(AP / Michael Conroy)
Today, we’re going to party like it’s 1995. As former Colts quarterback and Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh prepares his team to play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, let’s take a moment to remember some of Harbaugh’s greatest moments as an Indianapolis Colt. (Note: I had to narrow this down considerably. So if you have any Harbaugh memories you feel like sharing, please leave a comment)
Long before he ever coached Andrew Luck or Colin Kaepernick, or even appeared in that Saved by the Bell episode, Harbaugh was an eight-year NFL veteran, unceremoniously jettisoned by Chicago and unwanted by most of the league. His career in doubt, Harbaugh was a man down on his luck when he first came to Indy, according to a great 1996 article by Peter King, written just after Indianapolis knocked off Kansas City in the 95-96 playoffs:
It's about time Harbaugh's luck turned. The week he got waived by the Bears, he also broke up with his girlfriend and learned that his month-old golden retriever had only a 10% chance of surviving an intestinal disease. He said he felt as if he were living the lyrics of a country-music song. The job, the girl and the dog…and then came Mel Kiper.
According to the article, Kiper was highly critical of the Colts for signing Harbaugh, saying they had once again signed the wrong guy and should have pursued Trent Dilfer.
The down and out franchise in Indianapolis would turn out to be a perfect match for Harbaugh. Like their new quarterback, the Colts had been booed, ridiculed, rejected, and overlooked. Toiling through decade of futility and poor decisions, the Colts, who had finally closed the book on the Jeff George experiment, had only reached the postseason one time since relocating, and were seeking a return to some level of success with the same urgency as Jimmy Harbaugh.
Flashes of Brilliance
Harbaugh had played decently for the Colts in 1994, throwing for 1440 yards, 9 TD’s, 6 INT’s, with an 85.8 rating. He was benched in favor of former Packer Dan “Majik” Majkowski, only to regain the starting job in week 15, winning two of three to help the team finish the season 8-8.
Although Harbaugh clearly out-dueled Majkowski, the team was not convinced the 31-year old former whipping boy to Mike Ditka was the quarterback who would lead them back to the playoffs. So, they traded for former Tampa Bay quarterback Craig Erickson and handed him the starting job in 1995.
"A lot of people are saying I'm a key factor here, and so be it," Erickson says. "I love it when the focus is on me because I think I can perform and fulfill their expectations. I'm glad to finally be somewhere where everyone looks at me as the Number 1 guy." (Peter King, 1995)
The honeymoon would be short for Erickson, who kicked off the ‘95 season with a three-interception dud in a home loss to the Bengals. Harbaugh came in and went 9-13 for 86 yards and a short touchdown to former LA Ram Flipper Anderson (and a two-point conversion to Floyd Turner) to force overtime (Cincinnati would kick a FG in OT for a 24-21 win).
The Kick-start: Week 2, 1995, Colts 27, Jets 24
The following week, the real magic began. Boomer Esiason, Wayne Chrebet, and the Jets were torching the visiting Colts to the tune of a 24-3 lead in the third quarter. Erickson was struggling and had no touchdowns to go with his fourth interception of the young season. The Colts, a team who had been down so many times before, looked poised for another loss and yet another dismal season.
However, after Defensive End Tony Bennett returned a fumble for a touchdown in the third quarter, the oft-maligned Jim Harbaugh began to play his way into the heart of every Colts fan he hadn’t won over already. He would lead two fourth quarter touchdown drives, tying the game at 24 to force overtime with a 14-yard strike to the lightning fast Marshall Faulk. It wasn’t a pretty throw, if memory serves, but a scrambling, desperate heave under pressure, thrown where only the diving Faulk could haul it in.
In overtime, the offense scrapped its way just into range for a game-winner, and a booming 52-yard field goal from Cary Blanchard kick-started a season to remember for a team, fan base, and a quarterback, all in desperate need of something memorable.
The Dolphin Slayers: Week 6, 1995, Colts 27, Dolphins 24
The Colts were 2-2 after holding on to beat then-undefeated St. Louis the previous week and were suddenly faced an even greater test: a division game on the road against the 4-0 Dolphins, who were 10-point favorites (PFR). These were the Don Shula, Dan Marino Dolphins; contenders who expected to sweep the lowly Colts year after year.
Harbaugh would finish the game 25-33 for 319 yards, 3 TD’s and no interceptions, but most of those yards came in the second half, however, as mistakes and penalties plagued the Colts early on, leaving them staring down another 24-3 deficit by halftime.
Being down big to a vastly superior opponent was no new situation for the Colts. It had been the story of their tenure in Indianapolis. But this team was different. This team had a hero, and the offense and hard-hitting defense rallied around him in a then franchise record-tying comeback.
The Colts’ first possession of the third quarter was a methodical 14-play 85-yard drive that appeared to sputter out at their own 24-yard line, when Harbaugh scrambled for a fourth down conversion. They converted that and a fourth and goal at the Miami three yard line when Harbaugh found Floyd Turner in the end zone to close the gap to 14.
The offense struck more quickly on their next drive, with Harbaugh hitting a streaking Turner for a 47-yard touchdown. Down 24-17 in the fourth quarter, Colts fans did not feel the air of confidence they feel in similar situations today. There was little of the culture or history of winning that exists in 2013.
Nevertheless, the defense forced another Miami punt, and Harbaugh and the offense got the ball back with a chance to win late in the fourth quarter. They raced 74 yards downfield in around two minutes, converting another fourth down along the way on a quarterback scramble. Harbaugh and Aaron Baily capped off the drive with a 21-yard touchdown throw and catch, and the game was tied.
After blanking Miami throughout the second half, the Colts finished things off by kicking a game winning field goal in overtime from the Dolphins’ 10-yard line. Harbaugh was 5-5 on the overtime drive (Colts.com).
Among the postgame comments, according to a 1995 article by Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated, Miami Nose Tackle Chuck Klingbeil said, "Championship teams, like the 49ers—they don't let this happen. You never want to lose to anybody, but the Indianapolis Colts? Come on."
Also from the Sports Illustrated story:
"An embarrassment," said Don Shula.
"A disgrace," said linebacker Bryan Cox.
Upon leaving the locker room, Harbaugh had a question: "What do you think Ditka will have to say about that?"
Harbaugh and the Colts would end up sweeping the Dolphins that year, beating Miami 36-28 in Indianapolis in November, which would prove to be an important tiebreaker, as both teams finished 9-7.
At 8-7, Indianapolis had to beat the lowly six-win Patriots in the final game of the season to make the playoffs, and did so, edging them 10-7 (AP recap from 1995) even after star running back Marshall Faulk went down with an injury that would keep him out of the postseason.
The Colts, without Faulk, would face the defending AFC Champion Chargers in San Diego. The Chargers, like the Colts, were 9-7 but entered the contest on a five game winning streak, including a win at Indianapolis in Week 16.
Backup running back Lamont Warren, one of the heroes of Week 17, struggled mightily, getting just 10 yards on 5 carries, but bruising rookie Zack Crockett stepped in and rumbled through the Chargers defense for 147 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 13 carries. Harbaugh threw for an efficient 175 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a third to seal the victory.
“Captain Comeback” didn’t need to lead a dramatic second half rally this time, as the Colts would pull away late. The defense intercepted Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries four times, and the team rode Harbaugh and Crockett in the fourth quarter to turn a one-point lead into a convincing 35-20 win.
After the game, Sports Illustrated quoted Colts OLB Quentin Coryatt:
"We said we were going to gain some respect, and that's what we did," linebacker Quentin Coryatt said after Sunday's game. "We showed we're alive and real."
A week later, they would beat the 13-3, top seeded Chiefs 10-7 in a defensive struggle in frigid Kansas City (-9 degree wind chill at kickoff), hopping with joy as KC’s kicker missed a potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds.
The Colts offense struggled to hear Harbaugh’s play calls and adjustments throughout the game in the deafening Arrowhead Stadium as they pulled out the unlikely victory.
"We were just winging it out there, flying by the seat of our pants," Harbaugh said afterward. (Peter King, SI)
We all know what happened the next week. The Colts came within one Hail Mary pass of the Super Bowl. The Steelers’ Kordell “Slash” Stewart stepped out of bounds before catching a touchdown that gave Pittsburgh the lead. Who knows what might have been had the NFL reviewed scoring plays back then?
Indy’s First Football Hero
After the second playoff win in Indianapolis Colts history in January 1996, Harbaugh reflected a little bit:
"For a long time I'd watch Joe Montana on tape and think, That's who I want to be like. I'd think I was going to be Montana and end up in the Hall of Fame. Then I'd watch myself on tape and realize I looked nothing like Joe. I don't have the arm of Troy Aikman. Heck, I don't have the arm of [Colt third-stringer) Paul Justin or the ability to read defenses the way Craig Erickson does. I'm an ugly player. But at least now I know what I am." (Peter King, SI)
Now, watching the intense 49ers coach patrol the sidelines and prepare for the Super Bowl brings back memories of the same never quit attitude he once brought to Indianapolis.
He made the Pro Bowl after that 1995 season, the lone selection of his career, and posted a quarterback rating of 100.7. Injuries and free agency decimated the team over the next two years, eventually sending Harbaugh on his way at 35 years old, to be replaced by a number one overall draft pick who would usher in an exciting new era (sound familiar?).
His final home game as a Colt was a 41-0 trouncing of the Miami Dolphins in which he threw four touchdowns, giving Colts fans one more great memory before he went on his way. Jim Harbaugh was only with the team for four years, but he helped raise the bar for what to expect from the Indianapolis Colts and became the city’s first real football hero along the way. He did all this in a time when the only sports heroes in Indiana played basketball or drove race cars.
Good luck this weekend, Jimmy. As a wise man named Marchibroda once said, “Let ‘er rip.”
We’ll leave you with three excellent NFL Films videos of the Colts 1995 season:
And a link to a great article from the 1996 season:
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