine. I think the coaching staff did a great job of getting everybody to come together as one."
Pagano helped construct the team, and he loves the fight he sees in Shipley.
"He's a great pro. He's probably one of those guys who has been told his whole life that he's too short, too slow, don't have long enough arms, whatever (critics) want to say," said Pagano. "He's one of those guys who play with a chip on his shoulder. He's always got something to prove.
"Having to be cut and signed back to the practice squad, it hurt him from a mental standpoint because he sees himself totally different than everybody else. He's a good enough pro and a good enough person to where even though he had those setbacks, he stayed with it. He never wavered."
Suffering a career setback affects players differently. Shipley was not going to give up the fight.
"He's a smart guy because he stayed with it mentally and physically," said Pagano. "When he was called up, he was ready, where a lot of guys might have stopped studying, stopped paying attention to details and maybe not practice quite as hard. He is the type of guy who wasn't going to change his work ethic or how he approached his craft.
"A.Q. is the type of guy you have to have because something is going to happen. We tell all 53 guys and the practice squad guys, 'You're one shoelace, chinstrap or turned ankle away from playing. You have to prepare like a starter.' He's a perfect example of that. He was like, 'Whatever you guys want me to do, I'll do.' He's a great team player."
Shipley is a tough self-critic. He believes it is a must, as well as the ability to play multiple positions, in succeeding. He is gearing up for his second season as a Colt.
"I think we just need to keep getting better at the things we've been doing," said Shipley. "I just have to get better at everything. I'm never satisfied. I always want to work and get better. What I've done this off-season, I've been looking at the games and trying to pick apart my technique. When it gets closer to when we start in the spring, I'll look at how I called things last year and look at different schematic things."
Castonzo is heading into his third season having started 28 games at left tackle. He and McGlynn were the two mainstays in 2013. McGlynn twice moved to center for the majority of playing time when Samson Satele was injured. Satele missed five games and was knocked from action in three others.
Joe Reitz (eight), Seth Olsen (four) and Jeff Linkenbach (four) shared the starts at left guard. Reitz fought knee and concussion issues. Linkenbach, who played every snap in 2011, also opened four games at right tackle. He never has missed a game in three seasons.
Linkenbach's versatility was on full display at Detroit. He entered on the game's third play at left guard for Reitz, then finished the game at right tackle when Winston Justice was concussed.
Guard Ben Ijalana, the club's second-round pick in 2011, missed a second straight season with a knee injury. Ijalana played in four games in his rookie year, then was hurt on the first day of training camp. Tackle Bradley Sowell was signed off the Tampa Bay practice squad early in the season and played in 10 games. Sowell is a bright prospect for the club.
Guard Justin Anderson saw no action in his rookie year. Indianapolis has two free agent tackles in Robert Griffin and Lee Ziemba.
Gosder Cherilus, 6-7, 325, joined the Colts as an unrestricted free agent from Detroit, where he started 71-of-75 games at right tackle after being selected 17th overall in the 2008 draft. Cherilus started 16 games last year, helping pave the way for the Lions to rank second in NFL in passing yards (4,927), third in net yards (6,540) and ninth in sacks allowed (29).
Donald Thomas, 6-4, 305, joined the Colts as an unrestricted free agent from New England. Thomas started 21-of-43 games with Miami and New England over the past five years. Last season, Thomas started seven-of-16 games and helped block for an offense that ranked first in the NFL in points (557), net yards (6,846), first downs (444), third-down percentage (48.7) and red zone percentage (70.0). In 2011, he appeared in 10 games (one start), playing mainly on special teams and in short-yardage situations. With the Dolphins in 2008 and 2009, Thomas started 13-of-17 games.
Nine times in 2012 the club needed in-game adjustments because of injuries, while a total of eight different players started games. Despite the lineup juggling and the youthful nature of other positions, the club earned 11 wins and made the playoffs.
"We had so many guys just dinged up. The fact that we were as versatile as we were was something," said Grigson.