Only a few months ago, the Colts were the Browns – except worse. In early December 2011, Indianapolis was 0-13. The Colts had scored 10 or fewer points in six of those losses, including a 62-7 demolition by the New Orleans Saints. Dan Orlovsky was an upgrade at quarterback over Curtis Painter.
Less than two years later, the Colts are Super Bowl contenders and seemingly set for the next several years on offense. They have young talent at quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end. It's one of the fastest rebuilds in recent NFL history.
Unless you count the last Colts' rebuild.
Indianapolis circa 2013 has some eerie parallels to Indianapolis circa 1999. There is the obvious similarity between No. 18 and No. 12 – Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. But it goes further. Manning had a combination of targets to work with in Marvin Harrison and Marcus Pollard. He also had a crucial new piece in the offensive puzzle: a bruising running back in Edgerrin James.
James, drafted out of Miami at fourth overall, gave the Colts a new dimension and defenders a new headache. He had more than 1,500 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns as a rookie – compared to six for Marshall Faulk the year before. The Colts went from 3-13 to 13-3. A football superpower was born.
The sport has changed in the last 14 years. Luck is a mobile quarterback, and the value of a downhill runner has diminished league-wide. Yet it's just as hard to game-plan the Colts' offense now as it was back then. Luck is a conundrum on his own, and T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener stretch defenses just as Harrison and Pollard (and Ken Dilger) did then. Richardson, like James a top-five pick, changes the pace and protects Luck. He doesn't have to be Adrian Peterson any more than James had to be Barry Sanders. The read-option is all the rage, but play-action is always a weapon when you have a big arm and a screamer on the flank. Richardson won't have to carry any more of the burden than James did.
Are the Colts that good? Or also a little lucky? After all, Indianapolis had the No. 1 overall pick in 1992 and went with Steve Emtman. That didn't work out so well. Still, teams like the Browns (and Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals) have been rebuilding for decades, and Indianapolis has been rebuilt twice in 15 years.
It wasn't as easy as it looked. The Colts' late-'90s rise seems preordained in retrospect, but a lot of people would have chosen Ryan Leaf over Manning, just like a lot of people would have chosen Robert Griffin III over Luck (and still would). Of course it's nice that Indianapolis had Manning and Luck in their drafts, but there were other quarterbacks taken first overall since Manning. They included JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, David Carr, Carson Palmer and Michael Vick. None of them are still with the teams that picked them. (Nor is Eli Manning, but that's another story.)
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It's unclear how Luck, Hilton, Fleener and Richardson will stack up against the legendary Super Bowl team of the not-too-distant past, but it's safe to say the Colts have found two long-term quarterbacks the span of a generation while the Browns are still recovering from the Tim Couch mistake. The lesson from Indy seems clear: have one horrendous season, grab a proven college quarterback the next spring, and then get a dependable rusher to go with your young pass-catchers.
If only it were that easy.