In the afterglow of one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history, it’s sometimes easy to forget who provided most of the memories.
That would be the rookie class of 2012.
Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton, Vick Ballard and LaVon Brazill highlighted a remarkable draft that launched the Indianapolis Colts to an 11-5 record and an improbable playoff appearance.
Consequently, expectations — internal and external — for 2013 are understandably high. The Colts and the community anticipate not only another march to the postseason, but a longer stay.
Yet it’s easy to forget that Indianapolis, which over the weekend added another stable of rookies in the NFL Draft, is still a young team. Players who were themselves rookies last year are today’s locker room leaders.
But no matter.
Luck, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, already has a Pro Bowl résumé. Allen, Ballard, Hilton and Fleener were instant — and effective — starters. A wealth of second- and third-year players produced beyond expectations.
So with the benefit of a full season, and more intimate knowledge of coach Chuck Pagano’s system, the Colts — who began voluntary workouts in Indianapolis two weeks ago — are approaching 2013 with an air of veteran confidence.
“It’s nice to sort of have that routine, settle in,” Luck said of being back at Colts headquarters. “Your body gets used to it, your mind gets used to it. I feel like we are full-force ahead.”
Luck, who earned a Pro Bowl nod after setting a number of rookie passing records last season, is only 23. But after leading the Colts to the playoffs, a journey that featured several dramatic fourth-quarter and overtime comebacks along the way, he has a veteran-mindset and already talks about his job in veteran terms.
Yet at the same time, he is still learning. He in no way regards himself, or the Colts, as finished products.
“I think finding your routine and finding the best, most efficient way to go about things is important,” Luck said. “Having your coaches help you with that, watching the older players, whether it’s taking care of your body, or staying fresh, or (training) your mind, just finding a routine that works for you to get you best prepared is important.”
A third-round pick in 2012, Hilton — like Luck — is 23. The speedy wide receiver had 50 catches for 861 yards and seven touchdowns last year and enters his second season with a firmer grasp of what the NFL is about.
Equally important, he learned that he belongs.
“It (NFL game) is fast,” Hilton said. “I learned that I’m fast, too, but I’ve got to be more careful breaking down (defensive) players and breaking down film study and watching the defense. I evaluate a game. I’m good.”
Despite being one of the league’s youngest teams, the Colts — by virtue of a historic 2012 season — are also among its most respected. Given little to no chance to win more than a handful of games last year, they exceeded expectations to the point of entering 2013 as legitimate championship contenders.
Whether the Colts rise to that level that soon remains to be seen. But they see no reason why they can’t.
“The goals are the same. Win the AFC South, win your division and get to the Super Bowl. Period,” said defensive end Cory Redding, who, at 32, was among only a handful of veterans who had more than three years experience last season. “Those are the three things we shoot for.
“You have individual goals and group goals, but for the most part, if you don’t do those three things, all those goals mean nothing because you’re not holding the trophy, so you fell short.”
Youth notwithstanding, the Colts — who will no doubt lean heavily on the rookie class of 2013 — are confident they are positioned to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, sooner rather than later.
“The expectations are a lot clearer this year as far as what Chuck wants as a team,” Redding said. “Understanding that trust, loyalty and respect is not something we talk about lightly, but we hold to a high standard. Everyone coming in and knowing their role, knowing their job and executing whatever their job or their role is to the best of their ability. Just having a clear vision of what Chuck wants for this team and where we’re going.
“That’s pretty much the biggest difference, and getting the new guys here on that same page as fast as possible.”