1. Shane Steichen built a strong level of trust with his players.
Going back to when the Colts hired Steichen in mid-February, general manager Chris Ballard emphasized the now-former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator wasn't chosen primarily because of his ability to develop a young quarterback. He wasn't brought aboard just because of his offensive acumen, either.
"Is it an added bonus? Yes. Was it the final defining factor? No," Ballard said. "We wanted to get the best fit for us and for the Colts organization. Shane fit that. ... Shane kind of checked all the boxes. A few (candidates) checked most of them, but Shane checked all of them, of what we were looking for."
Fast-forward six and a half months later, and the no-nonsense, accountability-driven atmosphere instilled by Steichen has permeated the entire Colts organization. The demanding way Steichen is leading the Colts was a key box for the organization to check when hiring a head coach.
And players have gravitated toward Steichen's leadership because, as quarterback Gardner Minshew stressed, it's genuine. Minshew would know, too: He spent the last two years with Steichen in Philadelphia, and has seen his offensive coordinator-turned-head-coach be the same guy with the Colts as he was with the Eagles.
"He's very much himself, and he's bringing that same energy as a head coach," Minshew said. "... I think everybody rallies around it. We had a few incidents in camp where things got tough and I think he did a really good job of rallying the guys. So I think everybody's responded really well."
Minshew also echoed something we've heard from players over the last few months: It doesn't matter if you're the highest-paid or lowest-paid guy on the team, or if you're at the top of the depth chart or the bottom of it. The standard is the same. And it's high.
"It helps because you gotta hold your best guys accountable because then it just trickles down," Minshew said. "And he holds himself to a high standard as well. If something's not right on his end or the coaches' end, they're not afraid to call that out and be accountable for their mistakes. So I think that all builds a lot of trust."
2. Anthony Richardson's combination of humility and confidence helped win him the starting job.
Richardson understands that, as a 21-year-old quarterback with 15 starts since he graduated high school, there's a lot he doesn't know and there's a lot he's yet to experience. But he also understands the work it'll take for him to grow as an NFL quarterback – and it's not just work for the sake of work.
Coaches and teammates raved throughout training camp about the kind of questions Richardson is asking them. As he's poured over the Colts' playbook, he's peppered Steichen, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, quarterbacks coach Cam Turner and his teammates – especially Minshew, who has experience in the scheme – with direct, incisive questions.
"When you do that and you ask those type of questions," Steichen said, "that's like 'Hey, I want to get better. I want to be a great player.'"
To put it another way: Richardson knows he doesn't have all the answers. But he knows who does, and has shown he knows how to ask questions that'll get him the right answers.
Also: He usually doesn't make the same mistake twice. And that leads to legitimate growth on a play-to-play, series-to-series, day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month basis.
"He's really genuinely open-minded, genuinely looking for coaching points, looking for coaching," Cooter said. "As a coach, you love the guys that want to be coached. He's looking for – you're going to make mistakes at quarterback. There's a lot going on, there's a lot of things to do. It's not a position you usually play perfectly.
"You get to the end of a practice, you have a few plays that you want to get back or you want to go look at the tape and see what did you see, what happened here, what were you thinking. For us to be able to discuss those things, he's really eager to hear it. He takes good notes.
"We see him make a mistake on one day and then the next day, that same opportunity presents itself and he's fixed it, he's got it figured out. That's the game that we play and that's the game that quarterbacks play in this league quite a bit. How much can you learn? How much better can you get? The good thing about Anthony – he's been really, really good about, like I said, genuinely being open-minded about receiving coaching, receiving feedback and it's been impressive to watch him turn that into improvement the next day or maybe the next week on the practice field."
3. Richardson showed his poise and strength in the pocket can translate to avoiding getting sacked.
The only sack Richardson took in 33 preseason dropbacks came against the Eagles when a pass slipped out of his hand and was ruled a fumble, which the Colts recovered (but Richardson was charged with a sack on the play). So it wasn't really a true sack – he wasn't even under pressure on the play.
Richardson was not sacked on the eight dropbacks on which he was under pressure, per Pro Football Focus. Against the Bills, he avoided pressure to his right, stepped up in the pocket and delivered a pretty deep ball to wide receiver Alec Pierce, who wasn't able to come down with the catch. Against the Eagles, Richardson was pressured and stepped up in the pocket to complete a pass to tight end Kylen Granson; he also dodged a blitzing linebacker and scrambled for a gain of five, which set up a 41-yard field goal instead of leaving the Colts with a 50-plus-yard try.
Richardson's natural feel for navigating pressure in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield showed up on his tape at Florida, and carried over to his first live games in the NFL.
"We saw this in college and it was one of the things that I got excited about him, his poise and his feet in the pocket and how he kind of feels pressure and moves," assistant general manager Ed Dodds said. "That's that natural instinct that he has that some others don't."
Here's why Richardson's ability to avoid getting sacked matters. And we're going to get into the weeds of some advanced stats here:
Expected Points Added (EPA) per play, 2018-2022
- All plays: .014
- Pass attempts: .365
- Completions: .887
- Incompletions: -.950
- Throwaways: -.868
- Sacks: -1.844
- Scrambles: .518
The difference between taking a sack and merely attempting a pass is over two points of EPA (that's a lot). If you just throw the ball out of bounds, it's a better outcome than getting sacked by about a full point of EPA (that's also a lot). And if you avoid a sack and take off and scramble, it's even higher than if you attempt a pass.
The worst outcome on a dropback, of course, is throwing an interception – that's more than minus-4 EPA – but, from 2018-2022, teams on average threw 65 interceptions and were sacked 194 times. So it's about three times more likely to be sacked on a play than throw an interception.
One more stat to drive this home. From 2018-2022, teams scored on 6 percent of possessions on which there was at least one sack. On possessions without a sack, that scoring percentage jumped to 36 percent.
To put it another way: You're about six times more likely to have a drive end in points when you don't take a sack versus taking a sack.
4. Richardson earned being named a captain as a rookie.
Richardson this week was voted one of the Colts' seven season-long captains by his teammates, and it didn't just happen because he's QB1. He had to earn the trust of his teammates through more than his outrageous natural ability.
"I've been really impressed with him and the way he's come into the building every day," left guard and fellow captain Quenton Nelson said. "Just his work ethic and his poise in the huddle for a rookie has impressed me a lot. The growth I've seen from OTAs until now – you can tell that in the offseason time that he was at home, he was studying, working on calling the plays in the huddle and stuff. I'm really happy with where he is at right now and the growth he's having."
Richardson earned the respect of his teammates through his work ethic, plus the humility, confidence and natural talent that define him as person and quarterback. But even through all that – being named a captain as a rookie is a big deal.
"It just shows what the team has thought about him," Steichen said. "I mean these were not, there was no favoritism – these guys, it was their votes and they voted him to be one of the top seven captains. I'm excited for him to get that honor. I think that's a big honor as a rookie. To get that just kind of really speaks volumes about what the team thinks about him."
5. Josh Downs carved out a role with his natural feel and football IQ.
If you made it to Grand Park for a Colts training camp practice this summer, you probably saw a bunch of catches from Downs, the third-round rookie out of North Carolina.
"He's open, mostly," Minshew said. "... He's quick, he's smart. He has a good feel for the game, knows how to create separation, knows how to run routes. Really advanced for his experience level."
That last thing Minshew said – about Downs being ahead of the usual rookie learning curve – is important here. It's something wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne, who was one of Downs' biggest advocates leading up to the NFL Draft, noted early in camp, too.
Downs' father, Gary, played in the NFL for seven years and has a coaching background; his uncle, Dre Bly, played a decade in the NFL and was a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Detroit Lions.
Football is in Downs' blood, and in addition to his natural talent, that background has helped the wide receiver get up to speed quicker.
"He's a coach's son, so he understands some things differently," Wayne said. "... All those little things that people don't understand, he's one of those guys that instead of telling him three times, you have to tell him twice."
6. How the tight end room shook out.
Throughout camp, a central question for 53-man-roster-prognosticators was about how many tight ends the Colts could carry. Was five too many? Who from the group of Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson, Will Mallory, Drew Ogletree and Jelani Woods – players who the Colts invested in either monetarily or with draft picks – would get cut?
The answer: None of them.
The Colts carried those five tight ends on their initial 53-man roster; they later placed Woods, who's been dealing with a hamstring injury, on injured reserve. Woods will miss at least the first four games of the season.
Alie-Cox has appeared in 74 games since his NFL debut in 2018 and brings veteran leadership to an otherwise young room the Colts value. And as for the other guys in the room, here's what Ballard said about them this week:
"We're excited about Ogletree," Ballard said. "I think you know our thoughts on Ogletree. We've always thought highly (of him). It was a big loss last year. We think Mallory – that was exciting to see him get healthy and show the flashes that he showed. Granson is a good football player. Every staff that has come in and every quarterback that has come in has liked him."
7. Good vibes are coming from the offensive line.
Offensive line coach Tony Sparano Jr. arrived in Indianapolis this spring with the same five primary starters returning from 2022 – left tackle Bernhard Raimann, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Will Fries and right tackle Braden Smith.
But what that group did in 2022 (which wasn't as bad as the narrative may suggest) wasn't of any concern to the Colts' new O-line coach.
"I'm not going to speak on last year because I wasn't here," Sparano said. "To me, that's irrelevant. What I'm focused on is from day one getting this group together and moving forward and building our identity. It's a different system, it's a different group than last year, there are different players. Certainly, myself and my assistant Chris Watt and our whole staff are new.
"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."
Those five guys all hit the re-set button after the 2022 season and, since re-convening in April, have grown their bond on and off the field. That counts for a lot, Nelson said.
"A lot of it is off the field, too – growing together off the field, getting to know each other really well on a personal basis, hanging out. That (stuff) goes a long way, honestly," Nelson said. "We've been doing a great job of that since we got started in OTAs, I think that's helped us a lot. Coach Sparano Jr. has been doing a great job coaching us up and letting us all have a voice in the room, working (stuff) out together and it's been making us closer. I'm really happy with where we're at right now."
The Colts didn't make any personnel changes to their starting five on the offensive line, betting on the talent those guys possess – and what a new coaching staff can get out of them. The Colts saw Raimann make strides during OTAs and training camp and believe in his upside at left tackle; and the team believes the trio of Nelson, Kelly and Smith can be a bedrock for the 2023 season. And, collectively, the Colts are confident in what they have on the offensive line heading into the 2023 season.
"Just everybody in the room, it's a place that guys want to come to right now," Kelly said. "It's a place that they will be loved. It's that sacred room that we didn't have the last couple years."
See the top photos from the Colts' Thursday practice.
8. Shaquille Leonard's return meant a lot to the Colts – and to him.
As Leonard exited the huddle for the Colts' first full-team snap of training camp this summer, a wave of emotion hit him.
This wasn't just his first training camp practice of 2023 – it was his first practice since November 2022. And he did more than just go through warm-ups and individual drills. Here he was, on a field, with his teammates, ready to play football.
He'd been through hell just to get back to this point, even if it was hardly the endpoint after years of grueling rehab that sapped him physically and mentally. Leonard turned to the stands at Grand Park and raised his arms in the air, eliciting a roar from the crowd assembled in Westfield.
"That (moment) was emotional for me," Leonard said. "It's been a long journey, man. It's been a long journey.
"You see a lot of bad things, people thought that I was just sitting out to sit out and not understanding that I was fighting my tail off to get back and be the best version of myself for this team. And then to come out here and hearing the crowd excitement for me getting back on the field, that was reassurance that these fans are still with me and I'm doing something right, and hopefully I can continue to make them proud."
Throughout training camp, Leonard hit every benchmark he needed to as he worked his way back from the two procedures he underwent in 2022 to address lingering pain that radiated from his back to his ankle. He and Colts emphasized a methodical, we're-not-rushing-anything approach – but he was still able to participate in full-padded, full-contact practices and then the team's preseason opener agains the Buffalo Bills.
The process for Leonard to even participate in practice, let alone a game, was "awful," the three-time first-team All-Pro linebacker said. He spent long hours trying to get his body right, all while never actually knowing if it would. He'd show up to the Colts' training room at 5 a.m and fly to Florida for treatment and training, spending his limited offseason time away from his family to try to get back on the field.
"Just his perseverance, his grit, his determination – it is emotional what he's gone through and what he's put into it to try to do everything he can to get back," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "He is so important to this team – on the field, the emotion he brings, the playmaking ability he brings and to see him compete, really to try to get to where he's at his best, it's amazing if you sit back."
While Bradley's defense was solid in most areas in 2022, it was 19th in the NFL with 21 takeaways. Not having Leonard – who had one interception in three games – for most of the season certainly had an impact on that total.
Leonard, using his long arms, feel for the game and athleticism, has proven to be one of the NFL's most effective players at forcing turnovers over his career.
"He's a coach on the field, and he has probably the best instincts, okay, in understanding of it all that I've ever been around," linebackers coach Richard Smith said. "Let's say he's limited a little bit. He can make up for it in terms of big play ability because of his instinct and his knowledge."
9. The Colts believe in the upside of their young corners.
The Colts waived 2023 fifth-round pick Darius Rush – who was subsequently claimed by the Kansas City Chiefs – this week in what Ballard described as a tough decision. But Ballard followed up by saying the emergence of Jaylon Jones, the Colts' second-to-last selection who went No. 221 overall in this year's NFL Draft, forced that difficult decision to be made.
Jones was consistently available to practice during training camp and made several plays on the ball, using his athleticism and physicality to win competitive reps.
"Our (area) scout, Anthony Coughlan, fought like a dog (for Jones)," Ballard said. "I'm not going to sit here and lie to you, I had my doubts but Anthony pressed and pressed. We took him and Anthony was right. He was right.
"This kid is going to be good, like really freaking good."
Ballard said keeping seven corners would've been "tough," and emphasized Jones, JuJu Brents, Dallis Flowers, Darrell Baker Jr., Kenny Moore II and Tony Brown all earned their way on to the roster.
"Kenny Moore (II) – we think has had a great camp," Ballard said. "Tony Brown – I love Tony. Let me just make this known. I love Tony Brown. That dude competes. He's a great teammate. He's all-in. Then you have Baker. We have Dallis – all these guys that have all come in and played really good football and have really good upside. And they're all young.
"JuJu is coming along. I do want to talk about JuJu because I do think the upside is really high. He missed the spring with the wrist and then he had the hamstring early. So, it's been a little bit slow here, but the two weeks he was in – we're excited about him. He kind of had a little tweak again so we're trying to get our head around making sure we've got him right for the long haul.
"Look, it just happened to be a group that's young and talented. Nothing against Darius – wish him the best. I know he was claimed. Wish him the best. I went back and forth with him earlier about it. He's very talented, but it was a good group."
10. The youth movement.
The 2023 Colts are the third-youngest roster in the NFL with an average age of 25.8, per Elias Sports Bureau. They have more 21-year-olds (Richardson, Jones, safety Nick Cross) than 30-year-olds (Ryan Kelly, Luke Rhodes).
Despite that roster-wide youth, there are plenty of experienced veterans on the roster – like Kelly, DeForest Buckner, Quenton Nelson, Zaire Franklin and Grover Stewart, among others – who will be tasked with setting a standard during the season.
"It's taking Shane's message and making sure it's upheld amongst the rest of the team," Kelly, a first-time captain, said. "Shane talked about it today but the ups and the lows – 2018, we started 1-5 and that team never gave up hope. Those captains never gave up hope – continuing the message that we're just going to get better every day and eventually it hit and we went to the playoffs. Hopefully, that's not exactly how it goes this year (laughing), but just goes to show no matter what happens in this league with the ups and the downs, the captains are there to keep righting the ship, making sure the morale is high and guys keep pushing forward because it's a long season."