Optimism mixes with disappointment as Colts reflect on 2023

Jan. 8—INDIANAPOLIS — Zaire Franklin was typically introspective Monday as he assessed the Indianapolis Colts' 2023 season.

The team's 9-8 record marked an undeniable step forward from a disastrous 2022 campaign, and the Colts exceeded most preseason projections — except perhaps the ones inside the locker room.

But the ending will leave a scar.

Indianapolis' surprising run crashed Saturday night with a 23-19 loss in a winner-take-all game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium. The sting was even greater Sunday after the Jacksonville Jaguars were upset by the Tennessee Titans, and Houston's playoff berth was upgraded with an AFC South division championship.

"You can't take for granted the progress, in a sense, that we did make this year," Franklin said as players cleaned out their lockers at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "In hindsight and how I'm feeling right now after (Sunday) — this weekend — I just feel like (it's) a Band-Aid on a bullet hole or just wiping your tears with tissues.

"But the reality of the situation is that we fought hard. A lot of ups and downs and adversity this year — I'm proud of what we did, proud of what we went through. I'm proud of this team, proud of this locker room. It's something to build on, for sure, and next year we'll be back, ready, better than ever."

The Colts had a chance to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2020 and win the division for the first time since 2014, but a fourth-quarter drive to take the lead failed on fourth-and-1 at the Texans' 15-yard line with 1:06 remaining.

That will be the lasting image of the season for many, but the sentiment among the players is far more optimistic.

It was a season filled with challenges from suspensions, injuries to key players and the general adjustments needed to align with a new coaching staff.

The Colts were 3-2 and riding high off a home victory against the rival Titans when word came rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson would be lost for the season because of a shoulder injury.

In the same week, defensive tackle Grover Stewart was suspended for six games because of a violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy, and it would have been easy for a young team under first-time head coach Shane Steichen to pull apart.

At first, it seemed that's exactly what was happening.

Indianapolis lost three straight games and the specter of the 4-12-1 finish the year before was looming.

But the Colts rallied to win their next four games and put themselves in position to compete for a playoff spot.

Indianapolis finished 4-3 against teams that qualified for the postseason and learned a lot about itself along the way.

"I know that no matter what the situation is going into next year that the team is going to fight, claw and scratch no matter if we're up by 10 points or whether we're down by 14," said running back Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 188 yards in the season finale and returned in the fourth quarter from an ankle injury. "We're going to fight. We're going to fight. We're going to fight until the clock strikes zero in the fourth quarter.

"Because until then, that's only when your opportunity ends. Until that, you have a chance to win the game, especially with Shane."

As always, the makeup of the roster for next season remains to be determined.

There's optimism surrounding the returns of players like Richardson and second-year tight end Jelani Woods — who missed the entire season with recurring hamstring injuries — but there's also the reality not everyone will be back.

Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., cornerback Kenny Moore II, safety Julian Blackmon and defensive tackle Grover Stewart headline a list of key contributors set to become free agents in March.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew — the insurance policy who saved the season in Richardson's absence — and punter Rigoberto Sanchez also are on the list.

"A lot of the guys who made up the nucleus over the past couple of years are going to become free agents," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "I would love to see them be able to sign back here."

Change is inevitable. It's the lone constant in the chaotic ebb and flow of the NFL.

But, despite the heart-breaking finish, the Colts believe they've laid the foundation for future success.

In a few weeks, after the Super Bowl is played in Las Vegas, the slate will be wiped clean and the chase will begin anew.

When Indianapolis gathers again as a team in April, there will be new faces and a whole new set of challenges.

And the Colts believe they have the blueprint to attack them all.

"I think we're right there," Steichen said. "I think we're right there, and you can see it by the way our guys fought. But every year is a new year. So we've got to rebuild it again next year and have that laser focus every single day.

"The details, the preparation that we put into it — we've got to be all over it. But ... I think we're right on the cusp of something really special here."