Low expectations? There was no shortage of those for the Indianapolis Colts heading into the 1995 NFL season.
With no star power, no winning tradition and no resolution to a chronic quarterback quandary, the long-suffering Colts were expected to win no more than the eight games they’d won in 1994.
Were the experts to be believed, they would win considerably fewer than that.
But the experts couldn’t have been more wrong.
For that, the Colts — who finished 9-7 and came within a dropped pass of reaching the Super Bowl — had the unlikeliest of rescuers to thank: Jim Harbaugh.
Signed the previous year to compete for a revolving starting job, manned at various times the previous three seasons by Jeff George, Jack Trudeau, Don Majkowksi, Browning Nagle, Paul Justin, Craig Erickson and Harbaugh, the Chicago Bears cast-off got the permanent nod in Week 4 and took the Colts on one of their most remarkable rides in franchise history.
With a no-name supporting cast (Sean Dawkins and Floyd Turner were the starting wide receivers), Harbaugh put the Colts on his back and willed them to the AFC Championship Game. Along the way, they earned two overtime wins; knocked off three undefeated opponents in successive weeks, including the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers; and won two playoff games before losing a 20-16 heartbreaker at Pittsburgh.
Harbaugh’s desperation end-zone pass slipped through the hands of open wide receiver Aaron Bailey. An enduring TV image of the aftermath was of the dazed and spent quarterback glancing toward the Colts’ sidelines, raising his hands in disbelief and mouthing the words, “I thought he caught it.”
He didn’t. But no matter.
By that time, Harbaugh and the Colts had captured the city’s imagination and it’s collective heart, and Harbaugh became a beloved figure. Never confused for a gifted passer, he finished the season with a career-best quarterback rating of 100.7 and earned the first and only Pro Bowl selection of his 14-year career.
Ted Marchibroda remembers it all quite well.
Harbaugh’s mentor, chief confidence-builder and No. 1 cheerleader, Marchibroda was the Colts’ head coach that season and famously coined the phrase, “Let ‘er rip,” his standard pregame advice to a quarterback who played fearlessly, and almost flawlessly, the rest of the season. He threw 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions and earned the nickname “Captain Comeback” for his uncanny knack for rallying the Colts from seemingly insurmountable deficits.
Today, Harbaugh, 49, and Marchibroda, 81, remain good friends. Harbaugh is the head coach of the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, and Marchibroda is once again the former quarterback’s No. 1 fan.
The 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens, who are coached by Harbaugh’s older brother John, Sunday in New Orleans.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Journal, Marchibroda recently shared his memories of the watershed 1995 season and how Harbaugh’s leadership paved the way.
What do you remember most about that season? It was obviously an exciting time for the team and the community. It seemed like it was the moment the town really fell in love with the team.
“I think the thing I loved most about the team is we were a team. At the end of the season, I ran into (then-Washington Redskins coach) Joe Gibbs at some sort of a press conference, and he said, ‘Ted, you did it without a superstar.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think Jim Harbaugh had a super year,’ and I think that really explains the year.
“It was really a team effort, where everybody gave totally of themselves. It had to be, because we were expected to be in last place in the division. And that’s the thing I remember more than anything else.
“Our guys, I can recall, if I would send in a substitution, say for a defensive tackle, well, Tony McCoy was playing the other defensive tackle, and I don’t think he even realized there was a change being made, because he felt that whoever came in was going to give 110 percent. And I think that applied to every position.
“The guys were so involved in the game that they had to do their job. They knew they were going to do their job, and they felt that the guy next to them was going to do his job, also. I think that’s what I remember more than anything else. We were a team.
“I remember also our situation in October. We had to face the 49ers and Miami and St. Louis, and at that time prior to playing us, they were all undefeated. And then we came through and defeated all three ball clubs. It was just a great year, and it was a year in which every player was happy within himself, also.”
When Colts fans think of that year, obviously they think of Jim Harbaugh. They remember ‘Captain Comeback’ and just how exciting those games were. How important was his presence? How much of that was his leadership at that position? How much did that factor in?
“I think it was one of the biggest factors, without question. Jim was a great leader, he really was. Everybody believed in him, and Jim didn’t let them down.
“I never had a ballplayer who enjoyed football as much as Jim did. I mean, he enjoyed the practices, he enjoyed the meetings, he liked the coaches, he liked the equipment man, he liked the trainers. He liked everything about football. There was never a negative word coming from Jim as far as football was concerned, and his leadership was just outstanding.
“(Teammates) relied on him. He was a leader all during the week in practice. He just gave it 110 percent at all times.”
And he was a guy who didn’t really have anything handed to him. He picked himself up several times to put himself in position to lead a team that had playoff success.
“You’re exactly right. He gave it everything that he had. He finished the (1995) season with a quarterback rating of over 100. And the last week, the other quarterbacks going into the playoffs, none them was at 100. They were all in that 98 area. Yet I don’t think we think of Jim as a passer. We think of him more as a quarterback.”
How happy are you for him right now that he, as a coach, is on the doorstep of a championship?
“Oh, I’m just real happy for him, as I’m almost a part of it, really. I’m real happy for him that he’s going, and he certainly deserves it.”
Was it on his radar to become a coach when he was playing for you? Is that something he talked about wanting to do?
“He was a football guy; there was no question about that. As I mentioned, he loved everything about it. His father was a football coach. He did help his father during the football season as far as recruiting is concerned, and I’m sure he probably enjoyed doing it in preparing himself for the future.”
Have you met John? Do you know him very well?
“No. I’m living probably two or three hours from him, and I’ve often thought about going to a golf tournament to meet John, but I haven’t met him at all, but I wish that I had.”
People probably know which Harbaugh you’re pulling for, though.
“(Laughs) Yes, I think so. Jim is the guy. That (1995) was a super year. And I think after the game in Pittsburgh, I said, ‘Man, just take a look at the guy that’s next to your locker,’ because of the fact that this was such a great year, you’re not going to have many years like this. You should remember the guys that are in this locker room and are next to you.”