Sorry, Indy, our turnaround was better

Phil Jackman

December 21, 1992|By Phil Jackman

The Indianapolis Colts, blessed with a schedule that must have been ordered up by someone with a last name of Irsay, won again yesterday and kept their playoff hopes alive -- for a few hours, anyway.

The Colts, at 8-7, were eliminated last night when the Dolphins beat the Jets. But hanging in until almost the last weekend of the season is peachy keen for the folks out in the Rust Belt, who doggedly put up their money each fall with little hope of recompense in the form of victories on Sunday afternoons.

But with each success as the end of the NFL regular season draws near, stories waft about drawing parallels to an earlier Colts team's turnaround that is probably still wedged firmly in the minds of local fans.

Such analogies are specious at best if not bordering on the sacrilegious.

So gather 'round, all ye children and young adults of short memory, while we straighten out this little misunderstanding.

The year was 1975, the then-beloved Horseshoes were situated right here in little ol' Charm City and they were coming off a 1974 season that saw them win all but a dozen of the 14 games they played.

How bad were things in '74? After going 4-10 the previous campaign under first-year coach Howard Schnellenberger, the Colts opened up with losses to the Steelers, Packers and Eagles when, for the first time, Bob Irsay flashed his true colors.

Previously, he had been assigned to the owner's box by general manager Joe Thomas and told he would be spanked if he dared open his yap. That particular day in Philadelphia, however, the red-faced owner caught the express elevator from the press box down to the locker room while Thomas was stuck on the local.

"Sunday, Bloody Sunday," we called it, an apt name for the sleight-of-hand move that saw Irsay hand Howie The Hoss the pink slip and designate Thomas as instant coach. Joe was flabbergasted. He didn't even know how to prepare a game plan. He proved it the next week when the Colts went up to New England and got waxed by a so-so Patriots team, 42-3.

Thomas, whose handle in these columns was "Joe Promise," was no fool. Realizing he was liable to be fired much quicker as coach than as general manager, he rushed out and hired Ted Marchibroda to be the club's coach.

It looked like the right move when the team opened the '75 season with a smashing win over Chicago, but the Bears, it seems, had taken up permanent residence in the cellar of the NFC's Central Division. Losses, four in number, followed against the Raiders, Rams, Bills and Patriots. Worse, only about 40,000 were finding their way to the Horseshoe on 33rd Street for Sunday devotions.

It was against the Jets in New York that the Colts got started. About 400 yards of offense and no turnovers led to a 45-28 victory. The Browns fell, then Buffalo. Time to pick on the Jets again.

At long last, it was time to face a good team, Miami, and the Colts were equal to the task. Suddenly, they had a defense and they beat the Dolphins, 33-17. Kansas City fell, 28-14, and the New York Giants, 21-0.

What a time around here. There was dancing in the streets before, during and after Toni Linhart's field goal in overtime to beat the Dolphins, 10-7. This and a subsequent win over New England not only gave the Colts a similar record to Miami's, 10-4, it gave them the AFC East title. From a 1-4 start coming off a 2-12 season, the Colts sprinted to a 10-4 record and the start of a three-year run of division titles.

From a combined record of 11-31 over three seasons (1972-73-74), the Colts reversed it to 31-11 over the next three.

Now let's look at what has been happening out in Bobby Knight country this season and during the immediate past. True, the Colts were 1-15 last season, but the previous four years they were better than a .500 club (33-30), going so far as to win their division in 1987.

Besides, that lousy record and other maneuvering helped them come up with the first two picks in this year's draft, Ted Marchibroda decided to let bygones be bygones and return as coach, and there's something to be said for teams with horrible records being matched against teams with equally horrible records the following season.

With upset wins over the Dolphins and Bills, it has been an impressive turnabout by the Colts, especially adding yesterday's come-from-behind, 16-13 victory over the Cardinals.

But we're talking about finishing with a 9-7 mark at best and no playoff berth, not a rise from the depths to a division title.

Unfortunately, all the heroics in '75 did for the Baltimore Colts was shove them forward to play Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and need ye be reminded what the Steelers were like in the '70s?

Besides kicker Dean Biasucci, who accounted for the winning points for the fourth time yesterday, and occasional heroics by a young defense and quarterbacks Jeff George and Jack Trudeau, no doubt the most important "ingredient" has been Marchibroda, good old "Teddy Trite," as he was known around here.

After yesterday's win, he revealed, "It was a great victory," while adding that Jeff George's "back was to the wall." Oh well, at least the guy can coach.

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