By MICHAEL MAROT
Ryan Grigson walked into a bleak predicament in Indianapolis.
The Colts had just completed an abysmal 2-14 season, their stars were aging, nobody knew if Peyton Manning would be healthy again, and their salary cap was out of whack. So the first-time general manager, armed with the No. 1 overall pick and the blessing of team owner Jim Irsay, risked everything by starting from scratch.
It worked. In 1 1/2 seasons, Grigson has done something most front-office people only dream about: turning the league’s worst team into a long-term title contender.
“To have done the things we’ve done so quickly has been amazing,” Irsay said last week as the Colts prepped for Manning’s highly hyped return to Indy. “We’re just looking to compete and try to stay ahead in our division.”
What the Colts (5-2) actually have done is historic.
Their nine-game improvement from 2011 to 2012 is tied for the second-greatest turnaround in league history. Bruce Arians became the first interim coach to be voted NFL Coach of the Year. Andrew Luck set three NFL rookie records last season, has the Colts atop the AFC South heading into their bye week, and has gone 23 games without back-to-back losses. And, of course, coach Chuck Pagano has put cancer in remission, too.
If all goes well after this week’s bye, Indy could be in position to clinch its first post-Manning division title before December.
The Colts open November at reeling Houston, then host the Sam Bradford-less Rams before visiting Tennessee.
How has Grigson done it?
Dusting off a proven blueprint of running the ball and stopping the run, unearthing talent in unusual places, pulling off more than a dozen trades, and even getting Lucky.
“Ryan has done a great job of bringing in guys for a reason, not just making a change for a change. You see him bringing guys in to fill a need or a niche,” said quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, who came to Indianapolis in 2002 when Manning’s career really started to take off. “I think anyone who tells you they weren’t surprised (with the turnaround), I think they’re telling you a lie.”
No team in recent memory has been this fortunate.
Indy took Manning with the No. 1 pick in 1998, and he spent the next 13 seasons pushing the Colts to higher and higher achievements before a nerve injury cost him all of 2011.
Irsay’s Colts paid a steep price without the franchise quarterback and no capable backups on the roster. Indy lost its first 13 games and finished with the league’s worst record. But the reward for such an incredibly bad season was Luck and a chance to replace Manning with the most polished college quarterback to enter the draft since, well, Manning.
Grigson and Irsay didn’t hesitate to make the toughest move of all, releasing Manning in March 2012, a move both knew was necessary to build toward a stronger future.
Luck didn’t disappoint. Not only did he tie an NFL record for all quarterbacks with seven fourth-quarter comebacks in 2012, he was the perfect replacement.
“I came here to play football and not worry what other people think of me. People in the Midwest have been incredibly kind,” Luck said. “It makes it easier, the transition. I never worried about what the fans were going to think of me. I figured if you can take of your business, if you can hopefully win some football games, then it becomes easier on that end.”
The rebuilding process didn’t start and end with a new quarterback.
Grigson initially shook up the fan base by cutting fan favorites Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, Dallas Clark, then allowed Pierre Garcon and Jeff Saturday to leave as free agents.
Next, Grigson convinced Pro Bowlers Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis to stick around and help restore Indy’s previously sterling reputation.
Then he drafted tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, receivers T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill, and power back Vick Ballard. Those five combined for more yards rushing and receiving than any rookie contingent since 1970.
But Grigson also had to be creative.
He traded a second-round pick for cornerback Vontae Davis; dealt away another draft pick for backup cornerback Cassius Vaughn; signed free agents Donnie Avery and Darius Butler; and took low-risk gambles on offensive lineman Mike McGlynn and linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
Those moves all paid big dividends: The Colts went 11-5 and reached the playoffs. And Grigson entered free agency with tens of millions of dollars to spend.
This time, the 41-year-old Grigson took a conservative approach. Grigson found two reasonably priced starting offensive linemen (right tackle Gosder Cherilus and left guard Donald Thomas), another receiver (Darrius Heyward-Bey) and a handful of defensive starters to complete the conversion from a 4-3 defense to Pagano’s preferred 3-4.
“You can watch five tapes, 10 tapes of a guy, but a lot of times, you know right away if that guy can play,” Grigson said recently.
Now, as the Colts chase a second straight playoff berth, the Colts are perfectly positioned for the future.
Last month’s blockbuster deal for Trent Richardson, Grigson’s 16th trade, gave the Colts five of the top 100 picks from the 2012 draft — all offensive skill position guys. They have veteran leaders with Mathis, Antoine Bethea, Cory Redding, Adam Vinatieri and the now injured Wayne.
They have enough to continue to win despite putting five key offensive players on season-ending injured reserve.
These Colts have adopted the same mantra Manning’s teams used: never give in and never give up.
“The complement is that this team reminds me of all of them because they just keep playing,” Christensen said when asked to compare the 2013 Colts with Manning’s top teams. “Each week, there’s been a level of consistency, it’s not up and down, there’s a resiliency there. It reminds of all those (Manning) teams.”