Offseason Preview: Sparano brings belief back to o-line

Feb. 9—INDIANAPOLIS — There's a case to be made for Tony Sparano Jr. as the Indianapolis Colts' 2023 MVP.

The first-year offensive line coach re-instilled belief in his charges and got the unit as a whole to play much closer to its peaks in 2020 and 2021 than the valley that was a disastrous 2022 campaign.

The Colts' 10th-place rankings in scoring offense and rushing yards despite playing a plethora of backups throughout the season suggest the impact the offensive line produced.

And any brief conversation with the players themselves reveals the depth of Sparano's influence on those results.

"Tony — you're not going to find a guy in here who is not going to run through a wall for that guy because he believes in us as players," center Ryan Kelly said. "He believes that he wants the best out of us, and that's what pushes us to be the best players that we can be. I think when you've got a coach like that and you've got a room that's recommitted to being the best, proving people wrong that we're not the players they thought that we were — I think you're going to get something out of that.

"It was ultimately everybody in that room who committed to being the best they could this year and just playing well."

The improvement came without any major personnel additions and despite the loss of several starters at various points in the season.

Right tackle Braden Smith battled a knee injury that sidelined him for seven games, and left tackle Bernhard Raimann and Kelly missed two and three games respectively because of concussions.

Rookie Blake Freeland filled in at both tackle spots, and Wesley French — the third-stringer at the start of training camp before an ankle injury ended Danny Pinter's season in the final preseason game — held his own at center.

Sparano kept the trains moving on time no matter who was in the lineup, and Kelly said that is the mark of a special coach.

"I think it's the true dedication of a true, great offensive line coach," Kelly said. "You don't get many seats in that room, right? You only get so many guys dressed out there on game day, so if you're in there, you're there for a reason. Danny breaks his ankle in the last preseason game, so Wesley — not much NFL experience — 'Go in there and play well.'

"It shows that no matter who is in there, whether it's Blake filling in or the rest of us are still there or vice versa, no matter who is in there is going to hold the standard up for that guy. I think every single week that we were in here, we made sure that the standard was always the standard. I think those guys did a great job of understanding that. As young players in the league, coming in understanding that I think is huge for them, and they really improved all year."

Continuity should be a theme in 2024.

Pinter is the only player scheduled for unrestricted free agency, and all five starters should return.

Nelson and Kelly participated in the Pro Bowl Games, but no player had a season that can't be replicated in 2024.

Raimann took serious steps forward in his second year as a starter but still has plenty of room to reach his ceiling, and the same can be said for Fries. Logic also dictates Freeland and French will benefit greatly from their time on the field as reserves.

All of which points to the team again looking more toward improvement from within than planning any major offseason moves.

"I think Tony did a tremendous job," general manager Chris Ballard said. "We had injuries, and he had to really be flexible and get those other guys ready to play. Pleased with where (the linemen) are at and where they're going.

"I think Bernhard took a really good step, and I think it's going to continue to get better the more he plays. I thought Quenton played really well this year, back to being who we all think and know who he is. I thought Ryan Kelly — he had the little injury there midseason — but I thought he came back and competed well. I thought Will Fries played really solid football all the way through. Braden is important to our football team, and when he doesn't play it hurts us. He had some issues with his knee that he'll work through, but he's an important piece.

"Then with the rotational backups — when Freeland had to play and when Wesley French had to come in and play — I thought Tony and the offensive staff did a really good job adjusting and getting that group ready to go."