The Indianapolis Colts hadn’t enjoyed much success since owner Robert Irsay Sr. had pulled his shameful under-the-cover-of-darkness abandonment of Baltimore prior to the 1984 season. Since the relocation, the Colts had only reached the playoffs one time and that was the strike-marred year of 1987. When 1995 came around, their fate was in the hand of some veteran retreads, notably quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh had quarterbacked the Chicago Bears from 1988-93 and helped the team reach the playoffs several times, though the fiery future head coach was more a game manager within a system that emphasized defense. At age 32, he came to Indianapolis looking to show he still had it. The head coach was also pulled out of the recycling bin. Ted Marchibroda had coached the Colts back in their Baltimore days, winning three division titles from 1975-77, and was turned to for leadership in Indianapolis. He and Harbaugh both came to Indy in 1994 and led the team to a four-game improvement at 8-8. Now they needed to take one more step and get back to the playoffs.
The retread project wasn’t limited to the head coach and quarterback. Offensive coordinator Lindy Infante was looking for renewal after a failed stint as head coach of the Green Bay Packers. On the other side of the career spectrum, Jim Johnson—one day to become a legend as the defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles—was running the defense here in the Midwest.
There wasn’t a ton of talent on the 1995 Indianapolis Colts—they had a Pro Bowl offensive lineman in Wil Wolford, a good pass-rushing defensive end in Tony Bennett and a 22-year-old running back named Marshall Faulk who would be the game’s brightest star within five years, but in ’95 Faulk was still learning, the rest of the team was no-names and it was up to Harbaugh and his veteran coaches to try and squeeze out some wins.
Indianapolis was in the AFC East—prior to the realignment of 2002 and the creation of the AFC South, Indy joined the current AFC East foursome in the division. There were three teams to keep an eye in 1995—Miami and New England had each made the playoffs the prior year, while Buffalo was only a year removed from its run of four straight Super Bowls. The path to the postseason wouldn’t be padded by a soft division.
A season-opening loss to lowly Cincinnati, followed by an overtime win over a bad New York Jets team didn’t inspire anyone. Week 3 saw Indy pay a visit to Buffalo. Harbaugh played well, but so did future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and the Bills won 20-14, the part of an overall message that they were back as a contender.
October 8 would be the date where things started to change. Indianapolis was 2-2 and on the road at Miami. The fell behind Dan Marino’s Dolphins 24-3, when Harbaugh suddenly locked in and threw three second-half touchdown passes, two of them in the fourth quarter. He threw for 319 yards overall and the Colts pulled out an overtime win, 27-24. One week later Indy hosted defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco, widely considered along with Dallas as the two teams head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL. The Colts got four field goals from Cary Blanchard, two from 40+ yards and won 18-17. It was game on for the football fans of Indianapolis.
Buffalo remained a sticking point and on November 5 they came to Indy, won 16-10, knocked Harbaugh out and dropped the Colts to 5-4. But whatever problems were being had against Buffalo, who was en route to winning the division, were being made for up against Miami.
Though the Dolphins would be a playoff team again themselves, they were under tremendous pressure as there was widespread belief that legendary head coach Don Shula would be replaced with Jimmy Johnson if the team did not make the Super Bowl. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Indianapolis came racing out of the gate and took a 24-0 lead on the Fish behind a couple early Harbaugh touchdown passes. While Marino tried to bring his team back, Faulk led the way on a running game that piled up 193 yards as a team. A 36-28 win for the Colts got them to 7-5 and the elusive playoff berth was firmly in sight.
The playoff berth wouldn’t come easy. Indy dropped games in December at Carolina and at home to future playoff team San Diego, but they also beat Jacksonville and still had a chance to play their way in on December 23’s season finale. The Patriots had a disappointing year, but this was still the core of a team that would make the Super Bowl one year later and the Colts-Pats game was set on a Saturday night. It proved to be a defensive struggle, but Harbaugh was mistake-free, while New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw three interceptions and with a 10-7 win, Indy had made the playoffs.
It would be an AFC East Feast on wild-card weekend, as Buffalo hosted Miami in one game, while Indianapolis was going to San Diego. The Bills beat the Dolphins decisively and, as expected, ended Shula’s career. Meanwhile, Harbaugh extended his. Despite being a 5 ½ point underdog, the Colts picked off San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries four times, while Harbaugh played mostly a mistake-free game. With Indy holding a 21-20 lead, running back Zack Crockett busted a 66-yard touchdown run and the final score was 35-20.
Everyone expected the Indianapolis run to end in the second round. The opponent was the Kansas City Chiefs. Their head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, would develop a reputation for being snakebit in the playoffs and never did it seem more so than in this game. It was frigid cold on this late Sunday afternoon in Kansas City and neither offense could do much of anything. But for the third straight do-or-die game, Harbaugh played cleanly and efficiently, while his counterpart—in this case Steve Bono—made mistakes, throwing three interceptions.
Over the course of the regular season finale and first two playoff weeks, Indianapolis intercepted ten passes, while Harbaugh threw only three picks. Indy’s 10-7 win over Kansas City is ultimately remembered for Chiefs’ kicker Lin Elliot missing three field goals as he tried to boot the rock-hard ball.
Amazingly, Indianapolis was only one game from the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh had eliminated Buffalo, so old Three Rivers Stadium was the locale. Harbaugh played his best game of the playoff run, not only avoiding mistakes but making plays. He was 21/33 for 267 yards. It was necessary, because Steeler quarterback Neil O’Donnell wasn’t giving the ball up with the way previous Colt opponents had.
Indy still clung to a 16-13 lead late in the game when Pittsburgh went on a drive keyed by a 4th-and-3 conversion and took a four-point lead with 1:34 left in the game. Harbaugh rallied the Colts into position and got to the 29-yard-line for the final play of the game. The veteran quarterback tossed the ball into the end zone. Receiver Aaron Bailey went up and the ball hit him in the chest. But it bounced out, and the game was over. A noble effort had come up just short.
The Colts made the playoffs the following year, and again went to Pittsburgh, but this time they were dismantled in the first round. Harbaugh’s career stretched on a few more years, but 1995 was its last big run. The same was true for Marchibroda. Ironically both the coach and quarterback ended up in Baltimore—Harbaugh in 1998, Marchibroda as the first head coach after the team moved from Cleveland. For the coach, the irony was rooted in the past. For the quarterback, the irony was rooted in the future.
It would be 2012 before Harbaugh got to a Super Bowl, this time as San Francisco’s head coach. It would be 2006 before Indianapolis reached a Super Bowl, this time with Peyton Manning pulling the trigger. The 1995 Indianapolis Colts may not have made it, but they were a team that captured America’s attention and its veteran leadership, starting with Jim Harbaugh, made it one last great ride.