INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Assistant coach Clyde Christensen thought he had the Colts all figured out — until Team Stability suddenly broke up.
Andrew Luck replaced Peyton Manning as the star quarterback, new coach Chuck Pagano ditched the schemes long embraced by Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, and new general manager Ryan Grigson cast aside the plan Bill and Chris Polian had in place to lead to a second Super Bowl title.
By the time offseason workouts began, the perennial playoff-bound Colts looked were starting over with an unrecognizable cast of characters.
"It was really weird and it still is," said Christensen, Indy's quarterbacks coach. "You know, sometimes Reggie (Wayne) comes in for lunch with me and teasingly says 'You're the only familiar face I know in here.'"
Given what's happened over the past 8½ months, that's not much of a stretch.
The Colts (1-2) used 15 new starters, including nine on offense, in the season opener at Chicago. Two of the returning starters, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, were playing different positions. More than two dozen names on this year's roster weren't around for last year's monumental collapse. Only 10 players remain from Indy's 2009 AFC championship team and only five were there when the Colts won the Super Bowl after the 2006 season.
This rebuilding project is all by design.
When Grigson and Pagano were hired, they wanted to build the new-look Colts around a more balanced offensive approach and a more aggressive defense. So far, so good. Indy heads into this week's bye with one win, a stark contrast to the 0-13 start of 2011 and the continual debate about winless seasons, No. 1 draft picks and the future of Manning.
Last season's debacle gave team owner Jim Irsay the impetus to replace his old stars with new ones who could take Indy in a different direction.
Nobody was safe.
Vice chairman Bill Polian, architect of four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo and two more in Indy, was fired the day after the season. So was his son, the general manager.
Caldwell, who in 2009 became first rookie coach to start his career with 14 consecutive wins, joined the unemployment line a couple of weeks later. Christensen, previously the offensive coordinator, was the only coach retained from Caldwell's staff.
Even Manning, the only four-time MVP in league history, was released so Luck could begin his pro career without the cloud of a quarterback controversy constantly looming over him.
Yet the massive purge was only beginning.
Within days of Manning's release, free agents Jeff Saturday and Pierre Garcon found new homes in Green Bay and Washington. Longtime stalwarts such as running back Joseph Addai, safety Melvin Bullitt, linebacker Gary Brackett and tight end Dallas Clark were cut in cost-cutting moves, and after more than a decade of success, Irsay was embarking one of the NFL's most massive overhauls in recent memory.
"It was kind of a shock to see so many guys you didn't know on the team," converted outside linebacker Robert Mathis said, recalling the first time he walked into the post-Manning Era locker room.
Grigson's fine-tuning has not stopped. Of the 53 players on the active roster heading into this week's bye, nearly half (23) are in their first or second NFL season. When players from the practice squad, injured reserve, physically unable to perform and non-football injury lists are added, the number of first and second-year players increases to 34 out of 70. Indy, one of the league's most experienced teams over the past decade, started this season as the NFL's ninth-youngest.
All of the changes rubbed off on the longtime veterans, too. The new faces and new style made them feel like rookies all over again.
"It was like the first day of school," fourth-year cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "You see all these new faces, you have to learn the new faces and fill out those personalities."
Off the field, things were changing, too.
Irsay remodeled the locker room while the team was at training camp. Pagano revamped the strength-training regimen and even altered the formerly fat-free Saturday night menu to include pepperoni pizza and a Sunday bar, a stark contrast from fat-free diets.
The results all around have been encouraging.
Luck has already demonstrated his mettle by rallying the Colts for a Week 2 win against Minnesota.
The defense has shown indications of overall improvement, special teams play has been stronger through the season's first month, and players throughout the locker room acknowledge that they are starting to work in unison.
"When you have those veteran teams and you have those veteran players who've have been out there playing with one another for a long time, you know where this guy is going to be," Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea said. "So we're kind of going through that now, getting comfortable with one another on the field. All that can really do is get better with playing time."
But the big question, of course, is how long will it take this team, once a perennial Super Bowl contender, to make it big?
"A lot of times I look out there and see there's only two guys (on offense) who have ever played together," Christensen said. "Those guys haven't played together at all. They're all new players and its deep — the backups are new, the threes are new, the starters are new. I fully expect that to get better and better as the season goes on, and I think after Thanksgiving, you'll see a very different team."
The good news is that Indy has already has some of the key parts in place.
With Luck as the headlining franchise quarterback, a cast of young receivers eager to learn from an old standby like Wayne, a roster that's still coming together and enough salary cap room next year to lure some big, new talent, the Colts believe that last decade's most successful team (115 regular-season wins) will make it big again over the next decade.
"I won't say that it was welcome change, but you have to evolve in this game and this profession, and we're evolving," Mathis said. "We don't expect to be scrubs or whipping boys out there. We expect to win."