It felt like the ride would never end. If leukemia didn't stop them, why would their pass rush, their secondary, their offensive line, or their youth and inexperience? None of that mattered. Until it did.
The Indianapolis Colts ended their season with a 24-9 loss at the hands of the painfully average Baltimore Ravens. For a half, they looked like the better team. But when the clock struck zero, the pumpkin emerged because of their inability to make plays with their pass rush, their secondary, their offensive line, or their young WRs.
Of course, the 2012 Colts won't be remembered for any of those deficiencies. They will be remembered for the innocence of youth – they never knew they were supposed to be bad. They will be remembered for their comebacks, the unexpected triumphs. And they will be remembered for their fight.
It was said by many in the hours after their Wild Card Round loss that 2012 was a great learning experience for a team bound for great things. While it's true that experiencing the atmosphere, as well as the sheer will and determination required to win a playoff game, can only serve to help the team in the future, the Colts learned their most valuable lesson off the field, when their coach instilled in them that fight, the never-give-up attitude, the ability to live in a vision.
There are no happy defeats and moral victories in sports. There's no such thing as a "good loss", and "taking your lumps" is just a patronizing way of saying, "wait until you get better." But as the sting of Sunday's loss eventually fades, the reality of what happened in Indianapolis this season will set in: beyond the comebacks and the overachieving, a team was formed. Between players, coaches, management, owners, and, yes, a city, who, despite ridiculous claims of being fair weather, welcomed each of them into their hearts. And that team, lead by their head coach, filled the masses with hope and inspired them to do more than they believed was possible. ChuckStrong became far more than a hashtag, it became a way of life.
As we move into the 2013 off-season, there is a lot of work to be done. On offense, the Colts must upgrade an offensive line which, for much of the year, inhibited Andrew Luck's ability to play at his best. Grigson should also be in the market for a true #1 WR. Not only must he prepare for the eventual retirement of Reggie Wayne – he was amazing for much of the 2012 season, but he's closer to the end than the beginning – but for the offense to be at his best, someone significantly better than Donnie Avery must be getting the lion's share of targets. On defense, Grigson will have his hands full as he tries to upgrade the safety position, OLB, CB, while strengthening a defensive line that is not talented enough to command double teams.
But the biggest challenge for the team will be making this matter. Tragedy and hardship often have a way of bringing out the best in people. They cause us to fix our perspective and readjust our priorities. But as time passes and the hardship becomes a footnote, people slip into their old habits, with their old perspectives and priorities. Build on this, all of this. 11-5, yes – Luck, Hilton, Ballard, Allen, Freeman, Davis, Grigson – but also the hope, the fight. The season has ended, the vision should not.