INDIANAPOLIS – A new era dawned in 1994, and with it the Colts shed past frustrations while establishing their credentials as a team to be reckoned with for years to come.
Bill Tobin, one of the most respected executives in the NFL after 18 years with the Chicago Bears, was hired as Vice President of Football Operations in January, bringing with him a philosophy that would prove the bedrock for his plans with the Colts.
“My philosophy is to control the ball, and I believe you win with defense,” he said. “When you go back to the great teams, the ones that sustained for any length of time, it was because of their defenses. I think you have to have a tough, aggressive, physical team.”
Tobin’s years with the Bears included the 15-1 team in 1985 that went on to win the Super Bowl, establishing its credentials as one of the most dominant squads in league history. In Tobin’s final nine years in Chicago, the Bears reached the playoffs seven times. In his tenure, all 20 of his draft picks were productive players with nine earning Pro Bowl nominations.
Tobin immediately set about re-shaping the Colts.
In March, he traded Jeff George to Atlanta. The homegrown quarterback had started 49 games the previous four seasons since being drafted first overall in 1990, but held out for more than a month heading into 1993, disrupting the team and contributing to a 4-12 season.
“I think this is best for all concerned,” said Tobin. “It’s best for the Colts, and it’s best for Jeff George. And I think it’s best for the Falcons that he go there.”
Soon thereafter he signed Jim Harbaugh away from the Bears to compete for the starting quarterback job.
“Jim is a guy who has been exposed to playoff situations, championship situations, winning situations,” Tobin said. “He’s a leader, he’s a winner and he’s in the prime of his career.”
Tobin also signed prominent free agents including defensive end Tony Bennett, safety David Tate and wide receiver Floyd Turner.
In April, Tobin engineered a memorable draft that produced a future Hall of Fame running back in second overall pick Marshall Faulk. Seven of the eight picks finished the season on the roster, including linebacker Trev Alberts, offensive linemen Eric Mahlum and Jason Mathews, tight end Bradford Banta and running back Lamont Warren.
The draft also produced a moment that would forever mark Tobin’s years with the Colts. When he opted to take Nebraska linebacker Alberts with the fifth pick rather than quarterback Trent Dilfer, Tobin was roundly criticized by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. Tobin defended the choice, and the exchange remains a memorable draft moment.
With head coach Ted Marchibroda’s steady hand, a roster infused with young talent and Tobin’s leadership from the top, the Colts laid the foundation for a remarkable future.
RECAPPING THE 1994 SEASON
Most memorable games: Considering Buffalo entered the season with four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, the Colts were not the only team to struggle with the Bills, but their difficulties had become acute. But they exorcised that demon by sweeping the Bills for the first time since 1980, playing a major role in ending the playoff run of their AFC East rivals. The biggest verdict came on October 16 in Buffalo, where the Colts had been outscored, 193-55, in their previous six trips. But Harbaugh completed 18-of-22 passes and directed two long touchdown drives as Indianapolis pulled a 27-17 shocker. Harbaugh’s completion percentage (.818) was the second-highest in team history at the time. He guided a 17-play, 98-yard drive in the second quarter, completing all seven of his attempts including the capper, a 6-yard toss to Floyd Turner. The march consumed 10:25. In the third quarter he guided a 15-play, 79-yard drive capped by a 10-yard toss to Kerry Cash. That drive consumed 8:27. Sean Dawkins had six receptions for 105 yards. In the final game of the season, the Colts completed the sweep, 10-9, in the RCA Dome when Buffalo kicker Steve Christie – who had missed two field goal attempts all season to that point – missed two, including a 46-yarder that bounced off the upright as time expired. The victory gave the Colts a .500 season (8-8).
Best seasonal performance: Faulk was a sensation right away, filling his trophy case with a prolific rookie season. He rushed for 1,282 yards (third-most in club history) and 11 touchdowns. He caught 52 passes for 522 yards and another score. His 1,804 total yards ranked second in club history and accounted for 40.9 percent of the team’s output. He was the first player in NFL history to be named both the Offensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl MVP, rushing for a record 180 yards in the game, while posting the first 1,000-yard season ever for a Colts rookie. He showed his Hall of Fame talent in the opening game, rushing for 143 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-21 victory over Houston, the first of his four 100-yard rushing games. He also topped 100 against Tampa Bay (104), the Jets (110) and Seattle (129). Faulk had 127 yards receiving against Washington, including an 85-yard touchdown.
Other individual highlights: Harbaugh started nine games and posted a quarterback rating of 85.8, setting a club record by connecting on 61.9 percent of his passes. … Linebacker Jeff Herrod led the team in tackles for the fifth time in six seasons with a career-high 200 (94 solo). … Bennett produced nine sacks and forced two fumbles. … Ray Buchanan started the season at free safety but shifted to left cornerback for the final six games and totaled eight interceptions, returning three for touchdowns and totaling 221 return yards, the second-best seasonal mark in team history. … Dawkins led the team in receiving yards (742) while Turner tied Faulk for the lead in receptions (52). Dawkins, Turner and Faulk produced then only the fourth seasonal trio of 50 seasonal receivers in Colts history. … Center Kirk Lowdermilk and tackle Will Wolford anchored an offensive line that allowed just 28 sacks while paving the way for the number four rushing offense in the NFL.
Turning point: The Colts carried a 2-4 record into their October 16 matchup in Buffalo, which had been a difficult venue for the Indianapolis team. But with the Bills’ defense focused on Faulk, limiting the dynamic rookie to a modest 64 yards on 26 attempts, Harbaugh took over and directed the 27-17 victory gave the revamped Indianapolis franchise a huge boost of confidence. It was the club’s first non-strike win in Buffalo since 1980. The Colts finished with six wins in their final 10 games. Buffalo, on the other hand, was 4-2 entering that game and wound up losing seven of its final 10. “It’s a great victory for us because it puts us right back in the thick of things,” said Marchibroda. “Like I’ve said all year, we haven’t played our best football. This was our best game, and it came at the right time.”
Significant moment: Dan Marino had first-and-goal from the two-yard line and the opportunity to produce another comeback victory while assuring the Colts on a non-winning season on December 18 in Indianapolis. But the defense produced an epic stand, keeping the Dolphins out of the end zone despite six straight plays inside the five-yard line, to earn a 10-6 victory. Dewell Brewer’s 75-yard punt return for a touchdown gave the Colts a 7-3 lead in the first quarter and Dean Biasucci’s 19-yard field goal with 8:50 left provided the four-point margin that required the Dolphins to go for the touchdown on their final possession. Brewer’s return was the seventh touchdown by return for the Colts (three by interception, two by fumble, one by punt and one by kickoff), a club seasonal record.