INDIANAPOLIS — Last April, in his very first team meeting as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Frank Reich laid out the expectations for his players moving forward; a locker room that thrives on trust, toughness and teamwork.
A little more than a year later, not much has changed at the Colts' West 56th Street facility. On Monday, the players returned to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of the offseason workout program, and, with a good majority of the 2018 roster back to begin preparations for the 2019 season, Reich said his message was going to be "pretty similar."
"I'm going to say it in a slightly different way but it's gonna mean the same thing," Reich told reporters Saturday at the team's Local Pro Day. "You know, last year at that meeting we laid a foundation, and I was thinking about it, like, 'Well, we're not going to have a new foundation. But the goal is to build another story to go higher on that mountain,' all those things. So the higher you go when you build, the more important it is to make sure that foundation is deep and secure."
The Colts are coming off one of their more successful seasons in recent years, having turned in a 10-6 regular season record and earning a playoff berth for the first time in four seasons. There, they went on the road to defeat their AFC South Division rival Houston Texans, 21-7, in the Wild Card Round before falling to the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs, 31-13, in the Divisional Round.
Along the way, quarterback Andrew Luck worked all the way back from missing the entire 2017 season to earn NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors and turn in a career year; meanwhile, the team saw two members of its extremely successful 2018 NFL Draft class — linebacker Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson — become the first rookie teammates to be named First-Team All-Pro since Pro Football Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers accomplished that feat with the Chicago Bears in 1965.
That being said, the 2018 season certainly had its share of challenges. Most notably, the Colts became just the third team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to start off their season with a 1-5 record and come all the way back to make the playoffs.
While the team's overall expectations — getting into the postseason, winning your division and eventually hoisting that Lombardi Trophy — remain the same, the Colts now know just how important it will be to avoid another slow start in 2019.
The work needed to accomplish those goals started Monday.
"We have the same attitude," Leonard told reporters on Monday. "We still talk about getting one percent better every day and just outworking the next guy beside us. So we know what it felt like last year. I mean, like you said, the roster hasn't changed much, so that 1-5 start, we don't want that; it still sticks out in the back of our minds. So we're gonna come in and get an early start and keep working."
For now, Leonard and his teammates will go through two weeks of solely strength and conditioning activities, although they are able to conduct classroom work with their coaches away from the field.
During Phase 2 of the offseason workout program, which is three weeks in length, all coaches are allowed on the field, and individual and "perfect play" drills are allowed, but teams cannot conduct offense-vs.-defense or one-on-one drills, and helmets are not allowed to be worn.
Phase 3 begins the "organized team activities" portion of the offseason program, which consists of three weeks of OTAs (three per week) and one week with a mandatory veteran minicamp. During this time, teams can begin conducting 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills with helmets, but no live contact is allowed.
The end of the veteran minicamp signals a period of about a month and half off for the players, who will return in late-July for the start of training camp — and the 2019 season.
Between now and then, Reich said his players will probably find a very similar atmosphere to last year's offseason program — and that's a good thing.
As of Monday, the Colts are returning 21 of their 22 starters on both sides of the ball from their playoff loss to the Chiefs a little more than three months ago; the team this offseason also used free agency to add potential starters on both sides of the ball in wide receiver Devin Funchess and defensive end Justin Houston.
The coaching staff from 2018 also remains mostly in tact. Gone are the likes of Dave DeGuglielmo and Bobby Johnson (offensive line), Tom Manning (tight ends) and Robert Mathis (defensive line assistant), but the team is excited to see what new offensive line coaches Chris Strausser and Klayton Adams, with the return of senior offensive assistant Howard Mudd, and new tight ends coach Jason Michael will add to the mix.
"You've just gotta be careful that you just don't fall into the trap of trying to do too much, be too much, and just keep it simple," Reich said. "But I think when it's real and it's authentic and it's important (that) when you're on the right things, nobody gets bored with the right things. So you do find ways to make it fun, but what you do as a coach, you find ways to just emphasize and show why we can't do anything else; if we do anything else we're crazy."
The Colts are back in the building for the first day of Phase I offseason activities.