Turn back the clock to September. What do you see if you root for the Colts, Texans and Seahawks?
Ugliness. Losing. Little hope.
It’s now after Thanksgiving, and Houston l eads the AFC South, with Indianapolis in hot pursuit. Seattle has stamped itself as a wild-card contender in the NFC, and an opponent most teams would like to avoid.
All three have made impressive turnarounds that could become memorable should they lead to the playoffs — and January success.
So how does it happen? Indy was 1-5 and now is 6-5. Seattle had two dirty defeats to open the schedule and was headed down a long losing path. Houston went 0-3, yet has become the first team to win eight straight after such a weak start.
“There is just a real upbeat aura about this team,” says Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who majors in upbeat and is doing one of the best jobs of his distinguished career.
“They’re real hungry to learn, they’re hungry for the challenges,” he added. “They’ve just been real competitive throughout and they’ve enjoyed the challenges. They have not allowed themselves to go downward at any time. They keep looking to the future and what’s up and what’s coming. It’s just been a really good group to work with.”
Sounds like what’s going on in Houston.
“You just have to believe,” explains defensive end J.J. Watt, who majors in believing — and is in the midst of a spectacular comeback season. “A lot of it comes down to belief, remaining positive even in a difficult situation and believing in yourself, and believing in each other, and knowing that you can turn it around.
“I think sometimes … you’re 0-3 or you’re in a tough situation, you look around and you’re like, ‘Maybe that’s just us.’ I think we all in that situation this year knew that wasn’t us. I think we knew we had the players in the room and the ability to play a lot better than we did and to win those games. So, I think it’s easy to believe when you know that about your guys.”
The main guy in Indianapolis has been Andrew Luck, who in strange circumstances never fully explained, missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury. Like Watt, he’s having a monster of a comeback year.
Folks in Indy cite coach Frank Reich — a second choice remember, after Josh McDaniels reneged on his deal with the Colts — playing to win in tight situations, such as the overtime loss to the Texans — as being a turning point.
“I think Frank has done a great job of keeping us just focused at the task at hand, whether we were losing games, winning games (or) whatever it is,” Luck says.
“The approach has been the same. So in that department, really nothing has changed. We’ve just come in and try to make the most out of each day. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s what’s working for us. That’s where our focus needs to stay. I think it is and we will fight against letting our focus go elsewhere.”
The key to winding up with a positive season after a negative start really comes down to faith. Faith in the coaching staff, in the players, in staying healthy enough, and in getting some breaks.
Stay the course, and that course might lead you deep into January. Or beyond.
“We will see it down the stretch, for sure, that well-coached teams get better as the season goes along unless they are decimated by injury,” says Hall of Famer Bill Polian, the guiding force for three winning franchises as a team executive.
“The guys that can coach get a handle on their team and then they coach the team they have got as opposed to the team that was on paper prior to training camp. They adjust accordingly and go ahead and figure out how best to maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses.”
That has been the case particularly in Seattle, where Carroll recognized a ball-control offense and opportunistic defense filled with new faces was the correct approach.
Polian also emphasizes the need for healthy players.
“Guys who heal up and are ready to go who are question marks in training camp,” Polian points to as critical. “Andrew Luck, who has never played better football in his life, is completely healthy, ready to go and excited, and has a coach who lets Andrew be Andrew. The offensive line has coalesced thanks to the drafting of Quenton Nelson and the return of Anthony Costanzo. That team is way better than they were at the start of training camp.
“And Houston is the same way. It’s gotten healthy with the return of Watt and the quarterback (Deshaun Watson), who is there full time, and now that is a different team.”
Personnel changes that have worked also have led to success in all three cities.
Polian believes the Colts have contenders for both top rookie awards, guard Nelson on offense, linebacker Darius Leonard on defense. New tight end Eric Ebron has 11 touchdown receptions.
The Texans obviously have Watt and Watson back, along with linebacker Whitney Mercilus, and third-round cornerback Justin Reid. Adding veteran wideout Demaryius Thomas when Will Fuller tore up his knee is paying off, too.
For Seattle, a stable of running backs, from first-round pick Rashaad Penny to second-year player Chris Carson to fourth-year vet Mike Davis has kept the backfield fresh. Second-year receiver David Moore has become a contributor, and the tight ends have picked up the slack with Jimmy Graham gone to Green Bay.
Most of all, the Legion of Boom has gone bust, but the secondary still has progressed throughout the schedule.
We might not be looking at a Super Bowl team from Houston, Indianapolis or Seattle this season. But remember what we were looking at two months ago.
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