Jim Irsay’s goal hasn’t changed for Colts: ‘Plural Lombardis’

Team owner Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, next to head coach Tony Dungy, CBS announcer Jim Nantz and Don Shula (yellow coat) after the Colts 29-17 win against the Chicago Bears against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Jim Irsay didn’t exactly break new ground with his bravado when addressing a portion of the Indianapolis Colts’ season ticket holders last week.

You know, about the lofty goals he has for a franchise led by Andrew Luck.

About one-upping the Peyton Manning-led Colts.

“I’ve said it before: We’re into plural Lombardis,’’ Irsay said. “That’s what our goal is.

“And I’ll be damned if we don’t go out and get them.’’

There, he said it. Again.

Irsay has offered the same bold prediction in the past. The genesis of his confidence rests behind center, with Luck, just as it did not so long ago as Peyton Manning stood tall behind Jeff Saturday.

We totally understood the gist of a statement by first-time general manager Chris Ballard at his introductory presser in January when asked about inheriting a team led by Luck.

“It will never be about one guy,’’ he said, meaning it.

But one guy can make such a difference. A team with a top-tier quarterback always has a chance. Always.

Exhibit A: The 2013 AFC wild-card matchup with Kansas City. A 31-10 halftime deficit ballooned to 38-10 thanks to a Luck interception to open the third quarter. Then, QB magic. Luck would lead the second-largest comeback in postseason history – a scintillating 45-44 victory – by completing 17-of-23 passes for 314 yards and three TDs over the final 28 minutes.

“That’s where he’s special,’’ said Ballard, the Chiefs’ director of player personnel at the time. He’s one of the best, top two or three quarterbacks in the fourth quarter in this league. A light comes on when it’s finish time and Andrew is truly special.

“I promise you no matter what the lead is, you can bet that other head coach and that coordinator over there, they’re not taking their foot off the pedal because of how special this guy is in the fourth quarter. I mean, how many times did you ever see a great basketball player . . . maybe (Michael) Jordan, a guy will be 1-of-21 and in the fourth quarter he scores freaking 30.

“That’s what the special, unique guys do.’’

And that’s the main reason Irsay has a difficult time curbing his enthusiasm. He’s quick to point out that on some levels, Luck is further along on his career arc than Manning. After five seasons:

  • Luck has taken the Colts to the postseason three times, reached the AFC title game in year 3 and is 3-3 as a playoff starter. The Manning-led Colts match the three playoff appearances, but didn’t notch their first postseason win until year 6, when they advanced to the conference title game. Manning and the Colts reached the Super Bowl twice – in years 9 and 12 – and won it after the ’06 season.
  • The Colts are 43-27 (.614) with Luck, and were 42-38 (.525) with Manning.
  • Luck has averaged 272.5 passing yards to Manning’s 257.7.
  • In 10 fewer starts, Luck has six fewer TD passes (132 to Manning’s 138) and four fewer interceptions.

It was in year six – where Luck now finds himself – that Manning and the Colts really took off. Over the next eight years they set an NFL record by winning at least 12 games in seven consecutive seasons, were 8-for-8 in reaching the playoffs and advanced to the Super Bowl twice, winning one.

Before we start buying into the “plural Lombardis’’ hype too much, it’s worth reminding everyone that while there’s no denying the overriding importance of having an elite QB to build around, championships hinge on so much more.

When Manning and the Colts embarked on year 6, they were loaded. Team president Bill Polian and coach Tony Dungy had constructed a team replete with difference-making talent: Manning, Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Dallas Clark, Marcus Pollard, Dwight Freeney, a developing Robert Mathis. The offensive line was among the NFL’s best and anchored by Jeff Saturday, Tarik Glenn, Rick DeMulling and Ryan Diem.

As Luck & Company roll into year 6, there’s still so much work to do. Fired general manager Ryan Grigson, coach Chuck Pagano and the rest of the personnel staff failed miserably at adequately upgrading the roster while Luck was playing under his rookie contract.

Shame on them.

Quick, name the difference makers. We’ll wait while the figure ‘em out.

Luck. T.Y. Hilton.

That’s it.

There’s not another player – including two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis – who causes an opposing coordinator to lose sleep. Ballard added several solid free agents during the offseason, but the majority have been nice complementary players, not stars. The draft looks promising, but we’ll pump the brakes before projecting Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson as perennial Pro Bowl talent.

Ballard has asked for patience as he attempts to rebuild the roster, but realizes he’s in the midst of a delicate balancing act.

“I am not going to set some high standard to where I set unrealistic goals,’’ he said during the NFL Scouting Combine. “Look, every year is precious. Every year is an opportunity to win.

“To me, there is no such thing as rebuilding. Everybody is trying to win and that’s the approach we’ll take.’’

That starts with an owner eager to add another Lombardi Trophy – or two – to his collection.

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