INDIANAPOLIS – Tony Sparano Jr. made a strong first impression.
It’s imperative he makes a lasting one. The revitalization of the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line likely depends on it.
As first-year head coach Shane Steichen was building his staff, he turned his attention to the offensive line. A replacement was needed with Chris Strausser, the voice in the position room the previous four seasons, accepting a similar position with the Houston Texans.
At one point in his late-February search, Steichen sat across from Sparano. Midway through the interview, reality set in.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, this is going to be the guy,’’’ Steichen said at the owners’ meetings in late March. “He was phenomenal.’’
Sparano described his initial meeting with Steichen as “incredibly detailed.’’
The conversation bounced from philosophies to techniques to schemes to what the mentality of a Sparano-led offensive line room would entail.
“It wasn’t just asking questions about it,’’ Sparano said. “It was doing exercises of showing things I believed in and what I thought and what I thought could maybe help the group.’’
Again, Sparano made the necessary impression.
After holding a variety of coaching positions over the last 12 seasons, including assistant offensive line coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2017-20), Carolina Panthers (2021) and New York Giants (2022), he’ll run the show in Indy in 2023.
It’s not a stretch to insist the Colts are expecting a lot from one of the new assistants at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
The offensive line has been in steady decline the past few seasons and was one of the primary reasons the offense was an abject failure in 2022. Pass protection was shoddy from the outset and led to 60 sacks, second-most in the league and in franchise history. Run blocking was inconsistent, which limited Jonathan Taylor’s effectiveness and big-play opportunities.
The Colts generated 25 offensive touchdowns, fewest in the NFL, and finished with 289 points, tied with Houston for second-fewest in the league. They ranked No. 30 in yards per play (4.8), No. 31 in yards per pass (5.68) and No. 23 in yards per rush (4.25).
One of general manager Chris Ballard’s foundational cornerstones is a strong offensive line. It’s got to start up front.
That wasn’t the case as the team’s decision to gamble on inexperience and the absence of competition at two positions during training camp – left tackle and right guard – failed. And that was exacerbated as left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Braden Smith endured subpar seasons, especially during the first half of the season.
IndyStar noted Kelly, Smith and Nelson combined to allow 15 sacks, citing Sports Info Solutions. Rookie Bernhard Raimann yielded nine after replacing Matt Pryor and settling in at left tackle.
“We had some changes to the offensive line, and that’s where our struggles occurred early, and we just never recovered from them,’’ Ballard said during his review of the Colts’ 4-12-1 season. “It took us a while to get some continuity. I probably underestimated that.’’
Despite the unsatisfactory season by the offensive line, the only offseason additions have been a pair of draft picks – fourth-round tackle Blake Freeland and seventh-round tackle Jake Witt – and Dakoda Shepley, who was claimed off waivers from Dallas. Shepley’s experience consists of 13 appearances and zero starts in three seasons with four teams.
Returning depth comes in the form of Danny Pinter (46 appearances, nine starts in three seasons) and Will Fries (18 games, nine starts at right guard last year). Fries likely projects as the starting right guard.
It’s clear the Colts are expecting the returning o-linemen to respond to different voices as well as different approaches in technique and scheme. Along with Sparano, they added Chris Watt as his assistant.
Indy still is in the infancy of its offseason work, but the early reactions to Sparano have been favorable.
“He’s been awesome,’’ Kelly said. “From day 1, he said the integrity of the offensive line room is paramount. That’s number one. You can have the best schemes, you can have the best guys evaluating defenses, but if you’re not collectively five as one, that room is not a place you want to go and want to be at.’’
As Sparano put it: “I’m big on all five guys playing as one unit. The offensive line room has got to function as one unit, or one entity or one heartbeat.
“If we do that, we have a chance. If we don’t, as an offensive line, you’re lost.’’
Nelson is coming off his first non-All-Pro season – first-team in his first three seasons, second-team in 2021 – but is confident the arrival of Sparano will make a difference.
“He’s great. You can tell he cares about the guys in the room,’’ he said.
Sparano has harped on his linemen being sharp on the technique that’s being installed.
“Nothing is like passed over, glossed over,’’ Nelson said. “Everything is very detail-oriented and explained really well to where you know exactly what he wants and exactly how to do it.’’
Kelly and Nelson stressed that building chemistry and camaraderie also have been focal points.
The o-line group always enjoyed good doses of each over the past several seasons, but Kelly admitted the collective confidence seemed to wane as last season disintegrated. Reviewing video, he added, was a mixed bag.
“There was a lot of stuff going on,’’ he said. “The eye-opening thing watching the film was like we did a lot of great stuff, too. Some of it was outside of our control, some of the stuff we can control ourselves and just do better, but just miscommunication here and there.
“It’s not that we’re not talented players, that we’re all not going out there and putting our best foot forward. It’s just not (being) on the same page. I think that was highlighted last year. Certainly something that Tony and Chris Watt have definitely harped on so far.’’
Kelly recalled being part of the Colts’ offensive line rebuild early in his career.
“I came into the league at a time when the Colts’ offensive line, for lack of better words, kind of got (expletive) on, right?’’ said the 2016 first-round draft pick. “In ’18, we kind of turned it around. It wasn’t anything other than believing in ourselves, believing that we still have this, we can still do this. From day 1, Tony has definitely emphasized that.
“Just things to clean up. Maybe it’s (doing things) a different way. I know that we can do that.’’
Sparano, 36, is part of the youth movement on Steichen’s staff, but there’s no questioning his NFL lineage. He absorbed so much as the son of the late Tony Sparano, whose three-plus-decades career in the NFL included four seasons as Miami’s head coach.
Sparano has evaluated the personnel he inherited and assessed what occurred last season while settling into his new office. But he’s taking a “blank slate’’ approach.
“Tear out the page,’’ he said of ’22. “It’s a brand new deal moving forward. We’re starting to build our identity, our chemistry and our confidence by playing together, trusting one another and forming that bond as a unit this year regardless what happened last year and buying into the things we’re doing moving forward.
“I’m not concerned about what happened here in the past. I’m concerned about today and moving forward, and I know that’s where their mindset is as well.’’
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