JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2020 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Mike Chappell – longtime Colts beat writer for the Indianapolis Star for 25 seasons and now of Fox 59 – on the Colts as they enter Sunday's 2020 regular-season opener against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field.
Question: You can't talk about opening the 2020 NFL season without acknowledging COVID-19. How did the Colts come through the offseason and training camp on that front, and how ready does this team feel entering Week 1?
They had three players opt out. The only one that really bothered them was Marvell Tell, who was going to be in the cornerback rotation. Other than that, the pandemic didn't affect them more than it did anyone else. They had a good plan. They held their practices. There were no hiccups at all. All things being equal, they're as ready as they can be considering the unique environment we're in.
Q: Everything you hear about the Colts entering 2020 is about quarterback Philip Rivers, who signed with the team this offseason after 16 seasons with San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers – and that this is a team that perhaps has Super Bowl hopes. How does this team feel about itself entering the season?
A: There's a quiet confidence. We talked to [General Manager] Chris Ballard [Sunday] and he said, 'We're in a good spot,' which for is a lot for him to say. He likes this roster. His whole thing is you need to be able to win without the quarterback playing lights out every game. That was the case too often in [former quarterback Andrew] Luck's career. They have one of the best offensive lines in the league. The running game was seventh in the league last year – and they added [rookie running back] Jonathan Taylor, who brings big-play possibilities. The receiving corps is as deep as it has been – if T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell come back from injury-plagued seasons, and they have looked fine. Defensively, they have a nice blend of young players and veterans. To tell you where they think they are, they went out in the offseason and traded the thirteenth overall pick [in the 2020 NFL Draft] for [former San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle] DeForest Buckner. They're not going to do that if they're in a two- or three-year building mode. The same with Rivers: You don't pay $25 million for one year if you're, 'Hey, we're two years away.' They believe this is a year this roster is in position to do something. What that is, I don't know. Are they on the same level with [AFC favorites] Kansas City and Baltimore? Probably not. But they're in that group with everybody else.
Q: With no preseason games, is it possible to know what Rivers is for this team? What have you seen from him so far?
A: We saw him in practice, and he looked fine. He has zip on the ball. He and T.Y. (Hilton) have got their act together quickly, which you expect from Pro Bowl players. But you don't know. The thing they are stressing is they didn't bring Rivers in here to throw for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. He has to do his job. He has to make the five or six plays that really matter. He's not in here to be a $25 million game manager. But at the same time, he doesn't have to carry this team with this offensive line. They're going to run the football this year. I don't know if it's going to be 50-50, but it's going to be 55-45 just because that's what [Head Coach] Frank [Reich] wants to do. They ran for 2,300 yards last year. How do they not run for more this year? They're better. They think the defense will keep them in games. Is he Rivers of 2018 or is he Rivers of 2019? They need the '18 version. If he throws for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns and has 12 or 13 interceptions, you'll love it. That will be all you need. Everything else is gravy. They believe he's what they need. Until proven otherwise, you think he will be.
Q: And you believe overall this is a very good offense…
A: The offensive line is good; you could argue Top 5. It's not perfect. They gave up 32 sacks last year and Jacoby Brissett avoided 10 or 12 with his pocket movement and strength – which Rivers is not going to do. If he's what they think they are, this has got to be a playoff team. If we're sitting here in December and going over the 10 things the Colts have to do to make the playoffs as a wild card, there are going to be a lot of upset people out at West 56th Street [the Colts' facility].
Q:You don't sound like you think this is a great defensive team…
A: It has the potential to be a good defense – great, I don't know. They need to be better. Buckner is the best defensive tackle they've had here in the Indy era. If you get the defensive front better, that's going to helps your linebackers – and they think they have a top-five linebacker corps. The question is will the front seven help the back end enough? – because the back end has question marks. [Cornerback] Xavier Rhodes made the Pro Bowl last year on reputation, but he hasn't been a really good player the last two years. The rest of them are young players. [Defensive end] Justin Houston gave them 11 sacks last year; if he gives them 11 or 12 sacks again, that helps. Probably their biggest loss right now is [pass rusher] Kemoko Turay. He's on the physically unable to perform list and that's a loss. They don't have another guy where you think you can get eight-to-ten sacks from a guy. They're deep on the defensive line, deep at linebacker and there are questions in the secondary. I like the pieces in place. I feel good about the offense; I feel cautiously optimistic about the defense.
Q:So what's a successful season in your eyes for this team? Does it have to push to be in the divisional rounds of the playoffs? A final-eight team?
A:That's a good way of putting it. You can have a good year with a wild card because of [AFC South rivals] Tennessee and Houston, but to squeak in and be one and done [in the postseason] … that would be a step forward, but it wouldn't be what this team is capable of, barring injury. The bottom line should be being a strong threat to get to the second round of the playoffs.