Colts' incredible turnaround happened fast, but was no quick fix

INDIANAPOLIS -- The word "rebuild" was not talked about last winter when Frank Reich was named coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

It wasn't discussed when general manager Chris Ballard was more a thrifty shopper than a big spender during free agency. The same when Ballard traded down from No. 3 to No. 6 to gather more picks in last year's draft.

Moves like that might have screamed "rebuild" for a franchise in the midst of its longest playoff drought in 24 years, but if the Colts were to use an "R" word, it would have been "reload" as they worked to put pieces around the likes of Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Ryan Kelly and Malik Hooker.

"They will win forever as long they stay and play together." Veteran Colts safety Mike Mitchell on his young teammates

Ballard and Reich could have easily used rebuilding as an excuse when the Colts failed on fourth down in their own territory in overtime in a loss to Houston in Week 4, or when they fell to 1-5.

That wasn't the case.

"The good thing is we have a young team and they just kept their nose down because they didn't know any different no matter what the adversity was," Colts veteran linebacker Najee Goode said. "Preach the same message. Our same message was that even though we were 1-5, we knew what we were doing wrong in hurting ourselves over and over again. As long as we cleaned up the little things we would be straight. You get better after you play the same calls, the same plays, same repetition every day."

The Colts stayed the course. They weren't getting blown out, with only two of their first five losses coming by double digits. Luck, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, has played just as well or better than he did the last time he was fully healthy, in 2014 -- the perfect leader for a young roster.

And here the Colts sit, one of the final eight teams still playing. They play at Kansas City in an AFC divisional playoff game Saturday (4:35 p.m. ET, NBC).

Sticking to the process

"I never thought it was a rebuild," Reich said. "I tried not to put expectations on how far we could go. I tried to put expectations on what the process would look like and then just to see how far it would go. I just thought that was the better way to approach it. Don't think about how many wins we can get or how far we can get, just think about what's the vision. What's going to get us to where we want to go as fast as possible? Everything about my experience and my understanding of a football team has been it's got to be process-orientated and people-orientated. So really my attention has been on those two things."

What the Colts have accomplished by getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 can't be looked at as a quick fix, because they didn't go out and sign a bunch of players in the prime of their careers or at the end of their careers (see 2015 Colts free agency). Luck's return has obviously helped, but in what's turned out to be the best kind of stubbornness, Ballard's desire to build through the draft while filling holes with outside players on an as-needed basis has paid off more quickly than expected.

No draft is flawless, but Ballard's 2018 effort comes close. His first two picks -- guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard -- were both named to the All-Pro team. They're the first pair of rookie teammates to do that since Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers with the Chicago Bears in 1965. Leonard also led the NFL in tackles this season. Right tackle Braden Smith and defensive end Tyquan Lewis are also starters, highlighting a strong draft class that contributed throughout the season. Thirteen of Ballard's 19 draft picks the past two years are either starters or in the rotation.

"I can't say enough good stuff about Chris and Frank and the personnel they brought in," veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri said. "When you bring in guys like Quenton and Darius and all the young guys that are not only contributing but balling out -- superstar kind of stuff -- it doesn't take long to win games, a lot of games, and rise to the top when you get guys who can play like that. You just keep bringing in guys like that and that's when you have a good-ass team."

Adding 'Colts players'

Talent is in the locker rooms of all 32 teams in the NFL.

What separates the Colts from other teams around the league? Character, according to veteran Matt Slauson.

He has played for four different teams in his nine-year career. Slauson, who is in his first season in Indianapolis, said it was obvious early on that the character and maturity level of the players, even the rookies, was different. Leonard is barely a year removed from playing his final college game at FCS South Carolina State, and he presents himself and talks in a manner that makes you believe he's been in the NFL for a number of years. The same could be said about many of the players inside the locker room.

There's no selfishness there. There aren't any cliques or egos, either. It's a tightly bonded group.

"One of the things that Chris and his staff do when they are doing all the research on these guys, and there are certain players and their draft cards, they are marked in a certain way where we would designate them or identify them as kind of 'Colts players,'" Reich said. "These are the kind of guys who have the DNA, the makeup of everything that we are looking for -- all the intangibles, all the character qualities, everything about them. It's a really hard filter to get through to get marked that way, and both Quenton and Darius had that on their card. So that says something about their maturity and how fast we think they will develop."

No matter what happens Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, the 2018 season has been a successful one for the Colts. They were expected to be better than in 2017, when they finished 4-12. But being two wins away from reaching the Super Bowl was not expected this soon after the youth movement Ballard orchestrated.

And this is just the start of things in Indianapolis.

"Ballard did a phenomenal job picking the guys," said safety Mike Mitchell, who signed with the Colts in October. "They just needed to be shown the way. They have a lot of high-character guys. Good, quality guys. They will win forever as long they stay and play together. They have a good group of core young guys. You don't always win in the NFL if you don't have good-character guys."