In the three years since their relocation from Baltimore, the Colts franchise hadn’t given the good people of Indiana much reason to turn their attention away from basketball. The 1984-86 seasons saw the team go a combined 12-36. The spring of 1987 saw the state riveted by a college basketball season where Indiana and Purdue shared the Big Ten title and the Hoosiers won a dramatic national championship. It was in the fall of that year that the 1987 Indianapolis Colts finally gave their new fan base a taste of playoff football.
Indy had a new head coach. Ron Meyer had been successful in turning around the SMU program in the early part of the decade and later produced a playoff team with the New England Patriots. Meyer immediately produced the best defense in the NFL. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Duane Bickett was the key, but this was a team with considerably less talent than a much more heralded defense in Chicago, or with the New York Giants. But it was the Colts who allowed the fewest points in the league in 1987.
Meyer would built his offense around the running game. The offense had three Pro Bowl players in left tackle Chris Hinton, center Ray Donaldson and right guard Ron Solt. Albert Bentley was a solid back who averaged 4.4 yards-per-carry. But the big blow came in midseason when Indianapolis pulled off one of the biggest trades in the history of the NFL when they got future Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson away from the Los Angeles Rams.
There was inconsistency at quarterback, with Jack Trudeau being the primary starter and Gary Hogeboom also getting time. Neither stood out. Bill Brooks was the top receiver with 51 catches for 722 yards and Matt Bouza was a respectable tight end, catching 42 balls for 569 yards.
Indianapolis was strong in the kicking game. Dean Biasucci was a Pro Bowl kicker. Even though punter Rohn Stark didn’t have a vintage year, the perennial Pro Bowler was still one of the better punters of his era. It was enough to help compensate for an offense that ultimately ranked 18th in the league in points scored.
There was no evidence of a potent running game in the season opener at home. The Cincinnati Bengals had a lousy year in 1987 but they outrushed Indianapolis 187-85 and the Colts lost 23-21. Hogeboom got the start the following week at home against Miami and went toe-to-toe with Dan Marino pretty well. But the Colts were again beaten on the ground, outrushed 130-84 and they lost the football game 23-10.
An 0-2 start—against non-playoff teams at home—probably didn’t have too many people in Indianapolis shedding tears when NFL players went on strike and stayed out for three weeks. The league decided to bring in replacement players, cancel Week 3 to let them get ready and count the games in the standings. It proved to give Indy a shot in the arm.
Hogeboom was a veteran who crossed the picket line immediately and played at Buffalo. The vet preyed on the replacements, throwing five touchdown passes. Replacement receiver Walter Murray caught seven passes for 161 yards in a 47-6 rout. The running game delivered the following week against the Jets. Chuck Banks, who had played some for the Houston Oilers in 1986, was the replacement and he carried 25 times for 129 yards. The Colts won 6-0, with the defense led by two interceptions from Bryant Jones.
Indy didn’t have Hogeboom for the final replacement game in Pittsburgh. Former Notre Dame quarterback Blair Kiel got the call and threw three interceptions in a 21-7 loss. But the replacement Colts had gotten two wins—divisional wins no less (Indianapolis was in the AFC East until 2002 with the division’s four current teams) and given the regulars a chance to get the season back on track.
The Colts hosted New England on October 25 and trailed 6-0 in the second quarter. Trudeau then led a run of 23 unanswered points. He finished the game 17/28 for 230 yards and no interceptions as Indy pulled away to a 30-16 win.
A road game in the Meadowlands against the Jets was next and on the Saturday before the game, Indianapolis shocked the world. They, the Rams and the Bills agreed on a three-way trade. Indy gave up rookie outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who ended up in Buffalo. The Colts got Dickerson from the Rams, who was in a contract holdout. It was a costly deal and over the long-term the Bills got the best of it. But Indianapolis had put itself on the map with its fan base.
Dickerson carried ten times against the Jets, although ironically Bentley was the big star, rolling up 145 yards rushing. Trudeau threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Bouza to build a 10-0 lead in the second quarter and the Colts won 19-14. Dickerson got a full workload the next week against San Diego, with 138 yards on 35 carries in his home debut. The defense, in a rare lapse, coughed up a 13-0 halftime lead and lost 16-13.
Indianapolis went to Miami in mid-November and fell behind 14-0 quickly. Dickerson and Bentley both took over this one, with the former going off for 154 yards and the latter kicking in 83 more. Indy pulled away 40-21. But the deficiencies in the passing game were too much the following week in Foxboro. Even though Dickerson produced 117 yards, Trudeau and Hogeboom were unable to navigate heavy winds, combined to throw four interceptions and the end result was a 24-0 loss.
The Houston Oilers were a playoff-bound team and the Colts badly needed a win on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Dickerson rushed for an early touchdown, went for 136 yards in all and the defense forced five turnovers in a 51-27 rout. In a jam-packed AFC East race, the Colts, Bills and Jets were all 6-5 with the Patriots and Dolphins sitting on 5-6 as the homestretch arrived.
Indianapolis visited Cleveland. The Browns would make the second of two consecutive AFC Championship Games in January. The Colts came up with their best win of the year, shutting down the Cleveland offense, getting 98 yards from Dickerson and hanging on for a 9-7 win. The other division leaders all lost and Indy was alone at the top of the AFC East with three games to play.
A big home game with Buffalo was a chance to really take control, but it went absolutely nowhere. With Bennett on the field for the Bills, Dickerson and the running game were completely shut down, outrushed 218-33 in an embarrassing 27-3 loss. There was another three-way tie atop the AFC East, with the Colts and Bills now joined by the Dolphins.
Indy went to San Diego (the schedule formula of this time had the two last-place teams from divisions with at least five teams play each other twice). The Chargers were collapsing and not the same team that had rallied to win in the Hoosier Dome. After spotting the Bolts a 7-zip lead, the defense went to work and picked off Dan Fouts three times. Dickerson ran for 115 yards and the result was a 20-7 win.
Miami kept pace, but Buffalo lost. The Colts and Dolphins had split head-to-head, but Indy had a superior divisional record thanks to the good work of the replacement players. They controlled their fate for the season’s final week.
The schedule-makers cooperated. Tampa Bay was one of the NFL’s worst teams and they came to the Midwest on December 27. The Colts were a 10 ½ point favorite and the game showed why. Dickerson ran wild, gaining 196 yards. Trudeau was sharp, going 17/27 for 246 yards and no mistakes. The defense did its usual yeoman’s work and with the 24-6 win a playoff party could finally start in Indianapolis.
The Colts were the #3 seed in the AFC, but in the format of the time that was enough to earn a week off (with three division winners and two wild-cards, the playoff structure was the same as what major league baseball uses today). They went to Cleveland for the second round and after a good first half, the run finally ended.
Indianapolis was tied 14-14 at the half, but Dickerson was unable to get anything going, ending with 50 yards on 15 attempts. He caught seven passes out of the backfield and Trudeau played pretty well—21/33 for 251 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But the interception was a costly one, on a good third-quarter drive with the game still tied. The Browns, controlling the line of scrimmage, ripped off 17 straight points. The final was 38-21.
It was still a good year. The disappointment is that they didn’t build on this modest breakthrough. Even though the team stayed respectable for the next three years, they didn’t get back into the postseason and ultimately collapsed to be one of the league’s worst by 1991. It wasn’t until 1995, with a quarterback named Jim Harbaugh, that they again became relevant.