The Indianapolis Colts have been fighting their way past problems all season.
They still are.
After waiting for Andrew Luck’s injured shoulder to heal, a revamped offensive line to jell and a rebuilt defense to come together, the Colts head into their bye week with six games left and more questions than answers.
“Some years are like this,” coach Chuck Pagano said earlier this week. “It makes you better if you don’t quit, if you don’t give in.”
Pagano’s teams never have given in to doubters, and he doesn’t expect that characteristic to vanish now with Indy facing its first losing season since 2011.
But the hardest part has been watching a season full of hope unravel.
Team owner Jim Irsay made it clear this spring he expected Luck to play this season, and with a healthy quarterback the Colts (3-7) ought to be back in the playoff mix after missing the postseason each of the past two seasons.
But when Luck’s return was delayed and he was eventually shut down for good two weeks ago, things changed.
Fans are openly wondering whether general manager Chris Ballard needs to search for a new quarterback in the draft in case Luck doesn’t return to his previous form. So far, Ballard is brushing off those suggestions.
“I’m not getting career-ending injury from anybody,” Ballard said when asked about Luck’s future. “What we’re getting from the doctors is have patience. Have patience with the rehab process.”
The loss of Luck has led to other issues.
Backup quarterback Scott Tolzien lasted 3½ quarters as the starter before being benched after having two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Pagano has since turned to second-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett, acquired in a trade with New England eight days before the Rams game. Brissett has started every game since then as he continues to learn his new team’s offense and his new teammates’ nuances.
While Brissett has played well at times, he’s also thrown four crucial interceptions in the fourth quarter or overtime and had a late fumble returned for the winning score at Cincinnati. Yet nobody inside the organization has been overtly critical of a guy still trying to get his footing in the league.
“A lot of times, as I’ve said before, experience is the best teacher,” Pagano said. “Your failures you learn a lot more from than your successes a lot of times. I think that he’s growing in those areas, he’s getting the ball out, he’s learning, he’s becoming more comfortable, he’s managing the games and managing different types of games in different situations.”
The concerns go far deeper than Luck’s sore right shoulder, of course.
Indy’s offensive line has allowed a league-high 39 sacks and Brissett was knocked around eight more times in Sunday’s 20-17 loss to Pittsburgh, leaving him with postgame with concussion-like symptoms and questions whether the Colts treated his injury correctly.
League officials have since said they did.
Plus, they’re working with a completely new defense that has often wilted under the pressure of being left on the field far too long. It happened again Sunday after Brissett opened the second half with a 61-yard TD pass, only to grind out three more first downs and 24 yards over the final 27½ minutes.
The result: Indy has blown three double-digit leads in the second half, plus the six-point, fourth-quarter lead at Cincinnati.
Add the embarrassing public spat that resulted in last week’s quick release of two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis and it’s clear how much of a struggle this season has been.
“Every decision that we make, that I make, is based on two things — and that’s what’s best for the football team, the team, and what gives us the best chance to win,” Pagano said. “This isn’t about one guy. Nobody is bigger than the team, and it starts with me. I’m not. Nobody is.”
Over the last six games, Pagano and his future in the organization again will become the focal point for the third consecutive year.
Indy must win five of its last six to avoid the first losing — and most trying season — of Pagano’s tenure.
“It absolutely does feel like a long time, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it,” cornerback Rashaan Melvin said. “It (the bye) can’t come at a better time. We all need a break from the game and come back next week ready to take on Tennessee.”