WESTFIELD — There was a familiar energy in the air Wednesday as the Indianapolis Colts reported for their second training camp at Grand Park Sports Complex.
But it’s a force that hasn’t been felt around these parts for awhile: Expectations.
For the first time since 2015, the Colts are viewed as legitimate contenders for the AFC championship. And that could be a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of a young roster just one season removed from a 4-12 disaster.
Team brass, however, isn’t afraid to embrace the pressure.
“Look, we’ve got a good football team,” general manager Chris Ballard said. “I’m not going to shy away from that. We’ve got a good football team, but that doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed wins. You’ve got to go earn it. You’ve got to go work. You’ve got to go perform. You have to come together as a team.”
That will be the focus for the next three weeks in Westfield.
Indianapolis is one of just six teams that still holds a public training camp away from the year-round facility, and it’s no accident. Ballard and team owner Jim Irsay are big proponents of building deeper connections with the fans and of the old-school, football-only environment a training camp away from home provides.
In fact, Ballard sounded downright giddy about getting practices started during his 20-minute session with the media. He’ll get his wish Thursday at 2 p.m. when the full 2019 team works together for the first time.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I love training camp,” Ballard said. “I love coming (to Westfield). I’ve been excited about it for the last 10 days to get up here and get ready to go. I love watching the competition. I love watching the team come together.
“Expectations are good. That’s not a bad thing. Embrace it and let’s go to work and let’s have fun, let’s compete and let’s get better every day.”
The GM has assembled a roster that thinks much the same way.
Ballard and his staff sought players who love football, who love the dirty work of practice, who seek out the next repetition and the next challenge without constantly being goaded by the coaching staff.
The extent to which they’ve succeeded will be revealed in January through the win-loss record.
“This team is special,” veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “This team has enough (talent) to be able to do what we want to do. For us, our main thing is just staying focused. We’re taking it one day at a time, and we’ll be fine. But this team, they love football, man. They love football, and as long as you continue to love football and love the game, then we’ll be fine.”
The Colts got awfully close to where they want to be last year. A 9-1 finish to the regular season led to a wild-card playoff berth and a road postseason victory against the AFC South-champion Houston Texans.
But the ride came to a crushing halt with a 31-13 loss at Kansas City in the divisional round.
If this team ever needs to be grounded in the face of the soaring hype that surrounds it, that loss to the Chiefs always does the trick.
A year ago, Indianapolis used the fact it was being written off by much of the national media as motivation. This time around, the team turns to the sour finish of its postseason run.
“I think our last game of the year last year in Kansas City is all we need to motivate us,” running back Nyheim Hines said. “We were so close to the AFC Championship Game, the next round of the playoffs. Knowing what it took to get there and not having the opportunity to move on, that’s all you really need to motivate you.”
The consensus is this is the deepest roster the Colts have fielded in years. Some players who are cut at the end of next month should make other teams — and contribute to their success.
It’s spawned the kind of competitive spirit Ballard spoke of when he took the job of rebuilding this franchise in 2017.
And it’s got even some of the veterans believing in what the future holds.
Hilton was part of three straight playoff teams from 2012-14. He’s appeared in the Pro Bowl four times and led the league in receiving yards in 2016.
He makes no secret of the fact he believes this could be the best team he’s ever been a part of.
The only question is how much have the players learned from last year’s finish.
It’s one thing to embrace great expectations, quite another to fulfill them.
That 2015 team — the most recent one around here to enter the season with legit Super Bowl aspirations — finished 8-8. Quarterback Andrew Luck injured his shoulder in Week 3 and set off a three-year spiral that resulted in the firing of general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano.
Ballard and Reich have done a commendable job of rebuilding from the ashes.
But former Colts front-office chief Bill Polian — a Hall of Famer who built six teams that reached the Super Bowl with Buffalo and Indy — believed the hardest step to take in the NFL is the one from “good” to “great.”
That’s the challenge that faces Ballard and his team this fall.
And he fully buys into Polian’s way of thinking.
“Your team has got to grow together,” Ballard said. “They’ve got to take that next step. That’s something we’re going to work to do.”