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Colts' 2023 heartbreak familiar, but signs of hope exist

Jan. 12—INDIANAPOLIS — There was plenty of talk about the future Thursday during Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard's annual state-of-the-franchise news conference.

But Ballard also took time for some regrets from the past.

Entering his eighth season on the job, he still hasn't won an AFC South division title and has just one postseason victory.

"It guts me," Ballard said. "The last three years have really — this year was better — but 2021 and 2022 sucked. I feel bad for our fans, and I don't want to let them down. That's what sticks in my craw."

The 2021 season infamously finished with back-to-back losses against the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars to squander what appeared to be a certain playoff berth.

A year later, the wheels came off entirely during a disastrous 4-12-1 campaign that cost head coach Frank Reich his job in his fifth season and led to a franchise reboot.

The 2023 season also ended in heartbreak after a home loss to the Houston Texans with a playoff spot — and ultimately the division title — on the line.

But this time feels different. Head coach Shane Steichen showed a lot of steel by guiding the team through a litany of crises to finish at 9-8 and just a heartbeat out of the playoffs.

And rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson showed real promise despite playing just four games before being lost for the season to a shoulder injury.

Having those key positions filled provides the impetus for renewed optimism despite the bitter ending.

"Let's not crown him," Ballard said of Richardson. "Let's not stamp him yet. I mean, we're not there. We've got a lot of work to do (as a team), and he's got a lot of work to do, but it's encouraging. When he was playing, I think we were like 10th in explosive plays.

"It's an area that I think on both sides of the ball we need to improve. We have to get more explosive on offense, and we have to be able to eliminate the explosives on defense. But I think we're in the top 10 of the league when Anthony was playing."

The theme of explosive playmakers was one Ballard continued to return to.

For all the improvement the Colts made throughout the turnaround season, Michael Pittman Jr. was the only offensive player to surpass the 1,000-yard mark from scrimmage.

Indianapolis finished 10th in scoring at 23.3 points per game, but the passing game ranked 20th in total yards (3,666) and 18th in yards per attempt (6).

On the other side of the ball, the Colts were 28th in points allowed (24.4 per game) and 16th in takeaways (24).

One of the focal points of the offseason will be finding playmakers who can improve those numbers across the board.

"I've got a pretty good handle on the NFL Draft (class), and we do think it's going to be pretty good with some explosive guys, and then (we're) working through free agency right now. We're just kind of finishing up," Ballard said. "We do think there is going to be some opportunities to add some players to make us more explosive."

Indianapolis is projected to have more than $70 million in salary cap space but will need to spend some of it to retain its own pending free agents — including Pittman.

Having Richardson on a rookie contract will help with financial flexibility, but Ballard said the team will be prudent in its approach to the market while taking an aggressive stance if certain targets become available.

Whevever the roster ultimately looks like, Ballard saw enough from the team this season to believe better times lie ahead.

"I'm encouraged about where we're going," he said. "I'm disappointed that we didn't finish the deal. You can't just point to one game. There were multiple games I thought we could've came out the other end, and we just didn't. Then there were probably a few that we won — most games come down to a play here or there and do you make them or do you not make them?

"(I'm) disappointed in that fact (of missing the postseason) but also encouraged. I'm encouraged where we're going."