1953–1983: the Baltimore era
Following World War II, a competing professional football league was organized known as the which began play in the 1946 season. In its second year the franchise assigned to the Miami Seahawks was relocated to Maryland's major commercial and manufacturing city of Baltimore, which after a fan contest was renamed the Baltimore Colts and used the team colors of silver and green. These Colts played for the next three seasons in the old until it agreed to merge with the old (of 1920–1922 to 1950), bringing into the merger of the new reorganized NFL of three former AAFC powerhouse teams: the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Colts (known by the designation of "AAFC" or "1947–50"). This new Colts team, now in the "big league" of for the first time, although with shaky financing and ownership, played only in the 1950 season of the reorganized "third" NFL, and was later disbanded and moved.
Two years later, in 1953, a new Baltimore-based group, heavily supported by the City's municipal government and with a large subscription-base of fan-purchased season tickets, led by local owner Carroll Rosenbloom won the rights to a new Baltimore NFL franchise. Rosenbloom was awarded the remains of the former Dallas Texans team, who themselves had a long and winding history starting as the Boston Yanks in 1944, merging later with the Brooklyn Tigers, and who were previously known as the Dayton Triangles, one of the original old NFL teams established even before the League itself, in 1913. With the organization in 1920 of the original , [APF.]), then two years later in 1922, renamed a second time, now permanently as the "". That team later became the New York Yanks in 1950, and many of the players from the New York Yankees of the former competing (1946–49), were added to the team to begin playing in the newly merged League for the 1950 season. The Yanks then moved to Dallas in Texas after the 1951 season having competed for two seasons, but played their final two "home" games of the 1952 season as a so-called "road team" at the Rubber Bowl football stadium in Akron, Ohio. The NFL considers the Texans and Colts to be separate teams, although many of the earlier teams shared the same colors of blue and white. Thus, the Indianapolis Colts are legally considered to be a 1953 expansion team.
The third (and current) version of the Colts football team played their first season in Baltimore in 1953, where the team compiled a 3–9 record under first year head coach Keith Molesworth. The franchise struggled during the first few years in Baltimore, with the team not achieving their first winning record until the 1957 season. However, under head coach Weeb Ewbank and the leadership of quarterback Johnny Unitas, the Colts went on to a 9–3 record during the 1958 season and reached the NFL Championship Game for the first time in their history by winning the NFL Western Conference. The Colts faced the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game in what is considered to be among the greatest contests in professional football history. The Colts defeated the Giants 23–17 in the first game ever to utilize the overtime rule, a game seen by 45 million people.
Following the Colts first NFL championship, the team once again posted a 9–3 record during the 1959 season and once again defeated the Giants in the NFL Championship Game to claim their second title in back to back fashion. Following the two championships in 1958 and 1959, the Colts did not return to the NFL Championship for four seasons and saw a transition from head coach Ewbank to a young Don Shula in 1963. In Shula's second season the Colts compiled a 12–2 record, but lost to the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship. However, in 1968 the Colts returned with the continued leadership of Unitas and Shula and went on to win the Colts' third NFL Championship and made an appearance in Super Bowl III.
The Colts against Dallas in their first Super Bowl championship (V).
Leading up to the Super Bowl and following the 34–0 trouncing of the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship, many were calling the 1968 Colts team one of the "greatest pro football teams of all time" and were favored by 18 points against their counterparts from the , the New York Jets. The Colts, however, were stunned by the Jets, who won the game 16–7 in the first Super Bowl victory for the young AFL. The result of the game surprised many in the sports media as Joe Namath and Matt Snell led the Jets to the Super Bowl victory under head coach Weeb Ewbank, who had previously won two NFL Championships with the Colts.
Rosenbloom of the Colts, Art Modell of the Browns, and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to have their teams join the ten AFL teams in the as part of the AFL–NFL merger in 1970. The Colts immediately went on a rampage in the new league, as new head coach Don McCafferty led the 1970 team to an 11–2–1 regular season record, winning the AFC East title. In the first round of the NFL Playoffs, the Colts beat the Cincinnati Bengals 17–0; one week later in the first ever AFC Championship Game, they beat the Oakland Raiders 27–17. Baltimore went on to win the first post-merger Super Bowl (Super Bowl V), defeating the 's Dallas Cowboys 16–13 on a Jim O'Brien field goal with five seconds left to play. The victory gave the Colts their fourth NFL championship and first Super Bowl victory. Following the championship, the Colts returned to the playoffs in 1971 and defeated the Cleveland Browns in the first round, but lost to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship.
Citing friction with the City of Baltimore and the local press, Rosenbloom traded the Colts franchise to Robert Irsay on July 13, 1972 and received the Los Angeles Rams in return. Under the new ownership, the Colts did not reach the postseason for three consecutive seasons after 1971, and after the 1972 season, starting quarterback and legend Johnny Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers. Following Unitas' departure, the Colts made the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 1975 to 1977, losing in the divisional round each time. The Colts 1977 playoff loss in double overtime against the Oakland Raiders was famous for the fact that it was the last playoff game for the Colts in Baltimore and is also known for the Ghost to the Post play. These consecutive championship teams featured 1976 NFL Most Valuable Player Bert Jones at quarterback and an outstanding defensive line, nicknamed the "Sack Pack."
Following the 1970s success, the team endured nine consecutive losing seasons beginning in 1978. In 1981, the Colts defense allowed an NFL-record 533 points, set an all-time record for fewest sacks (13), and also set a modern record for fewest punt returns (12). The following year, the offense collapsed, including a game against the Buffalo Bills where the Colts' offense did not cross mid-field the entire game. The Colts finished 0–8–1 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, thereby earning the right to select quarterback John Elway with the first overall pick. Elway, however, refused to play for Baltimore, and using leverage as a draftee of the New York Yankees baseball club, forced a trade to Denver. Behind an improved defense the team finished 7–9 in 1983, but that would be their last season in Baltimore.
Relocation to Indianapolis
The Indianapolis Colts played in the RCA Dome from 1984 until 2007.
The Baltimore Colts played their final home game in Baltimore on December 18, 1983, against the then Houston Oilers. Irsay continued to request upgrades to Memorial Stadium or construction of a new stadium. As a result of the poor performance on the field and the stadium issues, fan attendance and team revenue continued to dwindle. City officials were precluded from using tax-payer funds for the building of a new stadium, and the modest proposals that were offered by the city were not acceptable to either the Colts or the city's MLB franchise the Orioles. However, all sides continued to negotiate. Relations between Irsay and the city of Baltimore deteriorated. Although Irsay assured fans that his ultimate desire was to stay in Baltimore, he nevertheless began discussions with several other cities willing to build new football stadiums, eventually narrowing the list of cities to two: Phoenix and Indianapolis. Under the administration of mayors Richard Lugar and then William Hudnut, Indianapolis had undertaken an ambitious effort to reinvent itself into a 'Great American City'. The Hoosier Dome, which was later renamed the RCA Dome, had been built specifically for, and was ready to host, an NFL expansion team.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the situation worsened. The Maryland General Assembly intervened when a bill was introduced to give the city of Baltimore the right to seize ownership of the team by eminent domain. As a result, Irsay began serious negotiations with Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut in order to move the team before the Maryland legislature could pass the law. Indianapolis offered loans as well as the Hoosier Dome and a training complex. After the deal was reached, moving vans from Indianapolis-based Mayflower Transit were dispatched overnight to the team's Maryland training complex, arriving on the morning of March 29, 1984. Once in Maryland, workers loaded all of the team's belongings, and by midday the trucks departed for Indianapolis, leaving nothing of the Colts organization that could be seized by Baltimore. The Baltimore Colts' Marching Band had to scramble to retrieve their equipment and uniforms before they were shipped to Indianapolis as well.
The move triggered a flurry of legal activity that ended when representatives of the city of Baltimore and the Colts organization reached a settlement in March 1986. Under the agreement, all lawsuits regarding the relocation were dismissed, and the Colts agreed to endorse a new NFL team for Baltimore.
1984–1997: Initial struggles in Indianapolis
led the team in rushing and earned three Pro Bowl invitations during his tenure with the Colts (87'-91').
Upon the Colts' arrival in Indianapolis over 143,000 requests for season tickets were received in just two weeks. The move to Indianapolis, however, did not change the recent fortune of the Colts, with the team appearing in the postseason only once in the first eleven seasons in Indianapolis. During the 1984 season, the first in Indianapolis, the team went 4–12 and accounted for the lowest offensive yardage in the league that season. The 1985 and 1986 teams combined for only eight wins, including an 0–13 start in 1986 which prompted the firing of head coach Rod Dowhower, who was replaced by Ron Meyer. The Colts, however, did receive eventual Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson as a result of a trade during the 1987 season, and went on to compile a 9–6 record, thereby winning the AFC East and advancing to the postseason for the first time in Indianapolis; they lost that game to the Cleveland Browns.
Following 1987, the Colts did not see any real success for quite some time, with the team missing the postseason for seven consecutive seasons. The struggles came to a climax in 1991 when the team went 1–15 and was just one point away from the first "imperfect" season in the history of a 16-game schedule. The season resulted in the firing of head coach Ron Meyer and the return of former head coach Ted Marchibroda to the organization in 1992; he had coached the team from 1975 to 1979. The team continued to struggle under Marchibroda and Jim Irsay, son of Robert Irsay and general manager at the time. It was in 1994 that Robert Irsay brought in to become the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts.
Under Tobin, the Colts drafted running back Marshall Faulk with the second overall pick in the 1994 and acquired quarterback Jim Harbaugh as well. These moves along with others saw the Colts begin to turn their fortunes around with playoff appearances in 1995 and 1996. The Colts won their first postseason game as the Indianapolis Colts in 1995 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, coming just a Hail Mary pass reception away from a trip to Super Bowl XXX.
Marchibroda retired following the 1995 season and was replaced by Lindy Infante in 1996. After two consecutive playoff appearances, the Colts regressed and went 3–13 during the 1997 season. Along with the disappointing season, the principal owner and man who moved the team to Indianapolis, Robert Irsay, died in January 1997 after years of declining health. Jim Irsay, Robert Irsay's son, entered the role of principal owner following his father's death and quickly began to change the organization. Irsay replaced general manager Tobin with Bill Polian in 1997 as the team decided to build through their number one overall pick in the 1998 draft.
1998–2011: the Peyton Manning era
was the starting quarterback for the Colts from 1998 until 2010.
Jim Irsay began to shape the Colts one year after assuming control from his father by firing head coach Lindy Infante and hiring Bill Polian as the general manager of the organization. Polian in turn hired Jim Mora to become the next head coach of the team and drafted quarterback Peyton Manning, the son of New Orleans Saints legend Archie Manning, with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.
The team and Manning struggled during the 1998 season, winning only three games; Manning threw a league high 28 interceptions. However, Manning did pass for 3,739 yards and threw 26 touchdown passes and was named to the NFL All-Rookie First Team. The Colts began to improve towards the end of the 1998 season and showed continued growth in 1999. Indianapolis drafted Edgerrin James in 1999 and continued to improve their roster heading into the upcoming season. The Colts went 13–3 in 1999 and finished first in the AFC East, their first division title since 1987. Indianapolis lost to the eventual AFC champion Tennessee Titans in the divisional playoffs.
The 2000 and 2001 Colts teams were considerably less successful compared to the 1999 team, and pressure began to mount on team administration and the coaching staff following a 6–10 season in 2001. Head coach Jim Mora was fired at the end of the season and was replaced by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy. Dungy and the team quickly changed the atmosphere of the organization and returned to the playoffs in 2002 with a 10–6 record. The Colts also returned to the playoffs in 2003 and 2004 with 12–4 records and AFC South championships. The Colts lost to the New England Patriots and Tom Brady in the 2003 AFC Championship Game and in the 2004 divisional playoffs, thereby beginning a rivalry between the two teams, and between Manning and Brady. Following two consecutive playoff losses to the Patriots, the Colts began the 2005 season with a 13–0 record, including a regular season victory over the Patriots, the first in the Manning era. During the season Manning and Marvin Harrison broke the NFL record for touchdowns by a quarterback and receiver tandem. Indianapolis finished the 2005 season with a 14–2 record, the best record in the league that year and the best in a 16 games season for the franchise, but lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round, a disappointing end to the season.
Indianapolis entered the 2006 season with a veteran quarterback, receivers, and defenders, and chose running back Joseph Addai in the 2006 draft. As in the previous season, the Colts began the season undefeated and went 9–0 before losing their first game against the Dallas Cowboys. Indianapolis finished the season with a 12–4 record and entered the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, this time as the number three seed in the AFC. The Colts won their first two playoff games against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens to return to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 2003 playoffs, where they faced their rivals, the New England Patriots. In a classic game, the Colts overcame a 21–3 first half deficit to win the game 38–34 and earned a trip to Super Bowl XLI, the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance since 1970 and for the first as Indianapolis. The Colts faced the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, winning the game 29–17 and giving Manning, Polian, Irsay, and Dungy, as well as the city of Indianapolis, their first Super Bowl title.
The 2006 Indianapolis Colts honored at the White House
for their Super Bowl victory.
Following their Super Bowl championship, the Colts compiled a 13–3 record during the 2007 season; they lost to the San Diego Chargers in the divisional playoffs, in what was the final game the Colts played at the RCA Dome before moving into Lucas Oil Stadium in 2008. The 2008 season began with Manning being sidelined for most of the pre-season due to surgery. Indianapolis began the season with a 3–4 record, but then won nine consecutive games to end the season at 12–4 and make in into the playoffs as a wild card team, eventually losing to the Chargers in the wild card round. Following the season, Tony Dungy announced his retirement after seven seasons as head coach, having compiled an overall record of 92–33 with the team.
was hired as head coach of the team following Dungy, and led the team during the 2009 season. The Colts went 14–0 during the season to finish with an overall record of 14–2 after controversially benching their starters during the last two games. The Colts for the second time in the Manning era entered the playoffs with the best record in the AFC. The Colts managed victories over the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets to advance to Super Bowl XLIV against the New Orleans Saints, but lost to the Saints 31–17 to end the season in disappointment.
At the completion of the 2009 season, the Colts had finished the first decade of the 2000s (2000–2009) with the most regular season wins (115) and highest winning percentage (.719) of any team in the NFL during that span.
The 2010 team compiled a 10–6 record, the first time the Colts did not win 12 games since 2002, and lost to the New York Jets in the wild card round of the playoffs. The loss to the Jets was the last game for Peyton Manning as a Colt.
After missing the preseason, Manning was ruled out for the Colts' opening game in Houston and eventually the entire 2011 season. Taking over as starter was veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, who had been signed to the team after dissatisfaction with backup quarterback Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. However, even with a veteran quarterback, the Colts lost their first 13 games and finished the season with a 2–14 record, enough to receive the first overall pick in the 2012 draft. Immediately following the season, team president Bill Polian was fired, ending his 14-year tenure with the team. The change built the anticipation of the organization's decision regarding Manning's future with the team. The Peyton Manning era came to an end on March 8, 2012 when Jim Irsay announced that Manning was being released from the roster after 13 seasons.
2012–present: the Andrew Luck era
Luck during his first playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens
During the 2012 off-season owner Jim Irsay hired Ryan Grigson to be the General Manager. Grigson decided to let Head Coach Jim Caldwell go and Chuck Pagano was hired as the new Head Coach shortly thereafter. The Colts also began to release some higher paid and oft-injured veteran players, including Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, and Gary Brackett. The Colts used their number one overall draft pick in 2012 to draft quarterback Andrew Luck and also drafted his teammate Coby Fleener in the second round. The team also switched to a 3–4 defensive scheme.
With productive seasons from both Luck and veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, the Colts rebounded from the 2–14 season of 2011 with a 2012 season record of 11–5. The franchise, team, and fan base rallied behind Head Coach Chuck Pagano during his fight with leukemia. Clinching an unexpected playoff spot in the 2012–13 NFL playoffs, the 14th playoff berth for the club since 1995. The season ended in a 24–9 playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens.
Two weeks into the 2013 season, the Colts traded their first round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns for running back Trent Richardson. In Week 7, Luck led the Colts to a 39–33 win over his predecessor, Peyton Manning, and the undefeated Broncos. Luck went on to lead the Colts to a 15th division championship later that season. In the first round of the 2013 NFL playoffs, Andrew Luck led the Colts to a 45–44 victory over Kansas City, outscoring the Chiefs 35–13 in the second half in the 2nd biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.
During the 2014 season, Luck led the Colts to the AFC Championship game for the first time in his career after breaking the Colts' single season passing yardage record previously held by Manning.
After finishing 8-8 in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons and missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1997-98, Grigson was fired as general manager. Just three of his previous 18 draft picks remained on the team at the time of his firing. On January 30, 2017 the team hired , who served as the Kansas City Chiefs Director of Football Operations, to replace Grigson.
On December 31, 2017, after winning the final game of the season and a final record of 4-12, the Colts parted ways with Pagano.
In the weeks following, after two interviews, it was widely reported that the Colts would hire Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, to replace him, after McDaniels fulfilled his obligations to the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. On February 8, 2018, the Colts announced McDaniels as their new head coach. Hours later, however, McDaniels rescinded his decision to be the head coach, and he returned to the Patriots.
On February 11, 2018, the Colts announced Frank Reich, then offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, as their new head coach.