The Indianapolis Colts started this season with Andrew Luck's impromptu retirement announcement.
They finished it with a thud.
For the fourth time in five years they missed the playoffs, and for the second time in three years they finished with a losing record — this time after starting 5-2.
“A lot of things happened ... at the beginning of the year, things that we weren’t planning to happen and they happened," said Jacoby Brissett, Luck's replacement. “To me, I think we had a good year, to surprise the way we did. Like I said, if we fix our little mistakes, three or four games, we win those games."
And make the playoffs.
This season's continual twists and turns consistently tested the Colts' mettle.
Indy's franchise quarterback gave his impromptu farewell speech just minutes after the third preseason, leaving the field to a crescendo of boos as word leaked about his decision.
Adam Vinatieri, generally regarded as the best clutch kicker in league history, faced retirement rumors as he struggled through the worst season of his career.
Indy's two 2018 All-Pros, linebacker Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson, both contended with concussions. Five receivers finished the season on injured reserve and that didn't even include four-time Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton, who missed a career-high six games with various injuries.
Brissett, meanwhile, was never the same after hurting his left knee on Nov. 3. As his completion percentage dropped and the turnovers mounted, the losses piled up.
As a result, Indy went 2-7 in its last nine games.
No, the Colts didn't come close to meeting the preseason hype of AFC dark horse — but, of course, most prognosticators anticipated Luck continuing his comeback.
But they also didn't completely collapse without their franchise quarterback, as some feared. Instead, coach Frank Reich found out even more about his roster and believes the young Colts (7-9) still have a bright future.
“We want the kind of guys who are going to play in these kinds of situations," Reich said. “Not that we want to be in this situation, but that is who these guys are. You want guys who love to play football. I mean you want guys who love to play ball and love to play together, and I think we have that.”
General manager Chris Ballard will continually face two questions between now and next September.
Will Luck return? And will he use a high draft pick on a quarterback?
Brissett struggled after returning from a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Last week, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni acknowledged the injury may have impacted Brissett's accuracy.
But with Brissett also about to enter the second season of his current deal and veteran backup Brian Hoyer ineffective in his only start of the season, the Colts would be wise to consider drafting a quarterback.
As for Luck, he's the only one who really knows if he'll ever return to football.
END OF THE ROAD?
Vinatieri finished the season on injured reserve after doctors recommended surgery on his problematic plant leg. The injury forced him to miss the preseason and part of training camp and it never really got any better, though Vinatieri refused to blame the errant kicks on a bum knee.
While he wasn't the only special teams who struggled, the 47-year-old Vinatieri isn't under contract for 2020 and he missed six extra points and eight field goals this season.
The NFL's career scoring leader already has said he hopes to return for his 25th season in the league. If he doesn't, his final kick would be the 46-yarder Tennessee blocked and returned for the go-ahead touchdown in a critical loss Dec. 1.
Marlon Mack finally had the breakthrough season the Colts expected.
He stayed relatively healthy, topped the 1,000-yard mark for the first time, and helped the franchise rush for 2,000 yards for the first time as a team since 1994. Mack also has demonstrated his ability to catch passes, and when he went down Jonathan Williams managed two 100-yard games.
With four starters on the offensive line still younger than 28, Mack could be running behind one of the league's best offensive lines for the foreseeable future.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
The Colts don't need a massive overhaul.
A promising young defense improved steadily throughout the season and should only get better. Brissett demonstrated he can be an NFL starter when healthy and surrounded by good receivers, and the Colts proved they can run the ball.
The biggest problem was special teams, where Vinatieri, kick and punt protection units and the holder all made costly mistakes. Indy lost four games by four or fewer points, which doesn't include the season-opening overtime loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Solve those issues and the Colts could return to the playoffs next season.
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