Encouraged by Colts' direction? If not, look closer

It's easy to overreact when the Colts lose, but this season has provided enough positives to be optimistic about future.

INDIANAPOLIS — The oldest and presumably wisest of Indianapolis Colts offered some lasting perspective several years ago that has stuck.

Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri had missed a field goal in a 2012 season-opening loss at Chicago, which always means instant criticism from know-it-alls on Twitter. He was “just” 39 then, but well aware that each miss inevitably translates to some fans being quick to suggest he’s over the hill and the Colts need a new kicker.

Thank God the Colts didn’t listen to that noise.

Vinatieri, still very much alive and kicking as the NFL’s oldest player at 45, shrugged when he asked about and was advised the anticipated reaction to his failed field goal attempt six years ago. He shook his head and said that’s the nature of the business, then suggested the love would return if he went out next week and made a couple of field goals including a game winner.

Funny thing, that’s exactly what he did. He had three field goals, including the deciding kick in the final seconds, in a home win against Minnesota.

And as everyone in the NFL world now knows, Vinatieri has become the league’s all-time best in career points and field goals this season.

When the Colts (3-5) lose games, especially close ones they could win, I’m reminded of Vinatieri’s “nature of the business” reaction. Because too many fans are harsh and lack big-picture perspective about this team and its direction.

Yeah, we live in a sports society that demands immediate satisfaction. It made sense to be overly critical in recent years because head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson weren't the answer. I wrote that in 2014 just before owner Jim Irsay upped their contracts. Mr. Irsay just needed more time to see what became obvious.

Now the Colts have a second-year GM in Chris Ballard and a first-year head coach in Frank Reich. They're both in unfamiliar territory, which means a lot of learning as you go. And it's only fair to give them some time to see if they can make this work.

But when the Colts started off 1-5 in a rebuilding year — a rebuild that was so obvious I correctly predicted it in preseason — the tweets were ridiculous. The team is “trash” and Ballard is “a joke” and too much of a “penny pincher” for not spending millions saved up in salary cap space.

Sometimes it seems almost silly to try to accentuate the positives in hopes of changing the minds of some fans. It’s like politics for most. On this mid-term election day, people are going to believe what they believe, and there’s no debating positions with them.

But in case some fans still have an open mind, my perspective on the Colts hasn’t changed. Critics will cry “homer,” and so be it.

The Colts have proven, as expected, that this team is better than the record indicates. They’ve been in every game. And now that they’ve won a couple in a row by double digits, the bandwagon is welcoming back some of those harsh critics, who keep watching, presumably expecting another disappointing moment so they can complain.

At 4-12 and bestowed one of the highest draft picks, all you want to see in the next season is positive change. And it’s been there. From the time when we were assured quarterback Andrew Luck was healthy and his throwing shoulder was strong to seeing the instant impact of second-round pick Darius Leonard, a weakside linebacker from a small school who has opened eyes by leading the league in tackles.

Because the Colts could be 5-3 instead of 3-5, sure, it’s easy to lament what might have been. But the knee-jerk reaction to go out and get new players simplifies a complicated challenge.

Anyone who thinks wide receiver Dez Bryant could fix a drop-prone receiving group didn’t watch Bryant much last season. I did, because he was on my fantasy team, and Bryant was no longer the playmaker we remembered. He was more of the sideline annoyance that we’ve seen too many times, screaming when he wasn’t getting the ball thrown his way enough. Fact is, he didn’t get open on a consistent basis, and often when that happened, it was because he got away with a push-off.

The Colts have one of the league’s youngest rosters and Ballard was smart not to add an “I-me” guy who could become a cancer with his outbursts. This locker room doesn’t need that.

Scanning other players available, there are probably some that could help in the short term. But Ballard has an extra second-round pick next spring, and he’s not going to part with draft picks for a rental.

Why don’t the Colts trade for holdout Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’veon Bell? Because he’s in a contract year and the team that trades for him had better be prepared to break the bank and make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid players.

The Colts stuck to their plan because they believe second-year back Marlon Mack has promise. Mack has shown that with 258 yards rushing and three TDs, as well as a reception score, in the past two games. What you need from him is to stay healthy.

The Colts will have about $118 million in cap space in the offseason. That’s more than any other team. They can buy who they want, but as we’ve seen in the past, it’s buyer beware. All that money really means is they can miss on more players who play content because they got paid as opposed to finding the right guys at the right age who are still hungry and won’t break the bank.

Ballard will try to add as many of those as he can, but he’s still counting on those draft picks to deliver talent. He’s looking for more Leonards and Quenton Nelsons. He’s looking for more guys who can play right away and make a difference. And it’s the best way to build a young team, with more young talent.

The Colts host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in a game that neither team can afford to lose. Both are 3-5 and trying to prove they can still contend in an AFC South Division that has a hot front-runner in the Houston Texans (6-3), who have won six in a row.

The fear is that if the Colts lose to the Jaguars, who are mired in a four-game losing streak, more fans will ignore the Colts’ positive direction and unload another series of stinging comments. That’s their right. They can say what they want.

But if or when the Colts add a few more pieces and are playoff contenders in 2019, few will remember the impatience of so many this year. Those harshest critics are now singing their praises?

Yeah, Mr. Vinatieri couldn’t have been more prophetic.

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