INDIANAPOLIS -- The big posters of him that used to adorn the outside of Lucas Oil Stadium have been removed, although Andrew Luck hasn't entirely disappeared. He still lives in town and he occasionally visits the Colts facility to say hello to his close friends on the team. He and his wife are preparing for the birth of their first child next month, and when members of the organization talk to him, they come away with an important conclusion: Luck is happy.
Had Luck's retirement two weeks before the regular season began -- it has still not been two full months since the thunderbolt landed -- derailed the Colts' season, they would have received a mulligan. The Colts were suddenly a Super Bowl contender cast adrift without their franchise quarterback, and teams like that aren't typically contenders for very long.
They would try to win other ways, of course, and they did to start the season. As soon as Luck walked out the door, the offensive line became the best part of the Colts and so they morphed into a run-first team, handing the ball off on 48 percent of their plays. There were hats made that say "Run the Damn Ball." The Colts don't turn the ball over much, and they are one of the league's least penalized teams. They are efficient, which is not as sexy as explosive, but it was good enough to play keep-away from a hobbled Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago.
Still, could they stay with those high-octane offenses forever with Jacoby Brissett? The Colts had professed confidence in Brissett since that sad night with Luck, but they were rarely aggressive with him. Indy had just nine passes of 20 or more yards from Weeks 1 to 6, tied for last in the league. When head coach Frank Reich told his team in their meeting Saturday night that if they were going to beat the Houston Texans to take over first place in the AFC South, they would have to come up big in the passing game. Well, could they really rely on the part of the offense that had lost its superstar and had no quick-strike ability?
The Colts gave us the answer in their 30-23 victory over the Texans on Sunday, and they provided it almost immediately. Reich called nine passes in their opening 12-play, 94-yard touchdown drive, part of the 40 passes he called out of 67 plays in the game. Doing the math? That's 60 percent, with Brissett producing a career day -- four touchdown passes and 326 yards. With the defense holding the league's best red-zone offense to three field goals in the first half, the Colts negated the need for quick strikes. They were grinders, going on five drives of at least eight plays each, even though they struggled to run all day. Reich had insisted all along that his was a game-plan offense that adjusts week to week depending on the opponent, but for the first time since Luck retired, you could believe the passing game with Brissett could be the dominant part of a successful game plan.
"It says he's legit," Reich said. "He's the man. We've believed that from Day 1. We've never wavered in our conviction on Jacoby. We all know, he knew it, too. You've still got to prove it. You've still got to put the offense on your back for this game and make the plays he made to win this game. He did it as well as you can do it."
Reich and general manager Chris Ballard deserve credit for steadying the Colts after Luck's departure, but perhaps some of that credit should accrue to the players, too. They went to overtime on the road against the Chargers before losing their season opener and have lost just once more since then. At 4-2, they are now poised for a run. Three of their next four games are at home and all four are against teams with losing records. They do not play another winning team until the rematch in Houston on Nov. 21.
Brissett was, perhaps, the perfect person for the role he was suddenly thrust into in August. He was a locker room favorite even as the backup. He shares delightfully kooky Twitter musings, and he rarely seems weighed down by the pressures of his job. On Sunday, he sloughed off being in first place -- how many games do we have left, he asked, before saying he couldn't do math at the moment -- and the deeply strange start to his and the Colts' season.
"I wouldn't say I was thrust into this role at all," Brissett said. "It's been a journey, but it's been fun. The learning and constant ways to get better. What I did today doesn't make me the man. It makes us more balanced. I think that's what we proved. We can throw the ball. It's just a great day for us as a whole."
The Colts never gave in to the idea that this season was lost without Luck and now the season has turned into one with some swagger. Receivers had their way with crossing routes so consistently that they said later they were more tightly covered in practice by their own scout team than they were by the Texans. Receiver T.Y. Hilton resisted the idea that the Texans had limited him (he had six catches for 74 yards and a touchdown), noting that he had two drops and adding, "If they play that same coverage again the next time we play them, it's going to be trouble."
The truth is the Colts are the worst kind of trouble right now. They have already survived a football disaster, so nothing is likely to shake them. They have proven to themselves and everyone else that they are multidimensional. And, in consecutive games, with wildly different game plans, they have proven they can beat opponents that have better quarterbacks than they do -- if, in fact, the Colts would ever think Brissett is not a top quarterback, too.
"When the whole Andrew Luck thing happened, we already knew he was ready," said receiver Zach Pascal, who caught six passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns from Brissett. "Nobody flinched. This locker room is different. People don't realize. We trust everyone."