To understand how the Colts got here – a win-and-in Week 18 primetime game at Lucas Oil Stadium against the Houston Texans – we need to wind the clock back nearly 365 days.
"Last year being in the situation, it felt like we were playing for the No. 1 overall pick against Houston," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "This year we're playing for a chance to go to the dance."
After the Colts lost in Week 18 of the 2022 season to the Texans – "earning" them the No. 4 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft – general manager Chris Ballard met with the media for his annual end-of-the-season press conference. One line he said back then, on Jan. 10, 2023, stands out as the Colts prepare for the biggest NFL game Lucas Oil Stadium has seen in nearly a decade.
"Our best players have to play to their standard," Ballard said. "But I don't think we're void of talent."
The Colts backed up that statement by retaining a significant number of players from last year's 4-12-1 team, including the entire starting offensive line. Ballard neither hit the detonate nor panic button with the Colts' roster: There would be no wholesale sell-off of veterans, and there would be no desperate moves in free agency.
The Colts' best players had to play better for this season to come together. A lot of that had to come from within those guys, who all put in the requisite long hours and hard work this offseason to do their part in turning things around.
But a lot of it also had to come from hiring the right head coach.
A thorough process led the Colts to the offensive coordinator of one of the Philadelphia Eagles, who had one of 2022's most potent offenses. The Colts, though, didn't hire Shane Steichen just because of the potential of pairing his offensive mind with a young quarterback.
"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."
So let's fast-forward back to this week. The young quarterback the Colts wound up drafting – Anthony Richardson – started four games before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury, and the Colts are one win away from the playoffs at 9-7. It was never about just the offense; hiring Steichen was about the whole team.
Entering Week 18, the Colts have 21 players on offense or defense who played significant roles on the team in 2022. Those players, collectively, have increased their Pro Football Focus overall grade by 3.9 points from last year to this year.
This is less about the subjective individual improvements guys have made – like cornerback Kenny Moore II making a jump of 21.3 points in his PFF grade – and more about the collective groundswell of improved play on both sides of the ball. Offseason additions like defensive end Samson Ebukam and wide receiver Josh Downs have helped; the quarterback position, with Richardson and then Gardner Minshew II starting, is in a solid place.
But the Colts' best players have played better. Ask around the locker room and those players will all point to Steichen – because of who he's proven to be as a head coach – as one of the reasons why.
"When Shane first got here, I think he put together an incredible staff — an incredible staff that believed in the players, that saw us for who we were as great players," center Ryan Kelly said. "Unfortunately you look at last year and a lot of that was kind of tarnished. This group came back in April, speaking for our group and the entire team, with a lot to prove. And I think Shane made it very clear the expectations — the expectations were very high."
Steichen's impact hasn't been confined to just his playcalling and scheming of the Colts' offense, which enters Week 18 ranked 10th in scoring (23.6 points/game). Players on defense – who've worked with the same coordinator and position coaches they had in 2022 – appreciate Steichen's honesty and no-gray-area communication style, and feel like he's elevated their play, too.
"He's very direct in what he expects from guys, and he's very direct in his coaching style and what he demands," linebacker EJ Speed said. "When you step on the field, you know Shane's got your back no matter what. That's the best part about playing for Shane and what he brings to the team."
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner echoed that sentiment.
"He'll tell it how it is," Buckner said. "He won't sugarcoat anything. He'll tell you what he needs from you and that's what I respect, especially being in this profession, you just want honesty. And if I can get better at something, let me know so I can do everything that I can to get better moving forward.
"His authenticity coming in and guys rallying around him and believing in what he's saying, and he's showing the guys this is how things are gonna be, I really appreciate that."
Steichen's authenticity gets to the core of why the Colts have collectively bought into him as head coach. And keeping an authentic, consistent message is not something every first-year coach is able to do in the face of the inevitable challenges they'll face.
The Colts' dedication to Steichen's message is even more important when you consider what this team has been through in 2023: Injuries, suspensions, roster churn, a three-game losing streak, etc. Ballard pointed out in November the challenges that've come Steichen's way as a first-year head coach have never fazed him; he's remained authentically himself through them.
And that last part is something one longtime, Super Bowl-winning head coach said can be difficult for a first-year head coach to manage.
"You're going to get checked out and challenged," Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told Colts.com in March, "and if you're not connected to be a really authentic to you, you're gonna get found out. You're gonna screw it up and your message will be weakened and you won't make it. It's really a difficult job, and particularly for the first time that you do it."
With the hours counting down to Saturday night's play-in game for a spot in the AFC playoffs – and potentially the AFC South title – the reasons why the Colts hired Steichen 11 months ago have turned into reasons why the Colts are where they are. The Colts believed players would gravitate toward Steichen's authenticity and honesty, and in turn, those players would play some of their best football.
And now, it's not just the Colts' brass believing in Steichen. His players believe in him, just like he does in them.
"He believes in his players," Kelly said. "I think that's what it comes down to, why guys, even if things aren't going great out here, and to make plays when they need to. It's because there's a coach that believes in them."