Jim Irsay: Colts ‘have a lot to prove’ in AFC South

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Jim Irsay

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The contrast in Jim Irsay’s comments couldn’t have been more stark, or on point.

During a Saturday afternoon break from the NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts owner was asked whether his team should be considered the projected front-runner in the AFC South.

Um, no.

“I can’t call us the team to beat in the division because Houston won the division (in 2015),” Irsay said. “They’re the team to beat. You have to give them that respect.

“Houston won the division fair and square and they’re the team to beat, and certainly Jacksonville took it to us when we were down there in a big way and that sticks in our mind as well.”

For those with selective memories, the Jaguars snapped the Colts’ NFL-record 16-game winning streak inside a division by thrashing them 51-16 in Jacksonville in December.

“Look,” Irsay said, “we have a lot to prove.”

What a difference a year makes.

Twelve months ago, Irsay sat in the same media workroom at the team complex and kick-started a groundswell that placed the Super Bowl-or-bust target squarely on his franchise’s back. The Colts had added wide receiver Andre Johnson, running back Frank Gore, defensive end Kendall Langford, linebacker Trent Cole and guard Todd Herremans.

“In the Andrew Luck era,” he said, “we’d like to win at least two world championships. We don’t shy away from that fact,” he said at the time.

That fell well short of a Joe Namath-like guarantee a Super Bowl championship was imminent, but it nonetheless fanned the flames.

And we all know how that ended. Luck missed nine games with rib, shoulder and kidney injuries, various roster deficiencies were magnified and the Colts failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

In hindsight, an 8-8 record was impressive considering five different quarterbacks were used, but it also seemed to coincide with continued growth elsewhere in the AFC South.

Now, what has been the NFL’s doormat division appears to have some bite.

“Our division continues to improve immensely,” Irsay said. “You guys can track how high our division foes have been picking in drafts over the last five-to-eight years and that is going to accumulate talent.”

Added general manager Ryan Grigson: “It’s just a matter of time before people get better. That’s just the name of the game in this league. You have to constantly be striving for greatness or you are going to be left in the dust.

“You can’t think that you can ever let off the gas for a second.”

Outside of Cleveland, no fan base has been more severely tested over the past several seasons than those of the Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.

Jacksonville is 39-89 since last reaching the playoffs in 2007. The Titans are 41-71 since their last playoff appearance in ’08.

But the upside of losing has been a stream of lottery picks in the draft.

The Jaguars have had a top-five pick in each of the last five drafts. They whiffed on wideout Justin Blackmon (2012), but added offensive tackle Luke Joeckel (’13), quarterback Blake Bortles (’14), defensive end Dante Fowler (’15) and cornerback Jalen Ramsey (’16). Jacksonville also snatched linebacker Myles Jack in the second round Friday.

Fowler is expected back after missing his rookie season to a knee injury. The Jaguars also were one of the heaviest free-agent investors during the offseason, signing defensive tackle Malik Jackson, running back Chris Ivory and safety Tashaun Gipson.

The Titans have used choice draft positioning to acquire their franchise quarterback (Marcus Mariota, second overall in ’15), offensive tackles Jack Conklin (eighth overall this year) and Taylor Lewan (11th in ’14) and guard Chance Warmack (10th in ’13). Their major offseason free-agent pickup: running back DeMarco Murray.

And let’s not forget reigning champ Houston, which made arguably the biggest splash this offseason by signing quarterback Brock Osweiler away from Denver.

The Colts, meanwhile, spent the weekend addressing their substandard offensive line and the offseason adding starting cornerback Patrick Robinson and a couple of backups in quarterback Scott Tolzien and running back Robert Turbin.

Of course, there’s every reason to expect them to return to contender’s form with the return of Luck.

The AFC South simply won’t be the normal Sunday stroll for the Colts.

“I think the perception with the Colts is that, ‘Hey, they have Andrew Luck and . . . he is going to be coming back healthy so they should (pick up) right where they were before the injury,'” Irsay said. “But again, I think we have a lot to prove.

“This team has guys on it, coaches, players that have won a lot of games, that have played in a lot of big games, that have won playoff games. Yeah, we feel like we can get right back into that mix and be a January, February team, but we have to prove it.”

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