As the Colts were processing their emotions in the minutes after their 2023 season ended suddenly, center Ryan Kelly's thoughts went to what his offensive line teammates and O-line coach Tony Sparano Jr. meant to him.
"We've got an incredible room. It's (expletive) insane. It's the best room I've ever been a part of," Kelly said. "I love Tony."
Kelly, a 2016 first-round pick, is the longest-tenured member of the Colts. He had plenty of memorable seasons playing alongside guys like Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Anthony Castonzo and Mark Glowinski during his career. So what made 2023 so special?
"I think because of the turmoil that happened last year, to rebound and play well together," Kelly said, "and to have a coach like Tony that believes in us, it means a lot."
The same starting five offensive linemen the Colts played in the second half of the 2022 season – Kelly, Nelson, Smith, Bernhard Raimann and Will Fries – were the same starting five the Colts rolled with going into the 2023 season. That group, collectively, was a "broken room," Kelly said, after taking plenty of heat as the Colts went 4-12-1 in 2022.
But general manager Chris Ballard saw signs of progress from those five offensive linemen down the stretch in 2022, and along with head coach Shane Steichen, prioritized hiring the right offensive line coach to get the most out of that group in 2023. Sparano was the guy, hired to the main chair after spending the last six seasons as an assistant offensive line coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers and New York Giants.
"He brought a lot of fire to the offensive line group," Raimann said. "In practice, he's out there very passionate, a lot of attention to detail — making sure we're all on our [expletive], basically. It really brought us together as a group and made sure we got to work every single day.
"And regardless of the circumstances of what was said about us in the preseason or offseason, all that stuff, he really kept us away from that and told us good things were ahead of us."
In 2023, the Colts' offensive line got back to the group they collectively – from players to coaches to the front office – believed they could be:
|Knockdown rate (QB hits + sacks/pass block snaps)
|PFF pass block grade
|Yards before contact per rushing attempt
|PFF run block grade
The Colts' starting five, too, all individually improved off where they were in 2022.
- Raimann took a major step forward in Year 2 (he had the sixth-highest PFF overall grade among tackles) and the Colts view him as still having upside.
- Nelson earned a spot in his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl and was "back to being who we all think and know who he is," Ballard said.
- Kelly was PFF's highest-graded run blocking center.
- Fries was rock-solid in the run game and tied for 21st among starting guards with a pressure rate allowed of 4.7 percent (the guy he's tied with: two-time Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowler Joe Thuney).
- Smith battled through injuries to earn the highest PFF overall grade (83.3) of his six-year career.
"I think Tony did a tremendous job," Ballard said. "We had injuries and he had to really be flexible and get those other guys ready to play. Pleased with where they're at and where they're going."
Those other guys – tackle Blake Freeland and center Wesley French – were needed quite a bit throughout the 2023 season. Freeland played 702 snaps over 16 games (nine starts), while French held his own against some formidable tests (the Baltimore Ravens' defense, Aaron Donald).
Sparano upheld a certain standard for the Colts' offensive line no matter who was playing, and the cohesion he fostered in that group paid off when starters like Raimann, Kelly and Smith had to miss time.
"I feel like Tony did a good job never overvaluing or undervaluing a player," Smith said. "Everyone's important in the room so whenever your number's called, you're just as prepared as they guy in front of you or behind you. You're always ready to go. It showed with the guys out there, we didn't miss a beat."
And, as Kelly said about the play of those backups: "It's the true indication of a true great offensive line coach."
The Colts always believed in the talent and people they had in their offensive line room, but needed to find the right coach to lead them. In Sparano, they found that person.
"He connected really well with those guys and when you have a coach that connects with his players, and those players believe in what he's coaching, I think it goes a long way," Steichen said. "That's what he did this year with those guys and you could see it on the field."
In talking to members of the Colts' offensive line, that belief Sparano has in them is certainly reciprocated. More than anything – this year was fun for those players. It wasn't just that they once again proved to be one of the NFL's better offensive lines – it was how they went about doing it, with Sparano leading the way.
"You're not going to find a guy in here who's not going to run through a wall for that guy," Kelly said, "because he believes in us as players, he believes that he wants the best out of us and that's what pushes us to be the best players we can be.
"When you get a coach like that and you got a room that's re-committed to being the best, proving people wrong — that we're not the players they thought we were — you're going to get something out of that."