Colts hoping to find answer to 8-game opening day skid
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indianapolis Colts receiver Michael Pittman Jr. just smiles in anticipation of the next question.
He’s heard it each September since being drafted in 2020 and Pittman and his teammates know it will continue until they snap the NFL’s longest active opening day losing streak.
The Colts last celebrated a Week 1 victory in 2013 when Andrew Luck scored on a late 19-yard TD run to give Indy a 21-17 victory over the then-Oakland Raiders.
Since then, it’s been eight straight losses with the reminders evident everywhere from talk radio to the words of team owner Jim Irsay.
Indy thinks it can finally break through on Sunday at Houston.
“I’ve probably heard that 1,000 times since I’ve been here,” Pittman said Monday, referring to the drought. “We’re just looking to break that streak. We’re just willing to do whatever it takes.”
So far, nothing has worked. They changed general managers in 2017, coaches in 2018 and players annually as the losses piled up.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, the 2016 league MVP, is the next great hope. He’ll be the sixth opening day starter in six years and, like the Colts, is trying to end his own opening day skid. Ryan lost his last four in Atlanta.
It hasn’t mattered who or where the Colts have played.
Five losses came on the road and the list of foes has included Super Bowl contenders such as Denver in 2014 and the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 as well as the six-win Cincinnati Bengals in 2018 and one-win Jacksonville in 2020.
Coach Frank Reich made a training camp switch this year — moving practices from mid-morning to midday, hoping the extra rest would keep guys healthy and give them a better game day simulation. With only five players starting the season on injured reserve, the first part seems to have worked.
Now comes the bigger test.
“Starting off the year in the winning column can kind of create a snowball effect going into the weeks coming after,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “Getting that good jump start on the year would definitely be great.”
Especially after what the Colts have endured during Reich’s first four seasons.
In 2018, they rebounded from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs and positioned themselves to make the playoffs last season after starting 1-4 — only to lose their final two games. The other two years they were 3-2 and a faster start would at least have given the Colts more margin for error.
But for a franchise that was often among the league’s last unbeaten teams during the Peyton Manning era, it’s been more than a decade since they’ve experienced anything close.
Nobody on the Colts active roster, practice squad or injured reserve was with the team for the previous season-opening win and only five players — Ryan, quarterback Nick Foles, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, safety Rodney McLeod and offensive lineman Dennis Kelly — were even in the league back then. New assistant coach Reggie Wayne did catch a TD pass from Luck in that 2013 victory.
Consider, too, that only four teams — the Colts, Bears, Giants and Browns — have won fewer than two season openers during that span and only the Colts and Browns, who tied Pittsburgh in 2018, have not won in Week 1. The Browns’ most recent opening day win came in 2004.
Indy also lost its opener in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
It’s not for lack of effort.
Irsay has publicly complained about the results though in mid-August, he acknowledged Reich and general manager Chris Ballard urged him to take a different tack this year.
“We’re just kind of focused on saying ‘Let’s go play our best football, let’s get it done’ instead of me ranting here for the next 10 minutes,” Irsay said at training camp. “You know how I feel about the opener, so I won’t say it. We’re looking to erase that deficit and start with a new era where we win our opener starting in 2022 and hopefully get on a streak this year.”
The Colts do have some advantages this time.
Ryan, unlike Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz, has had a full offseason, training camp and preseason to work with his new teammates. Defending NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor opens his third season, like Pittman, better prepared for the load they’ll be asked to carry.
Defensively, the Colts have added pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue and Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, to a unit that was already excelling.
And now all they need is a win Sunday.
“I think it’s been like 2014 or something like that,” Pittman said. “OK, 2013? Even worse. We’re going to fight our hardest, we’re going to prepare and that should put us in a great position to go out there and excel.”