INDIANAPOLIS -- They were supposed to be the team ready to push the New England Patriots off their throne at the top of the AFC in 2015. Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady, the young stud quarterback vs. the veteran quarterback, for years to come. The hell-bent general manager had the Super Bowl in his sights after three straight years of taking another step in the playoffs.
None of those things happened for the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, it was just the opposite.
It turns out that the Colts, the once-proud franchise with an owner who will say and do anything to try to get multiple Lombardi trophies, started to fall apart on the same night they were throttled 45-7 by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 19, 2014. What was a big issue at the time -- Deflategate -- is now a footnote.
The Colts (3-7) haven't had their franchise quarterback all season and are in the process of missing the playoffs for the third straight year for the first time since they had a seven-year postseason drought from 1988 to '94. First-year general manager Chris Ballard has spent much of his first 10 months on the job cleaning up the mess left behind by Ryan Grigson with a rebuild.
"It's been wild," said veteran safety Darius Butler, who has been with the Colts since 2012. "It's almost a completely new team now almost two times over since when we got to the AFC Championship game. We were trending in the right direction, but things happen. It hasn't been what we wanted it to be."
The collapse wasn't because of one specific thing done by the Colts. It has been because of multiple reasons:
Poor roster management
It was all about grabbing the big pile of poker chips and sliding them to the middle of the table and not looking back for Grigson after improvement in each of his first three seasons as general manager. Grigson, with the backing of owner Jim Irsay, went for it all in the 2015 season.
"Our bottom line is what our bottom line is," Grigson said during the NFL scouting combine in February 2015. "Can we get better? Sure we can. We've made a significant stride every year getting closer to our ultimate goal. That was our ultimate goal in 2012, believe it or not. Like I've said many times, I don't know why you get out of bed in the morning and work these jobs in this league if you don't have that belief that you can win it all."
Grigson bet that signing older veterans would be enough to put the Colts over the top. Running back Frank Gore, linebacker Trent Cole, receiver Andre Johnson and offensive lineman Todd Herremans were the headliners of that group.
That move completely backfired and set the Colts back in their roster development. None of those players other than Gore contributed much. They went 8-8 and missed the playoffs that season. Luck missed nine games because of an assortment of injuries, but if the roster was truly built to make a run at the Super Bowl, Indianapolis should have been good enough to at least win the weak AFC South and make the playoffs.
Ballard, seeing the obvious flaws, immediately started weeding out the aging veteran players and spent the offseason adding younger, cheaper ones who have something to prove. His philosophy is to build and develop the roster with homegrown talent through the draft.
Irsay had a chance to clean house with the coaching staff and general manager after the Colts fell flat on their faces in their Super Bowl-hyped 2015 season. That season featured internal feuding between Chuck Pagano and Grigson all year long.
But Irsay went in the opposite direction. He gave Pagano and Grigson new contracts because he thought the two could put their differences aside despite the clear tension between them. He went as far as to hire a psychologist to try to improve Pagano and Grigson's relationship.
"[Chuck] said to me, 'Jim, I want to make sure I'm tied at the hip with Ryan, and I want to make sure when we get to the mountain top that Ryan and I are there together because we've been through a lot together and we have a special relationship, a close relationship,' " Irsay said on the night the new deals were announced in January 2016.
The Colts, again, finished with an 8-8 record in 2016. Irsay made a move, but instead of firing the coach and the general manager as a package deal, he kept Pagano and terminated Grigson. Irsay wouldn't commit to Pagano being the coach beyond this season despite him being under contract through the 2019 season.
Not having Luck this season isn't a viable crutch for Pagano. The Colts are 3-7 largely because of their struggles in the fourth quarter of games. They've been outscored 110-28 in the final 15 minutes of games. And to take it a step further, Pagano is a combined 0-9 against New England and Pittsburgh, the two AFC heavyweights, in his career.
Inability to build an offensive line
It's baffling how the Colts could use their No. 1 overall pick on the best quarterback to enter the draft since Peyton Manning in 1998 and not put a qualified offensive line around him.
To Grigson's credit, he tried to fix the offensive line by using half of their eight draft picks on linemen in 2016.
But the damage had already been done to Luck's body, which in turn has set the organization back. The Colts' $140 million franchise player will have missed 26 games by the end of this season because of injuries after not missing a game during his first three seasons. There's still no timetable on when Luck will return from his shoulder injury, which originally occurred in September 2015.
The Colts have given up 222 sacks, which is the 11th most allowed, since selecting Luck in 2012, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Luck has been sacked 156 times from when he was drafted to the end of the 2016 season. The offensive line problems are still evident today, as the Colts have given up an NFL-high 39 sacks this season.
Bad draft decisions
The draft is a crapshoot because you never know how a player will turn out, especially once you reach the middle and later rounds.
It's in the early rounds where you can't swing and miss. Grigson's highlight was the 2012 draft, which featured Luck and T.Y. Hilton. None of the seven players selected in 2013 are still on the roster. The Colts didn't have a first-round pick in 2014 because Grigson traded it away for running back Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, in September 2013. Richardson gained a total of 977 yards in 29 games in his two disappointing seasons with the Colts.
Offensive lineman Jack Mewhort and receiver Donte Moncrief are the only two players remaining from the 2014 class, and they both could be on their way out at the end of the season, which is the end of their rookie contracts. Knee problems will end up causing Mewhort to miss 17 games over the past two seasons, and Moncrief has failed to develop into a consistent No. 2 receiver behind Hilton.
What can't be forgotten is that Ballard has no allegiance to the players Grigson acquired. Just ask Dwayne Allen and Phillip Dorsett, who were both traded to New England this year. The Colts went with speed when they selected Dorsett, the receiver out of Miami, with their first-round pick in 2015 when they had more pressing needs on the offensive line and on defense.
"This isn't an easy rebuild for Ballard," ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick said. "First and foremost, they have to get the Andrew situation resolved and determine if and when he'll be back. Then they have to decide if Pagano is the right man for the job and then they have to go from there. This won't be easy, which you didn't expect considering where they were at a few years ago."