INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Yes, it’s a marathon not a sprint. The NFL season is 16 games, each carrying no more weight in the standings than others. It’s a series of seven-day life cycles that require tunnel vision and a short memory.
But let’s cut through the company line.
We won’t insist the Indianapolis Colts’ opener Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium is one of those “must-win” games. As Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy was fond of telling anyone who would listen: the only must win was World War II.
OK, got it.
So let’s describe the opener with the Bengals as one of those it-would-be-a-very-very-very-very-good-idea-to-win games.
“Sure, it would be a confidence-builder to get (off to) a good start,” Frank Reich conceded Monday.
He’s heading into his first year as a head coach and overseeing a roster replete with youth and new faces. Twenty-three of the 53 players have never stepped on the field as a member of the Colts, including 10 rookies.
Reich and general manager Chris Ballard remain in the infant stages of building the appropriate culture, one that was so prevalent during the ultra-successful 2000s.
A key phase is realizing success on the field, especially early.
And that’s been sorely missing.
Since Andrew Luck’s arrival in 2012, the Colts are 1-5 in openers – the outlier was a 21-17 win over Oakland in 2013 – and 2-10 in their first two games. They’ve opened 0-2 in four consecutive seasons.
After opening with the Bengals, the Colts are at Washington and at defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia before closing September at home against Houston. They open October with two road games: a prime-time meeting with New England followed by the New York Jets.
Winning early might be difficult, but is necessary.
Starting with the opener, which can be the trendsetter for a team in its formative stages.
“It’s absolutely vital,” offered center Ryan Kelly, who has been around for the last three 0-3 starts. “It really comes down to establishing yourself and an identity.”
Perennial Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton has endured the four straight opening-day losses and 0-2 starts, and much prefers the alternative.
“Absolutely,” he said. “1-0 is a big difference to 0-1. In my years we’ve probably been 1-0 . . . maybe one time. It would be very fun to get that.
“At the end of the day, we need this game.”
So many of the moves made by Ballard have been made through a long-term lens. That includes parting ways with defensive players who weren’t good fits for the new 4-3 scheme: Rashaan Melvin, Johnathan Hankins, Henry Anderson, John Simon. The Colts had to get younger at running back, so there was no attempt at re-signing Frank Gore and drafting Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins.
“Every decision that we made is a win-now decision,” Reich said, although he quickly added, “I really think it can be both. We’re never going to sacrifice the win-now part of it for the long term.”
Releasing Simon, which provides Tarell Basham and rookie Kemoko Turay a better opportunity to develop, “was a tough decision,” Reich said. “Went back and forth.”
One area there was no wavering on as Reich steered the team through the preseason was the importance of daily improvement and experiencing success. The Colts’ 3-1 record was their first winning mark since 2003.
“We know the games don’t mean anything,” Reich said. “But because we’re a younger team, because we’re a first-year staff, winning preseason games means a little bit more when you’re new.
“We have focused on what it takes to start fast, not necessarily in reference to past teams, but just, ‘Hey, what does it take to start fast?’ It’s just playing good football, playing sound football, not trying to do too much. Keep it simple. Just execute. Don’t go crazy. Trust your players. Avoid the big negative plays while still maintaining an aggressiveness.”
Kelly emphasized slow starts can be difficult even for experienced teams, which the Colts most definitely are not.
“You want to go 100 percent into your first game,” he said. “There’s such a long building to that first game that if you take a loss, it hurts. Say you lose the first game, you have to have the maturity not to say, ‘Boy, it’s 16 games and this is going to be a long-ass season.’
“It takes a mature team and strong leadership to help you overcome that.”
A stat that’s hardly a small sample size: since their relocation in 1984, the Colts have opened a season 0-2 or worse 14 times. They’ve regrouped and posted a winning record three times and made the playoffs only twice.