INDIANAPOLIS –Any mystery about who would start at quarterback for the 1990 Colts ended in late August, two weeks before the season's first game.
Rookie Jeff George got the assignment.
"Jeff George did not come here to sit on the bench," Coach Ron Meyer said in naming George over Jack Trudeau. "And we did not make the trade to put him on the bench."
The celebrated trade occurred shortly before the 1990 NFL Draft. The Colts sent tackle Chris Hinton, receiver Andre Rison, a fifth-round 1990 pick and their 1991 first-rounder to Atlanta to get the Falcons' first overall pick in the 1990 draft. Indianapolis used that selection to take the University of Illinois' George, a former high school star at Indianapolis Warren Central.
However, like so many rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, George had to deal with highs, lows and injuries during the 1990 season.
And the team's uncertainties didn't cease with a first-year quarterback. For the first five games of 1990, the Colts were without injured and suspended running back Eric Dickerson. They struggled throughout the year with an inconsistent ground game and uneven defense, finishing with a 7-9 record.
The Colts went 0-4 in the preseason and dropped the first three games of the regular season. George sustained a concussion in the opener but made it back to start Game 2. In the season's third week, against Houston, George suffered a pulled abdominal muscle and exited in the second quarter.
Trudeau got the starting call for Game 4, at Philadelphia. The fifth-year veteran completed 19-of-40 passes for 329 yards in a 24-23 upset victory for Indianapolis. The game-winner – a 6-yard pass to Bill Brooks – came on the final play and concluded a 14-play, 82-yard drive that ate up the final 1:52. An excited Brooks ran the length of the field into the locker room not realizing the team needed the point after attempt to unknot the score.
"This win is as big a win as I've been around in my years with this football team," Trudeau said.
The Colts followed up with another victory, beating Kansas City, 23-19, in the Hoosier Dome. The running attack, boosted by 84 yards from Albert Bentley, came alive. So did a Colts defense led by safety Mike Prior, who set up fourth-quarter touchdowns with a fumble recovery and an interception.
"Take a look at why we won," said Trudeau, shrugging off any credit for the win. "It was Albert Bentley and the defense."
Then, however, the Colts lost three games in a row. Dickerson returned from being placed on the non-football injury reserve list and simultaneously sitting out a suspension for conduct detrimental to the club. He rushed for 55 yards on nine attempts against Denver, but the Colts fell, 27-17.
Against Miami the next week, the Colts lost the game (27-7) and Trudeau. The quarterback was tackled by his former Indianapolis teammate, linebacker Cliff Odom, as he scrambled along the sideline. The hit was clean, but it put Trudeau out for the season with a knee injury.
One more home loss, to the unbeaten New York Giants, left the Colts at 2-6. But George, who came back and replaced the injured Trudeau, then started to hit his stride.
The Colts beat New England, 13-10, in their ninth game when the rookie quarterback completed a 26-yard scoring pass to Brooks with 2:05 remaining. Indianapolis topped the New York Jets, 17-14, the next week as George passed for 249 yards and two second-half touchdowns. The Colts then won their third straight, defeating Cincinnati, 34-20, as George completed 21-of-31 passes for 251 yards and three scores.
"We'd like to emulate this day every day," Meyer said after the win over the Bengals.
Then came another rough patch for the Colts. They lost, 20-17, to the Cardinals in Phoenix in Game 12. Cedric Mack intercepted George and lateraled to Marcus Turner for a 21-yard touchdown that decided the outcome. Indianapolis came home to play Buffalo and lost, 31-7, to the Bills.
But a nice two-game stretch would follow. The Colts used a little trickery and special teams excellence to top the Jets, 29-21, at New York on December 16. A fake punt, which resulted in a 40-yard pass completion from punter Rohn Stark to Prior, led to a third-quarter touchdown. Earlier, the Colts recovered a bobbled punt by the Jets.
"Those two plays in the kicking game were probably as big as you'll find anywhere," Meyer said. It didn't hurt, either, that George passed for 212 yards and one touchdown and Dickerson rushed for 117 yards and two scores as Indianapolis put up 26 unanswered points.
Rookie cornerback Alan Grant emerged as a star as the Colts defeated visiting Washington, 35-28, on December 22. Grant intercepted a Mark Rypien pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown for the winning margin in the final minute.
To suggest Grant was excited afterward would be an understatement.
"I was in a zone out there. I was in another world," said the savvy rookie from Stanford.
The Colts' opportunity for a .500 finish disappeared in the final game, a 23-17 loss at Miami. Dickerson produced his 61st career game of 100 or more rushing yards with 110, but turnovers led to a pair of touchdowns for the Dolphins. The game-winner came early in the fourth quarter when Miami's Jeff Cross slammed into George, causing a fumble that Brian Sochia recovered and returned for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Colts' contributions to the AFC team in the Pro Bowl were both specialists: Stark at punter and Clarence Verdin as a punt and kick returner.
RECAPPING THE 1990 SEASON
Significant moment: This actually came prior to the season – just before draft day in 1990. The Colts traded for the first overall pick so they could select Illinois quarterback Jeff George, who grew up in Indianapolis. Coach Ron Meyer's plan was to build the team's offense around the quick-release QB.
Best seasonal performances: Sam Clancy played basketball, not football, at the University of Pittsburgh. Then he moved on to the Continental Basketball Association, becoming a fierce rebounder for the Billings (Mont.) Volcanoes. But the 6-7, athletic Clancy eventually found his way to the NFL as a defensive end, playing the final five years of his 10-season career with the Colts. The 1990 season was his most productive as a pass rusher as he led the team with 7.5 sacks.
Unsung hero: Offensive lineman Brian Baldinger, who graduated from Duke with a psychology degree, approached his job in the NFL like he was still in a college classroom. Every Tuesday during the season – a traditional day off for players – you would find Baldinger at the Colts' complex, studying the team's next opponent. He watched film. He kept a notebook on his blocking assignments and opponent tendencies. And Baldinger tried to get a feel for every position in the line because he knew teammates' injuries could compel him to play any of the five spots from left tackle to right tackle. "I take a lot of pride in being able to step in at all positions," said Baldinger, who went on to become a television analyst for college and pro football.
Turning point: It came early in the season. Without Dickerson to start the year, the Colts' running attack struggled from the gate. When Dickerson returned, so did some of the rushing punch, but the rest of the season proved choppy. After their 7-9 campaign ended, the Colts could point to an average rushing output of 80.1 yards per game, compared to 138.3 for opponents.
Memorable moment: Jim Irsay, the Colts' vice president and general manager, co-wrote a song titled "Colors" with Kenny Aronoff and John Cascella, who were members of John Mellencamp's band. The song was a tribute to AIDS victim Ryan White, who died on April 8, 1990. The Colts also honored Ryan White during the December 22 game against visiting Washington. More than 25,000 cassettes of "Colors" were distributed free by the organization.