ANDERSON, Ind. -- Expectations are high at the Indianapolis Colts training camp. That's how it should be for them. They beat the two teams who played in the Super Bowl last season. They have the NFL's best young quarterback in Andrew Luck and the necessary pieces around him to have one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league. You don't want to face Luck in a close game in the fourth quarter, either. He knows how to win those, too.
Coach Chuck Pagano and others have been wearing a T-shirt that features the Lombardi Trophy on top of the word "Decide” during camp.
"We all know what the expectations are this season, our own expectations," Pagano said. "We know what the outside expectations are, but we have our own. We're chasing that Lombardi [Trophy] and that's our goal. That's the reason we come to work every day. Individually, players, coaches, everybody in this entire organization from the top down, everybody just has to decide how badly they want it. What are you willing to sacrifice to hoist that trophy and dance under the confetti?"
New England and Denver are expected to be the top two teams in the AFC again this season. Indianapolis will likely have to get past one or both of those teams in order to reach its goal of getting to the Super Bowl. The Colts will see where they stand against the Broncos and Patriots because they'll face both teams in the regular season.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Luck. That's enough by itself. Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, has not disappointed from Day 1 with the franchise through this, his third training camp. He's led the Colts to 11 wins in each of his first two seasons and a playoff win last season. He has an NFL-high 10 game-winning drives since entering the league. Luck lost five offensive starters last season, but that didn't stop him from leading the Colts to the AFC South title and his first home playoff game. Luck has made it a point of emphasis in training camp to improve the offense's third-down success rate. The return of veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, who missed the final nine weeks of the season with a torn ACL, is already noticeable in camp. Just as he did prior to Wayne's injury, Luck constantly looks - and finds - the future Hall-of-Fame receiver on third down in practices.
2. Making the playoffs for the third straight season shouldn't be a problem for the Colts. They play in the worst division in the NFL -- the AFC South. Indianapolis went 6-0 against its division counterparts in 2013, and they should be able to repeat that this season. Tennessee's Jake Locker, Jacksonville's Chad Henne and Houston's Ryan Fitzpatrick won't put fear into Indianapolis. Tennessee and Houston hired new coaches in the offseason. The Colts are 10-2 against AFC South teams in the past two seasons. Pagano pointed out during the league owner's meetings in March and early in camp that the division will be better this season. That may be true, but the Colts will be better, too.
3. This camp brings Luck what could be the best group of offensive weapons to work with in his young NFL career. That in turn could lead to the Colts having one of the best offenses in the league. Wayne made a grand entrance at training camp and hasn't looked like he's coming off a torn ACL so far. Fellow receiver T.Y. Hilton shined in Wayne's absence last season, and the Colts signed former back-to-back 1,000-yard receiver Hakeem Nicks in the offseason. That's just the receiving corps. Dwayne Allen, one of only a handful of all-around tight ends in the league, is back after barely playing half of a game last season due to a hip injury. He'll team with Coby Fleener to give Indianapolis an impressive young tight end duo to work with. The Colts turned a lot of heads in one of the first days of camp when they used a formation that had Hilton, Nicks and Wayne lined up out wide on one side of the field and Fleener and Allen lined up out wide on the other side. That's a match up nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. There was concern about the interior part of the offensive line even with veteran guard Donald Thomas in the lineup. That uneasiness has increased during camp when Thomas (quad) went down for the 2014 season. Now the Colts probably will start a rookie and second-year player at guard -- Jack Mewhort and Hugh Thornton, respectively -- and a second-year player who couldn't get on the field as a rookie -- Khaled Holmes -- at center. Veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo noticed early in camp and continues to point out on a regular basis how Holmes doesn't carry himself like a first-time NFL starter. Castonzo said Holmes is taking control of the line and making sure everybody is on the same page. It's good Castonzo feels that way, but the lack of experience for the group doesn't calm any nerves on the outside. The interior part of the line has to come together quickly.
2. The Colts' question marks at running back started before training camp and they picked up even more when third-year player Vick Ballard tore his Achilles on the second day of practice. That leaves Indianapolis with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at running back. Richardson's problems during his first season with the Colts after being traded from Cleveland are well documented. He averaged only 2.9 yards a carry and was eventually benched in favor of Donald Brown. But Richardson has been a different player in camp. He's running hard, making quick cuts and using his natural instincts. Look for Richardson to play a part in the passing game, too. He averaged almost 10 yards a catch last season. Bradshaw has health concerns. His season ended after Week 3 last season because of a neck injury. So you have to wonder if Bradshaw can make it through the season injury free, especially when you take into account he's dealt with neck issues in each of the past two seasons.
3. Gone is safety Antoine Bethea, who started every game he played during his eight years with the Colts. And linebacker Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks last season, is suspended for the first four games of the season. Indianapolis still doesn't know who will replace Bethea alongside LaRon Landry at safety. Delano Howell is currently ahead of veteran Mike Adams in the race for that starting spot. But don't be surprised if a starter isn't named until closer to Week 1 against Denver. The Colts also don't know if Landry can be injury free. He just recently started practicing after missing more than the first week of camp with a groin injury. There is no replacing Mathis, but second-year player Bjoern Werner has basically locked down that spot with an impressive start in camp.
Da'Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen appeared to be favorites in the battle to be the team's No. 4 receiver when training camp opened. But rookie Donte Moncrief has found himself in the thick of the race to be behind Wayne, Nicks and Hilton. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said Moncrief is “deceptively fast, as well as a tough, smart kid.” Moncrief will likely get the first shot to be the team's kick returner.
Not having Thomas for the season is a double loss for the Colts. Not only was he expected to start at guard, but he was also the Colts' backup center behind Holmes. Mewhort is now a starting guard and the backup center. The rookie out of Ohio State has played every position along the offensive line at some point in his football career. The Colts can play veterans Lance Louis or Joe Reitz at guard if Mewhort is ever pressed into action at center.
Speaking of Mewhort, Luck likes how the offensive lineman carries himself on and off the field. "He’s a sharp, sharp guy and he plays a little angry, which is fun to be around," Luck said. "A little fire to what he does which is fun.”
Punter Pat McAfee is serious about one day handling punting and kicking roles once veteran Adam Vinatieri retires. McAfee has been kicking -- and making -- field goals of up to 65 yards in training camp.
Toler's desire to remain healthy and play in all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his career has been evident. He's only missed one practice session dating back to the team's mandatory three-day minicamp in the middle of June.
The Colts' starting fullback could be a player who has never played the position before. Mario Harvey, who made the switch from linebacker, has been getting the snaps with the first team because last season's starting fullback, Stanley Havili, remains on the physically unable to perform list with a shoulder problem.