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'We're right on the cusp of something really special:' Colts clean out lockers disappointed in end of 2023, but excited for 2024 season

The prevailing vibes in the Colts' locker room on Monday were disappointment sandwiched around hope and excitement. 

The Colts had a little over 24 hours to process the end of their season before re-convening Monday morning at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for locker clean-outs and exit meetings.

The sting of Saturday night's loss to the Houston Texans was still there. Players and coaches were still processing what they could've done differently – individually and as a team – to get their team into the playoffs.

But peeking through those reflections and conversations about how 2023 ended was an acknowledgement of what's ahead for the Colts in 2024. No player's answer to a question about the trajectory of the team summed up the vibes on Monday better than what linebacker and team captain Zaire Franklin expressed.

"You can't take for granted just the progress and the steps that we did make this year. In hindsight and how I'm feeling right now after yesterday and this weekend, it all just feels like a band-aid on a bullet wound or wiping your tears with tissues," Franklin said. "The reality of the situation is we fought hard with it. A lot of ups and downs and adversity this year. I'm proud of what we did, I'm proud of what we went through. I'm proud of this team, proud of this locker room. It's something to build on for sure, and next year we'll be back ready better than ever."

With the 2023 season coming to a close, Colts players gather in the locker room for final media availability and to clean out their lockers on Monday.

After Monday, the 2023 Colts will never be together again. Change is inevitable in the NFL. Players will leave in free agency while others will join the team. The NFL Draft is three and a half months away. Guys will get signed, cut, traded, waived, drafted – and in eight months, when the 2024 season kicks off, the Colts will be a different team.

And that's why missing the playoffs in 2023, with a remarkably resilient team that built a collective resolve, felt like such a stinging missed opportunity.

"Great group of guys," quarterback Gardner Minshew II, one of the Colts' impending unrestricted free agents, said. "A lot of adversity this year, different people in and out of the lineup, but I think we always faced the challenge ahead and did everything we could. It didn't go our way at the end. But I'm proud of the work that we put in this year, the things that we accomplished. We'll really look back on this, especially as time goes on, with more and more favor and gratitude for everything we did."

But for the players who will return in 2024, or the impending free agents who hope to be back, whatever lingering bitterness existed was cut by a feeling that's been in short supply the last two locker cleanout days.

Excitement.

2021's locker cleanout day was defined by a numb, reflexive "we have to learn from this" attitude following a stunning season-ending loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. A year ago, the prevailing vibe was uncertainty as the Colts cleared out of 56th Street.

This year, the disappointment also came with a side of hope. If this team in 2023 could be 15 yards from the playoffs with everything it had to overcome, just imagine what Shane Steichen and this group can do in 2024. A lot of those good vibes came from knowing who from the core of the 2023 team will be back next year. But a lot of them also come from having a head coach in Steichen who believes in his players – and whose players believe in him.

"Forget (the mindset of) let me just call some plays I really like," running back Jonathan Taylor said of Steichen. "It's okay, who do we have and how can I maximize the talent of the guys I have available. When you have a coach who thinks like that, that's when it gets dangerous."

Most players will get away and decompress in the coming weeks before training their focus on 2024. Linebacker EJ Speed, for instance, said he likes to get a jump on preparing for the next season during the playoffs. But when the Colts are back together again this spring, the vibes from the locker room on Monday will have carried over into starting to re-build for 2024.

"I think we're right there," Steichen said. "I think we're right there, and you can see it by the way our guys fought. But every year is a new year. So, we've got to rebuild it again next year and have that laser focus every single day – the details, the preparation that we put into it. We've got to be all over it.

"But I do – I think we're right on the cusp of something really special here."

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