Professional sports is a religion for a lot of people, and while they have a variety of reasons for following their favorite players or teams — raised to be a fan, proximity, winning, etc. — being a fan is not always easy.
Consider how frustrating it must be for fans who have to deal with ongoing public relations nightmares from players who get into considerable trouble — or front offices who regularly sign players with troubled histories. Being a fan can also be difficult when a team has built a reputation for failure or mediocrity — Colts fans who have been around for awhile should be very familiar. No time can be more difficult for a fan base than when an elite player retires — a situation the Colts will face when Peyton Manning decides to hang it up.
But there are things about the Indianapolis Colts that will not go away, even when the wins do. It is what makes it relatively easy to remain a Colts fan, and is part of what will hold the fan base together when (arguably) the greatest quarterback to ever play football moves on.
I. The Colts are Perpetual Underdogs
Readers may have difficulty understanding how it is possible for the Colts to be NFL underdogs when the team has sustained a level of regular season excellence that is unparalleled in league history. How is a team with a recent Super Bowl win, who is a front-runner each year for championship contention, who is led by Peyton Manning, who has put together the longest streak of 10-win seasons in NFL history, and who is currently tied for the league record of consecutive playoff berths an underdog?
Consider the Indianapolis Colts roster. The team is filled with players who were relatively unknown when their careers began.
Jeff Saturday was an undrafted free agent castoff from the Baltimore Ravens in 1998. He now holds the record for center to quarterback exchanges with Peyton Manning, has been the unquestioned leader of the offensive line for more than a decade, has been named to five Pro Bowls, and is a four-time All-Pro selection.
Starting left guard Kyle DeVan was a 2008 undrafted free agent center who never saw the field until he spent the spring of 2009 with the Boise Burn, an Arena League 2 team. When the Colts added DeVan prior to the 2009 season, he started as a reserve guard behind veteran Ryan Lilja and 2008 second round draft pick Mike Pollak. By mid-season DeVan had taken the starting job away from Pollak, a feat he would accomplish again in 2010, this time over veteran guard/center Jamey Richard. Not only has DeVan seen action as a starter throughout much of his two-year stint with the Colts, he has also earned a reputation as one of the team’s most consistent blockers.
Former sixth round pick Charlie Johnson has done nothing but overachieve his draft status since he joined the team in 2006. As a rookie guard/tackle, Johnson stepped in for an injured Ryan Diem during Super Bowl XLI to block for Peyton Manning and help the team win. Manning was so happy with Johnson’s performance that he told media following the game that he did not even realize that Diem had exited the game until after half time. Johnson started 10 games at left and right tackle in his second season, 12 games at left guard and 4 games at left tackle in his third, and was named the starting left tackle in 2009 and 2010. Although Johnson was clearly playing out of position and has played through injuries, he is one of the team’s most dynamic and valuable offensive linemen.
2008 fourth round tight end Jacob Tamme was a relative unknown before 2010. That is not to say that Tamme was not a valuable contributor, he molded himself into the team’s best special teams coverage player in 2009 and entered 2010 with a very positive outlook to lead the team in special teams tackles. When veteran and Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark went down with a season-ending thumb injury, Tamme was called into action as his replacement. He responded with 67 receptions for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns — in just 10 games and 8 starts! Over a 16 games season Tamme could have accumulated 1010 receiving yards — 96 yards short of Dallas Clark’s team tight end record of 1106 in 2009.
Wide receiver Pierre Garcon joined the team as a sixth round pick in 2007, from Division III Mount Union. Finding Division III players who are capable of competing at an NFL level is extremely difficult, but finding them in the sixth round is even more rare. While Garcon has not been entirely consistent, as he has struggled to make some catches he should make, he has also changed the outcome of games by making incredible one-handed grabs, man-handling veteran cornerbacks, and out-running the competition. If Garcon can manage to bring all of his physical skills together with consistency, he will be a very dangerous player. The fact the he is even in the NFL is enough of an accomplishment, that he could be an exceptional wide receiver at this level is a marvel.
Undrafted free agent rookie wide receiver Blair White has gone through his entire career having to earn it. He walked on to Michigan State’s football team, earned a scholarship, went undrafted into the NFL, and now finds himself one of Peyton Manning’s top five receiver targets. Although White does not have blazing speed or the physical attributes of the players playing ahead of him, if he can develop a rapport with Manning and become comfortable with the route tree and audibles, his reliable hands and height could make him a dangerous red zone threat. His signature game in 2010 was against the Colts biggest rival, the New England Patriots, where he caught two touchdown passes to give Indianapolis the chance to make a last minute run at an unlikely win.
Middle linebacker Gary Brackett was an undrafted free agent in 2003 who became a starter after only two seasons. He used that opportunity to become the defensive captain, led the team in tackles in Super Bowl XLI, and was so important to holding the team’s defense together that he earned a 5-year $33 million contract at 29-years old, locking him up with the Colts for what will likely be the remainder of his career. Although Brackett has never been a Pro Bowl selection, he has been widely recognized by fans and members of the media as one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL.
Safety Antoine Bethea is a former sixth round draft selection who played at small Howard University. Bethea earned the starting free safety job by the end of his rookie season, including 14 starts at both safety positions throughout the year. He has been one of the team’s most reliable defenders, is always one of the team’s top tacklers, has been selected to two Pro Bowls, and is considered one of the most underrated safeties in the NFL.
Safety Melvin Bullitt is a former undrafted free agent who earned his way onto a team already sporting 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders. Needless to say, the promise to be a major contributor in Indianapolis was rather small. Bullitt found his way onto the field quickly though, as one of the team’s best special teams coverage players and filled in for one of the most beloved Colts. He used that opportunity to become an important part of the team’s defense, has been one of the team’s special teams captains for the last two seasons, and has started in 24 games in his first four seasons. That number would be significantly higher if not for an untimely injury during the 2010 season — the first significant injury and time missed in Bullitt’s career.
Defensive end Robert Mathis is a former fifth round pick who was passed over by much of the league for being “too small” to play on the defensive line in the NFL. Not unlike Bullitt, Mathis made his initial impact on special teams, leading the team with 17 special teams tackles as a rookie — he also had 11 defensive tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, and 2 passes defensed as a 16-game reserve. Over the course of his career he has accumulated 74 sacks (2nd in team history), 36 forced fumbles (2nd in team history), and has been named to three consecutive Pro Bowls. Mathis is a big part of one of the most feared pass rushing tandems in league history.
Undrafted free agent Eric Foster was called upon to start in 11 games at defensive tackle in his rookie season. At 6-foot 2-inches and 265 pounds, this was certainly a very challenging assignment. While he was clearly playing out of position, Foster worked very hard to accumulate 49 tackles, including a key goal line stop against the Pittsburgh Steelers that helped seal a Colts regular season victory. Since his rookie season, Foster has moved into a hybrid rotational pass rushing role and has improved his sack numbers from 2.5 sacks in his sophomore season to 3.5 sacks in 2010.
Former fifth round linebacker Tyjuan Hagler suffered through consecutive seasons with torn biceps limiting his on-field impact. These seasons followed his first as a starter (2007). The Colts chose to let Hagler go prior to the 2010 season, which landed him in Seattle briefly. After he was cut by the Seahawks, the Colts picked him up again and entered him back into the defensive rotation and put him on special teams units — where he has historically been one of the team’s best performers. In 2010 Hagler made important impacts by accumulating two starts, a sack, three passes defensed, an interception (nearly returned for a touchdown), a fumble recovery, and a 41-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to seal a win against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
2010 seventh round linebacker Kavell Conner started nine games as a rookie and accumulated 47 defensive tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 5 special teams tackles. Conner earned a reputation for being the team’s most disciplined linebacker by the end of the season and has put himself in a position to earn a full-time starting position on the weak-side in his second season — even if former fourth round selection Clint Session (two-year starter) is re-signed. Conner was on pace to turn in over 80 tackles as a rookie, even though he saw limited action in a few contests after recovering from a broken foot.
Clearly, whether the Indianapolis Colts as an organization are one of the most consistent teams in the league or not, they are composed of a group of starters and role players who have overcome a lot and outperformed the expectations of just about everyone. The team is not filled with big name superstars who demand the spotlight, bicker, or create a stir amongst NFL media. These players are undervalued, underrated, and have been underdogs throughout much of their careers. Yet these players form an NFL power house.
The other primary reason the Indianapolis Colts are perpetual underdogs is a function of the team’s location and history.
Indianapolis, Indiana is a small market compared to many NFL teams and it was not until the city and state put a lot of money on the line to build a beautiful new stadium that it would be in any serious consideration for a Super Bowl bid. The city resides squarely in what has always been basketball country, does not have the football history or tradition of a city like Green Bay, and is still a relative new comer to the NFL.
While the Colts franchise is one of football’s oldest, even its beginnings and the details of its move from Baltimore to Indianapolis make it an underdog. Much of the NFL community, and especially fans in Baltimore (which was a huge percentage of the team’s overall fan base), did not like the move, did not respond well to Indianapolis joining the NFL family, and generally dismissed any of the franchise’s winning traditions and former player greats — like Johnny Unitas — as have any association with the team’s new city. The result? The Colts landed in a city that was passively interested in football, at best, after losing all of its fan base, and had to fight against a negative stereotype to get off of the ground.
It took years of poor play, bad management in general, and disappointment for the Colts to get where they are today. Some may have gotten used to it, and some may have known nothing different — as they became fans after the team was successful. For those people, I ask you to imagine the Kansas City Royals dominating Major League Baseball for the better part of a decade. No matter the team’s history, in Indianapolis, the Colts were the NFL’s Royals, a paternal twin to the New Orleans Saints (in similarity of early performance), and now they are one of the NFL’s best.
At the end of the day, no matter how well the Colts perform in games, no matter how good their record is, and no matter how many Super Bowls the team wins, it will always carry an underdog label with it — and for good reason. Seeing an underdog overcome as much as the Colts have makes it pretty easy to be an Indianapolis Colts fan.