INDIANAPOLIS – On the first day of training camp at Westfield’s Grand Park in July, T.Y. Hilton had an announcement to share.
This is the best team he’s ever been a part of.
Much has changed in the ensuing two months, including the shocking retirement of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.
But none of it has swayed Hilton’s mind.
As the Indianapolis Colts prepared for Sunday’s season opener at the Los Angeles Chargers this week, Hilton reiterated his belief in his teammates.
“I’ve been on good teams. I’ve been on bad teams. I’ve been on not-so-good teams. But this team is special,” he said. “We have pretty much everything that you need to have everywhere on the field. So that’s what’s got me so pumped.”
There’s plenty of faith inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center in new starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett. But there’s even more confidence in the team surrounding him.
With Luck throwing for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, the Colts won nine of their final 10 games in 2018 and surged to a wild-card playoff berth.
The expectation was the team would pick up where it left off in his second season under head coach Frank Reich.
Now, there are no expectations from outside the locker room. Which suits Indianapolis just fine.
“Last year, we’re ranked 32 coming in, and now that Andrew’s gone we’re definitely being talked about by everyone, ‘Oh, they won’t make the playoffs.’” linebacker Darius Leonard said. “So this team is definitely up for a challenge.”
They’ll certainly get one from the Chargers.
L.A. has some challenges of its own. All-pro safety Derwin James will miss the game with a foot injury, and left tackle Russell Okung will miss at least the first six weeks while he continues to recover from a pulmonary embolism.
Running back Melvin Gordon also won’t play Sunday, but that’s by choice. He held out throughout the offseason, hoping for the kind of contract restructuring Ezekiel Elliott received with the Dallas Cowboys.
But the Chargers held fast on their stance and announced late last week they will not negotiate once the season begins.
Those absences are less than ideal, but Los Angeles still has plenty of firepower.
Quarterback Philip Rivers is coming off his eighth Pro Bowl appearance after throwing for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2018.
He’s supported by a defense with perhaps the best pair of pass rushers in the league in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who will present a tremendous challenge to Brissett in just his 18th career start.
“Man, they’ve got two great edge pass rushers – not just pass rushers, they are great players,” Reich said. “Thomas Davis at linebacker is an incredible player, I have always thought. Really good secondary, instinctive players, this is a very well-coached defense.
“The teams that play this scheme, they tend to play that coverage 90 percent of the time. They play their form of three-deep zone. They play it a very high percentage of time. They have change ups that they do, but the theory behind that is they know how to play it, and they play it well. It all starts with being able to run the football and being able to protect the passer. Those are going to be keys to victory.”
The Colts believe they have an offensive line as good as any in the league, and running back Marlon Mack appears poised for a breakout season.
They also have a wealth of talent in the passing game led by Hilton and the tight end duo of Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron.
The biggest question is how well Brissett will deploy those weapons.
Indianapolis won’t ask the 26-year-old to go outside of his comfort zone. The offense will be tailored to his preferences, and he’ll have the power to change play calls as needed at the line of scrimmage.
There’s no way to be certain how Brissett will perform once the ball goes live, but the coaches are very happy with what they’ve seen from his preparation.
“He has started games before, but we talk a lot about being consistent and being the same guy every day,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “That’s something that is a coach’s dream right there. You know what you’re going to expect, and Jacoby has been that since Day 1 here.
“It hasn’t mattered if he has taken first-team reps, second-team reps, scout-team reps – it doesn’t matter. He has been the same guy every day, and he has prepared himself as the starter, and he has prepared himself for this situation right here.”
Now the time for talk is over.
A new era dawns Sunday in L.A. with Brissett under center and the Colts determined to prove the doubters wrong.
The message coming out of Indianapolis for the past two weeks is that it’s never about just one man.
They hope to begin proving that philosophy against the Chargers.
“He knows we’ve got a lot of weapons,” Hilton said of Brissett. “As long as he goes out there and be Jacoby, we’ll be fine.”