INDIANAPOLIS – A season that began with so much promise is unraveling one week at a time.
The slight favorite to win the AFC South in August heads into December with five losses in its last six games.
The Indianapolis Colts’ 4-7-1 record has the fan base transferring its glance from a disappearing playoff spot to upward mobility in the April draft.
Yet five games remain and the challenge for the players and coaches in the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center is undeniable: regroup and find a way to get back on track, even if only for Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys.
The postseason no longer is a realistic goal. But over the final six weeks, no one should be peeking at the looming offseason.
This is not uncharted territory for two of the team’s leaders. Interim head coach Jeff Saturday and quarterback Matt Ryan have dealt with Decembers that have tested the mettle of everyone in an organization and stirred the fan base.
During Saturday’s first 12 seasons as an offensive cornerstone, the Colts earned 11 playoff berths, won eight division titles, reached two Super Bowls and captured one world championship. They were 138-54.
But then came 2011. Peyton Manning missed the entire season with his neck issues. The Colts opened the season with 13 losses en route to a 2-14 record and the fan base began its “Suck for Luck’’ chants.
Saturday has shared memories of that “miserable experience’’ with his roster.
“I told them I learned so much about myself as a football player, as a man, as a leader in those kind of darkest days,’’ he said Wednesday. “I watched (coach Jim) Caldwell go through it and as an organization what that felt like.
“I encouraged guys: This will be a defining moment in your life. Do you love ball, because it will show up, right? Do you love the work? Do you love the process?’’
Everyone, Saturday stressed, is watching. Is a player still doing everything possible on his end, regardless of the team’s struggles? Or is there a dropoff because of the team’s struggles?
“It’s not only for the Colts now, but the audition for 31 other teams is a very real thing in the NFL,’’ Saturday said. “And what you put on tape is what people believe about you.’’
He laughed at the memory of the “Suck for Luck’’ refrain that resonated across the city. Every player in the locker room was driven not to join the 2008 Detroit Lions in NFL infamy at 0-16. The ’11 Colts cared not one bit about the ’12 NFL Draft.
It’s the same mindset in the ’22 locker room.
“From the guys in this room and myself included, I know my name’s getting attached to the wins and losses,’’ Saturday said. “Whatever happens (in the draft), that ain’t none of my business, right? I’ll go by Ws and Ls and I want to be the best head coach I can be.’’
Heading into their week 13 road date with the Cowboys, the Colts are the No. 10 seed in the seven-team playoff field. Their chance at leapfrogging either No. 6 seed Cincinnati (7-4) or the No. 7 New York Jets (7-4) is extremely remote.
But they’re 14th in the pecking order for the April draft, and each loss potentially is advantageous for the long-range picture.
“We haven’t even addressed it,’’ Saturday said. “My train of thought . . . has never been about what it looks like – whether as a player or a coach – next year. It’s about now. We’ve got plenty ahead to take care of.’’
Ryan is in lockstep with his coach. From 2008-17, he was part of a Falcons franchise that reached the playoffs six times and advanced to the Super Bowl after the 2016 season.
Now, he’s headed to a fifth straight losing season, and difficult December.
“It’s never fun,’’ Ryan said. “You obviously want to be driving the ship. You want to be the one where the division is running through it, you’re playing for position and homefield advantage.
“But I also told the guys, in these kinds of situations, I’ve learned more about players that I’ve played with than in really any other situations. I’ve gained respect and lost respect for certain guys as you’re going through these things.’’
It’s all about how everyone responds when a season disintegrates and losses pile up.
“One hundred percent,’’ Ryan said. “It still matters. Every time we step on the field, it matters. We’ve got a young team. We’ve got a lot of guys who this might be their first time kind of going through that experience.
“Whether you’re playing here or whether you’re playing somewhere else, every time you put it out there it’s your resume. There’s a lot to play for.’’
From a player’s perspective, that doesn’t include favorably impacting next April’s draft status.
“I mean, that’s hard,’’ he said.
He recalled 2019 in Atlanta. The team took itself out of playoff consideration by starting 3-9, but then it got its act together and finished with a four-game winning streak. The Falcons capped their unsatisfactory season with a 28-22 overtime win at Tampa Bay.
Ryan and the players were ecstatic. The fans? Not so much.
“It screwed us on like eight draft positions or something like that and they were all pissed off about that afterwards,’’ he said. “As a player, you’re like, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do?’ We’re out there, we’re playing this game, you’re going to win.
“It’s wild, the fan perspective. And I get it. I understand where they’re at. I think as players, you’re not wired that way. It’s here and now. It’s about the guys in this locker room that you’re playing with all the time.
“There’s a lot of professional and personal pride that goes into it. You want to perform at your best every time you step out there.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.