(Sports Network) - A year ago, coming off a 2-14 season that was quite possibly uglier than the record indicates, the Indianapolis Colts had bid farewell to a Hall of Fame quarterback and a two-time playoff coach and were on the verge of starting anew with a rookie passer and a respected but untested sideline boss.
Put it all together and, oh sure, it simply reeks of an 11-5 finish with a playoff berth.
Problem is, the encore to such a stunner isn't nearly as easy to pull off when everyone sees it coming.
Second-year QB Andrew Luck and coach Chuck Pagano are back after the former threw for more than 4,000 yards en route to the Pro Bowl, and the latter served as a season-long inspirational touchstone before returning to the sideline for the Week 17 finale and the one-week playoff barometer.
Pagano left the team after a 1-2 start to get treatment for leukemia then came back for a 28-16 defeat of Houston that clinched the unlikely postseason berth. The Colts lost, 24-9, to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, but Pagano remained in good health throughout the offseason and is focusing on high-end football goals to begin 2013.
His players, meanwhile, see the changes in their leader as a positive in their football approach.
"I don't know what effect his fight with cancer had, but it feels like people here have football in proper perspective," said Matt Hasselbeck, who joined the team in the offseason as Luck's backup. "I think they've almost found that lightning in a bottle that every coach tries to manufacture. It's just sort of legit. What motivates you? What are you doing this for? Around here, we all seem to know."
Pagano and Co. will repeat the journey without Bruce Arians, the offensive coordinator who took over as interim coach and was 9-3 in 12 games. He left the organization in the offseason to take over as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, who parted ways with Ken Whisenhunt.
Arians was replaced by Pep Hamilton, the former offensive coordinator at Stanford University, where, conveniently enough, he called plays for Luck and tight end Coby Fleener.
"It's been great," Luck said. "I'm fortunate not to have to learn a completely new offense. I've got a lot of residual information floating around from Stanford, and it all came back quickly. Just knowing his personality, knowing how to communicate with him, that's almost as important as the football side of things."
2012 RECORD: 11-5 (2nd, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, lost to Baltimore Ravens in AFC Wild Card Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Chuck Pagano (11-5 in one season with Colts)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pep Hamilton (first season with Colts)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Manusky (second season with Colts)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Ahmad Bradshaw (from Giants), OT Gosder Cherilus (from Lions), NT Aubrayo Franklin (from Chargers), QB Matt Hasselbeck (from Titans), FB Stanley Havili (from Eagles), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (from Raiders), C Khaled Holmes (fourth round, USC), NT Montori Hughes (fifth round, Tennessee-Martin), DE/DT Ricky Jean-Francois (from Niners), S LaRon Landry (from Jets), ILB Kelvin Sheppard (from Bills), G Donald Thomas (from Patriots), G Hugh Thornton (third round, Illinois), CB Greg Toler (from Cardinals), DE/OLB Erik Walden (from Packers), DE/OLB Bjoern Werner (first round, Florida State).
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: WR Donnie Avery (to Chiefs), WR Austin Collie (to Niners), DE/OLB Dwight Freeney (to Chargers), ILB Moise Fokou (to Titans), DE Clifton Geathers (to Eagles), DE/OLB Jerry Hughes (to Bills), DT Antonio Johnson (to Titans), OT Winston Justice (free agent), G Seth Olsen (to Vikings), CB Jerraud Powers (to Cardinals), C A.Q. Shipley (to Ravens), QB Drew Stanton (to Cardinals), S Tom Zbikowski (free agent).
QB: Considering where things stood a year ago at this time, the forward leap the Colts have made under center is barely short of remarkable. Last August, Luck was a touted prospect, but still untested newbie stepping into the shadow of a guy named Manning and cleaning up the mess left by guys named Painter, Orlovsky and Collins. These days, Luck is a firmly established NFL commodity after a Pro Bowl rookie year that included 23 touchdowns, 4,374 yards and 16 starts.
He's backed up by as good a No. 2 as there is in the league, in the form of Hasselbeck, a three-time Pro Bowler who threw for 3,571 yards in a full season as a starter in 2011 in Tennessee and had seven TDs in five starts last year.
RB: Vick Ballard ran for 814 yards and caught 17 passes while scoring three TDs for the Colts in his initial NFL season last year and he enters the 2013 as the top man on the depth chart --though competition arrived in the offseason in the former of former New York Giants No. 1 man Ahmad Bradshaw. The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder made 12 starts and played in 14 games last season, reaching the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in three seasons and scoring six times on the ground.
Smallish third-year man Stanley Havili, a 6-foot, 227-pounder, occupies the top tier at fullback after two seasons in Philadelphia, where he caught seven passes and ran the ball just six times.
WR: Veteran Reggie Wayne enters his 13th season and continues to maintain a high standard. He reeled in 106 passes last season, the fourth time his reached triple-digits, and averaged 12.5 yards per catch, which equaled his best season in that category since 2008.
Across the field is second-year man T.Y. Hilton, who emerged from third-round anonymity to catch 50 balls for a 17.2-yard average and score seven TDs. Former Oakland first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey arrives for a change of scenery after four largely disappointing seasons on the West Coast. The former No. 7 overall pick averages 14.8 yards per catch, but has posted just 26, 64 and 41 catches in three full NFL seasons.
TE: A two-tiered approach at tight end provided Luck with a pair of reliable targets in his rookie season.
Fellow second-year pro Dwayne Allen returns after 45 catches, 521 yards and three TDs in his debut year, and is joined by Coby Fleener, a second-round pick in 2012 who caught 26 passes and scored twice in 12 games. Hamilton was Fleener's college coordinator at Stanford.
OL: Mammoth free-agent signee Gosder Cherilus (6-foot-7, 315 pounds) was the biggest offseason add on a unit that was inconsistent in 2012. He displaces Winston Justice, who made 12 starts last season after five seasons in Philadelphia.
Third-round draftee Hugh Thornton is listed second on the depth chart behind Mike McGlynn at right guard, but is the safe bet to have the job before too long. Another rookie, Khaled Holmes, is pushing incumbent Samson Satele at center, while Donald Thomas arrives for the left guard job after spending two years apiece with Miami and New England while starting a total of 21 games.
The left tackle is former first-round pick Anthony Castonzo, a 6-foot-7, 311- pounder from Boston College.
DL: Cory Redding played 14 games in his initial season with the Colts after six in Detroit, one in Seattle and two in Baltimore, but had a middling impact with two sacks and 21 tackles. He's joined up front by a pair of offseason acquisitions. Ricky Jean-Francois has two sacks and 12 tackles in eight games with San Francisco, but inked a four-year, $22 million deal to play the other end in the 3-4.
In between is Aubrayo Franklin, a veteran of 126 games and 78 starts while spending time in Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans and San Diego. He had 16 tackles in 12 games with the Chargers in 2012 and hasn't had a sack since 2009.
Josh Chapman, a fifth-round pick in 2012, and Montori Hughes, a fifth-round this year, are the heirs apparent if the veterans don't produce.
LB: The outside spots are manned by a veteran Colt and a free-agent import. Robert Mathis enters his 11th season in Indianapolis and has been consistent throughout, notching no fewer than seven sacks in any season since his rookie year of 2003, and finishing with 10 or more four times. Erik Walden arrives from Green Bay with a four-year, $16 million contract after three seasons with the Packers in which he combined to register eight sacks in something less than full-time duty.
Rookie Bjoern Werner, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound outside man chosen 24th overall from Florida State, will see a considerable amount of field time as well.
Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman are the starters at the inside slots after playing in 11 and 16 games, respectively, in 2012. Freeman was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season and chipped in with 90 tackles, two sacks and an interception. Angerer had 21 tackles and forced a fumble in his third season since arriving from Iowa.
Kelvin Sheppard was acquired via trade from Buffalo after having two sacks and making 53 tackles with the Bills in 2012.
DB: Two holdovers and two free agents arrive in the backfield, with one apiece at the corner and safety slots.
Greg Toler signed a three-year, $15 million contract after intercepting two passes -- and returning one for a season-long 102-yard touchdown -- for Arizona in 2012. He's joined by fellow newcomer Laron Landry at safety. Landry had 75 tackles, two interceptions and forced four fumbles in one season with the New York Jets that followed five in Washington.
Cornerback Vontae Davis was a success in his initial year with the Colts after three with Miami. He had three interceptions and made 46 tackles in 10 games. The other incumbent secondary player in safety Antoine Bethea, who enters his eighth season in Indianapolis after making 75 tackles and posting two sacks in 2012.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Adam Vinatieri will turn 41 at the end of December, but shows few signs of slowing. He was 26 of 33 on field goal attempts in 2012 and made all 37 extra-point tries. The 18th-year veteran was uncharacteristically inaccurate from 30 to 39 yards -- missing three of seven attempts -- but was nine of 10 between 40 and 49 and made four of seven from 50 or more.
At punter, fifth-year Colt Pat McAfee is solid, having boosted his per-kick average from 42.0 to 46.6 to 47.9 yards in the last three seasons.
T.Y. Hilton handles punt returns and averaged 11.5 yards per attempt on 26 returns, while rookie Kerwynn Williams arrived in the seventh round from Utah State, where he averaged 27.2 yards per kickoff return in 2010.
COACHING: If he wasn't the actual coach for most of last season, then Chuck Pagano was certainly the motivational force behind the Colts' turnaround from doormat to contender in both the AFC South Division and the conference as a whole. He'll presumably get a full season to enjoy Luck's prowess as a passer, while simultaneously hoping that a slew of acquisitions on defense can improve on its 21st-place standing in scoring and 26th-place position in yards allowed in 2012. Until proven incompetent, he gets the benefit of the doubt for his prowess.
THE SKINNY: There'll be no sneaking up on anyone this season for the Colts, which makes a quick start against iffy early opposition a priority. Indianapolis gets going with Oakland (home), Miami (home), San Francisco (away) and Jacksonville (away) -- making a 3-1 start a good barometer for the whole year.
Things tighten up in the second quarter of the schedule with Seattle, Denver and Houston, and there's a good chance the Colts' will know what they've got -- up or down -- by the time they've played eight games.
And while the chance for a series of wins does exist in the season's second half, the bet here is that the good karma that was worth a few Ws in 2012 won't fully carry over to 2013, leading to a 9-7 finish and a near playoff miss.