INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colts owner Jim Irsay and general manager Ryan Grigson made the offseason mission perfectly clear.
They were going to run the ball more effectively and keep Andrew Luck on his feet more often in 2013.
Now, after making a big financial commitment to revamp the offense, they’re still waiting for the payoff.
While the Colts managed to rush for 127 yards and average 4.9 yards per carry, a positive sign for a team that has ranked among the league’s worst over the past several seasons, Indy also struggled to sustain second-half drives or keep Luck clean in the pocket in Sunday’s 21-17 victory over Oakland.
“There’s always going to be, especially in the opener, some things to clean up. They’d all tell you they’d be the first ones to tell you that we’ve got to play better and we will play better,” coach Chuck Pagano said.
“It’s some communication things, some technique things. Again, it’s the first ballgame and we’ll be better as far as run-blocking and protection going into the second week.”
Fans expected more.
For months, Colts players and coaches raved about the power-running scheme and double-tight end formations favored by new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
The fans interpreted that to mean the Colts had fixed the problems that caused Luck to be sacked 41 times, hit more than 100 times, complete 54.1 percent of his passes and throw 18 interceptions a rookie.
Combined with Luck having a full offseason to work in the system and with teammates, they figured the numbers would improve dramatically.
Some did on opening day. The second-year quarterback completed 78.3 percent of his passes and still had the AFC’s third-highest average yards per attempt (7.74).
Luck threw two touchdown passes, no interceptions and scrambled 19 yards for the winning score with 5:20 to play. Only Peyton Manning (141.1) and Colin Kaepernick (129.4) had better first-week passer ratings than Luck (127.9).
The problem was that Luck also was sacked four times, escaped a couple of others and got knocked around a handful more times by an Oakland defense that had nine new starters.
So on Monday’s radio shows, fans expressed their angst. Meanwhile, on the city’s west side, Colts players and coaches asked for patience.
A couple of weeks ago, new left guard Donald Thomas called the line a “work in progress.” On Monday, he noted things were improving.
“I feel better than when I said it the first time, and that’s progress,” Thomas said. “Each week, we’ll get better and hopefully, we’ll be playing our best football in February.”
There might not be any football in February if they can’t protect Luck.
Most football insiders understand it takes longer for the offensive line to coalesce and play together as a single unit, so these early weeks could be rough.
It didn’t help the transition that the Colts lost right guard Mike McGlynn for the last two preseason games and left tackle Anthony Castonzo for all but one series of the final two preseason games because of injuries. Both were back in the lineup Sunday for the first time since getting hurt.
Not all of the problems are the result of poor line play, either. As Thomas noted, there’s only five linemen and if a defense sends more, they’ll need help in blitz pickups. Luck also can help getting rid of the ball quicker or throwing it away.
Ultimately, though, the linemen understand the number of sacks and hits will determine whether they deserve credit or criticism.
“I think sacks are always put on the offensive line, but who really knows what the situation was or where the protection broke down,” McGlynn said. “We don’t ever want to give up sacks.”
What they did do against Oakland, though, was show demonstrative improvement in opening running lanes — by design and on the fly.
Vick Ballard ran 13 times for 63 yards, an average of 4.8, and by pushing the pass rushers beyond Luck on that big third-down play, when the middle of the field was completely wide open.
Luck took off up the middle, cut to his left and avoided a couple more Raiders defenders near the goal line before scoring the winning TD.
And that is no small accomplishment for a team that has averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry five times since 2006 and has not produced a 1,000-yard runner since 2007, the third-longest drought in the NFL.
So while the early reviews were mixed, the Colts continue to believe the investment in their rebuilt line will prove to be worth every penny.
“I think after the first game, there’s no team in the NFL that feels like they’re where they need to be,” McGlynn said. “Everyone wants to play the perfect game, but the goal is to get better every week.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org