WESTFIELD, Ind. – One of the first things Tony Sparano Jr. did when players returned to Indianapolis this spring was put on their highlight reel.
Sparano's goal wasn't to tear his group down before building them back up. The team's five primary starters from the 2022 season – left tackle Bernhard Raimann, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Will Fries and right tackle Braden Smith – did that enough on their own in the aftermath of going 4-12-1.
So the new Colts offensive line coach's message to his guys was: It wasn't all bad. And there's plenty of good to build on in 2023.
"We had some miscommunication breakdowns and stuff like that happens and it gets blown out of proportion, but he's like, if you turn on the other plays that nobody talks about where we're dominating – he's like, this is what you have to go do," Kelly said. "He's been a great factor in that room just to bring us all back and give us that bond, that band-of-brothers mentality of going back out there and doing it for each other. It's been awesome."
The negative narrative surrounding the Colts' offensive line last season, though, didn't always match the group's play on the field – especially in the second half of the season. Take Pro Football Focus grades for what you will, but from Weeks 1-9 the Colts had the NFL's third-lowest pass block grade and fourth-lowest run block grade. From Weeks 10-18, the Colts had the NFL's 10th-best pass block grade and 8th-best run block grade.
"The one thing I think that got overlooked was at the end of the year, they didn't play bad," general manager Chris Ballard said. "They played bad early but the last half of the season, they played pretty good football."
It's noteworthy here that the Colts started that group of five offensive linemen – Raimann, Nelson, Kelly, Fries and Smith – in all but one game between Weeks 10-18.
"We were running the ball really well at the end of the year," Ballard said. "The pass protection needed to be better, which I think we will take another step. I think schematically, it's going to help with what Shane (Steichen) and them are doing.
The Colts expect Raimann to continue progressing as he enters Year 2 in the NFL, and the team will continue to lean on Nelson, Kelly and Smith as the core of their offensive line. Fries is the incumbent at right guard and will compete with a group of players that includes undrafted rookie and Indianapolis native Emil Ekiyor.
For Sparano, though, he wanted to make sure every returning member of last year's offensive line started with a clean slate – in his mind, what happened in the past is "irrelevant."
"How do we build the dynamic of our group moving forward and what we're going to be about? That's what the focus has been about," Sparano said. "For me, it's been about bringing the guys together. They were not familiar with me heading into the spring and I wasn't familiar with them – getting to know each other and getting to know coach to player, player to player and player to coach. How can we build that bond and be as strong as we can be with 15 players and two coaches in that room and get the best out of the group? That's what the focus has been on.
"To me, I have been really pleased with the way the guys have worked, the way they have bought into what we are doing as an offense and as an offensive line – the investment they have made into each other of truly trying to bond as a unit. Again, to me the offensive line scheme is really important, technique is really important. If you're not five as one, or playing as a unit and not on the same page as each other, I think the other stuff is irrelevant. That's where it starts and that's where it ends. For me, that is paramount."
Kelly praised Sparano for listening to the players he coaches, and along with assistant offensive line coach Chris Watt making the O-line room collaborative. And Sparano's coaching feel for knowing when to be hard on his guys and when loosen up and let them build camaraderie has already impressed the guys he's working with.
"Obviously he is strict during meetings but by the time we hit the field, he just wants us to fly around, have fun with the game that we love to play," Raimann said. "… In meetings, he might yell at us. But out here it's all about having fun and building chemistry with the guys."
Head coach Shane Steichen, Ballard and the Colts this offseason decided to lean on the talent and potential in their offensive line room – and what a coach like Sparano could get out of them. And early in training camp, the vibes around this group are in a good place.
And those vibes absolutely count for something.
"This time is so special," Kelly said. "And we got two great coaches in there who are pushing us and instilling all that faith in us, and really gaining all that confidence back for every player — I think it's amazing."