ANDERSON — During last year’s training camp, the Indianapolis Colts expressed their dismissal of outside expectations by sporting t-shirts that highlighted the team’s status as the 32nd-ranked team in certain NFL preseason power rankings.
The Colts backed up their belief in themselves by finishing with an 11-5 record and earning an AFC Wild Card playoff berth.
This year’s motivational t-shirts were borne out of one of last season’s most indelible moments.
After a midseason victory against the Miami Dolphins, head coach Chuck Pagano — who was battling leukemia and had been away from the team for weeks — made a surprise appearance in the postgame locker room.
His address to the team, which was shown on nearly every national highlight show that Sunday, included a particularly emotional description of the future.
“My vision that I’m living is to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then hoist that Lombardi (Trophy) several times,” Pagano said as his players roared their approval. “I’m dancing at two more weddings, and we’re hoisting that trophy together, men.”
As new wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey caught passes from a JUGS machine before Sunday’s afternoon practice at Anderson University, he wore a t-shirt with an image of a hand grasping the Lombardi Trophy on the back. Underneath were two simple words, “Hoist It.”
That’s the message that will dominate this training camp and, the Colts hope, the entire 2013 season. There’s a sense of unfinished business in the air.
Indianapolis trailed the Baltimore Ravens 17-9 early in the fourth-quarter of their playoff loss, but the Colts had a first-and-5 at the Ravens’ 18-yard line. Two incompletions and a penalty later, the team missed a 40-yard field goal and Baltimore later drove for an insurance touchdown en route to its own Super Bowl championship parade.
Coming so close against the team that achieved the ultimate goal continues to drive Pagano.
“Ultimate goal is always a world championship,” the head coach said Sunday at AU. “First and foremost, the easiest way to get into the (postseason) dance is to win your division. Our first goal is, No. 1, win the (AFC) South. We got to try to take over the South.
“Houston’s had it the last two years. This team and this organization has dominated the South for years and years and years, and now we got to get it back.”
Toward that end, general manager Ryan Grigson and his staff have added 37 new faces — including Heyward-Bey.
The additions were mainly focused on bolstering the offensive and defensive lines in attempt to improve the running game and the rush defense. But there is new talent at nearly every level on offense and defense.
And even the new guys feel the pain of last season’s finish.
“They lost to my hometown team in the playoffs,” Heyward-Bey said. “Even though I wasn’t a part of it, I know what it’s like losing. So it’s time to go out there and work and try to get past that point.”
As that work begins, Indianapolis again finds itself at odds with some outside expectations.
There’s an undercurrent of distrust running through many national predictions. A belief that perhaps last season’s success was more the result of a confluence of events — Pagano’s battle for his life rallying the team, young players performing beyond their years — than a sustainable formula for success.
Pagano said the goal for this year’s team is to put everything from last season — the good and the bad — behind it. That’s the only way to move forward.
“I think everybody, if you read the papers, everybody’s still saying the Colts are fool’s gold,” Pagano said. “I think I read that one. I shouldn’t read that stuff, but in this league what we did last year was last year. This is, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ In the National Football League, we’re all judged by wins and losses, and so that was last year.
“We can sit there and read press clippings and pat ourselves on the back and certainly get complacent. We’re not going to get complacent. You get complacent in this league, you go right back to where you were. It’s kind of unfinished business for us.”
There’s that phrase again.
It permeated nearly every aspect of Sunday’s first day of on-field work at AU.
When the Colts lined up for that playoff game in Baltimore, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was in the hospital with a surprise ear infection he’d discovered that morning. Some players the team was counting on were injured, and a crowd that’s always hostile toward Indianapolis was further stoked by the pending retirement of legendary Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
But the Colts’ goal remained the same. And it’s a goal that will never change.
“When we were in that stadium in Baltimore, no matter what, no matter who was in the hospital, who wasn’t playing, who was playing, that team believed that we were going to keep winning, all of us did,” Grigson said. “It was a big pit in all of our stomachs from then, and we want to obviously build off that because we owe that to our fans.
“We owe that to ourselves. And for all the hard work we do, all the sacrifices we make, all the time we spend away from our families, why not have the expectation to win it all? I don’t see why you get up in the morning and do this if you don’t have that expectation.”