INDIANAPOLIS — At this time last year, Frank Reich was starting work on a revamp of the Indianapolis Colts' run game.
The goal? After finishing 20th in the league in rushing yards per game in 2018, Reich wanted a top-seven rushing unit in 2019 — with top-five aspirations in mind.
By improving at running the ball, the Colts not only would continue to establish themselves as one of the more physical offensive units up front, but the hope was that a better run game would draw opposing defenses in and allow for more chunk plays in the passing game.
And by the time the Colts wrapped up the 2019 season, they were right where they wanted to be in terms of running the ball; their 133.1 rushing-yards-per-game average ranked seventh in the NFL, and was just 1.5 yards per game away from the fifth-place Dallas Cowboys.
But those improvements didn't have the desired effect on the Colts' aerial attack, which ended the 2019 season ranked 30th in the NFL in passing yards per game (194.2), tied for 30th in passing plays of 20-plus yards (38) and 29th in completion percentage (59.8).
So just like this time last year, Reich has another project on his hands.
"When we look at some of the stats to get feedback on how we are producing, there are a lot of areas for improvement, starting with the passing game," Reich told reporters Dec. 30 in his end-of-season press conference. "We need to get more production on the offensive side of the ball, big plays and we need to be higher percentage. There are a lot of areas we need to get better in that area."
For Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, the Colts' passing game starts, but certainly does not end, with the quarterback position, where Jacoby Brissett was thrust into the starting job two weeks before the start of the season after the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck.
In 15 starts in 2019, Brissett, selected as a Pro Bowl alternate for the first time in his career, was among the league's best at protecting the football — as evidenced by his 18-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio — but his 6.58 yards-per-attempt figure ranked 25th out of 26 quarterbacks with at least 400 pass attempts on the season.
In all, Brissett in 2019 completed 272-of-447 passes (60.9 percent) for 2,942 yards; he also ran the ball 56 times for 228 yards and four more scores.
Ballard said at times it felt like a "tale of two seasons" with Brissett in 2019. The fourth-year North Carolina State product began the year with 14 touchdown passes in the Colts' first six games, but would throw for just four more scores the rest of the way.
"Jacoby did a lot of good things. He also did some things that I think he would tell you he needs to get better at," Ballard said Jan. 2 in his end-of-season press conference. "But it's a constant evaluation. Everybody's got to be better. Not only Jacoby, but we've got to help him. I've got to help him with better weapons at times and Frank's got to help him schematically and then Jacoby's got to help himself by playing better in specific spots. But I don't want to sit here and act like Jacoby didn't do anything. He did some really good things this year.
"At one point, the world is talking about him as an MVP. And then the next moment, they're talking about wanting to run the kid out of town," Ballard continued. "I mean, it's never as good as it seems and never as bad as it seems."
Another factor affecting the Colts' passing game in 2019 was the injury bug. Three of the Colts' top five wide receivers would be placed on injured reserve at various points throughout the season: top free-agent acquisition Devin Funchess went down Week 1 with a broken collarbone and wouldn't return; 2019 second-round pick Parris Campbell suffered three different injuries during the regular season until finally being placed on IR with a broken foot suffered Week 14; and Chester Rogers was placed on IR Dec. 3 with a knee injury.
No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, meanwhile, missed six games in 2019, and wasn't at 100 percent for a couple others, as he dealt with quad and calf injuries.
And then there was Eric Ebron, who led all NFL tight ends with 13 receiving touchdowns in 2018 and was named to his first-career Pro Bowl, but would be placed on IR Nov. 25 with ankle issues.
Ballard, however, wouldn't let the rash of injuries become an excuse; he said it's on him to ensure the roster is always up to par, no matter what happens throughout the season.
"Just across the board, when we had an injury, you gotta be able to have a win-win player. They have to be able to perform at a level that allows your coaches a chance to win," Ballard said. "And look, with Jacoby, that's one of the things I think when you look at Jacboy's performance early in the season versus the second half of the season, all of a sudden you flip out T.Y. Hilton. Chester is out. Ebron is out. And then you have to flip in a new set, a new group in there. I've got to do a better job of giving him enough to be successful."
To get back on the right track in the passing game, Reich and Ballard planned to sit down and watch all 16 games from the 2019 season together. That way they can take a step back and get a proper perspective on the flow of each game and of the season in general.
But even before taking a look back, Ballard expressed how important it will be for the Colts to match their dangerous run game with an improved passing attack next season.
"I think as a whole, our passing game – not just the quarterback position – but our passing game has to improve," Ballard said. "Unequivocally, that has to get better. We have to be able to throw the football to win in this league. I think we all know that."