Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is just getting started on the hard part.
After engineering a nine-game turnaround from 2011 to 2012 and matching that 11-win regular-season total while taking the AFC South title in 2013, Grigson must now figure out how to get Indianapolis from the playoffs to the Super Bowl.
"We need to be consistent. We need to aspire to be one of those teams that doesn't beat a great team one week and then get outscored by 40 the next," he said Thursday. "That's all growing pains. We are a young, young team and I feel like we are going in the right direction because that's typical of youth."
Grigson certainly has been dealt a good hand.
He used his first draft pick on Andrew Luck. He hit on enough low-priced free agents to fill gaps in 2012. He cleared enough cap space to start plugging big holes in free agency last year and he's projected to be about $31 million under the salary cap heading into this offseason. That's enough room to make some big moves.
But there are plenty of questions, too.
While head coach Chuck Pagano said earlier this week that he "absolutely" expected more stability on his staff this year than last, when offensive coordinator Bruce Arians left to take his first NFL head coaching job, that may not be the case.
Grigson confirmed Thursday that Vanderbilt had received permission to speak with Pep Hamilton, Arians' replacement, about its vacancy. There also has been speculation quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, Indy's offensive coordinator under head coach Jim Caldwell, could be reunited with Caldwell in Detroit. Grigson said the Lions have not yet asked to speak with Christensen.
"As of right now, there's nothing imminent," he said.
The bigger questions are on the personnel front.
Twenty-two players could become restricted or unrestricted free agents in March. The list includes names such as safety Antoine Bethea, running back Donald Brown, cornerback Vontae Davis, punter Pat McAfee and kicker Adam Vinatieri — all of whom played key roles in 2013.
Some of those players already sound like they're leaving town.
"Was an honor and privilege to play for the Colts," Brown wrote Wednesday on Twitter, continuing a theme that started Monday morning in the locker room. "An organization made up of phenomenal people. Will always be indebted to the horseshoe."
Brown was Indy's top rusher this season when Indy finished 12-6 — including its first playoff win since 1971 without either Jim Harbaugh or Peyton Manning at quarterback.
Grigson insisted he's not discussed the future possibilities with either players or coaches.
But with Vick Ballard, Indy's top runner in 2012, returning from a torn ACL and Trent Richardson, who Indy got by trading a first-round pick to Cleveland in September, both back, Brown may be out of a job. Ballard is confident he'll be healthy for training camp, and Grigson is committed to giving Richardson another chance.
"We have patience. He's not going anywhere. We have him for the long haul," Grigson said of Richardson. "We don't win 12 games this year if Trent Richardson isn't here. That's just a fact.
"I think Trent fits all the things that we are trying to do here. If it isn't this year, it's going to be next year because he's going to have the offseason," Grigson added.
What else must Grigson contemplate before dipping into free agency and the draft?
Injuries and future obligations.
Indy finished the season with 17 players on injured reserve including five key offensive players — Ballard, tight end Dwayne Allen, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, starting guard Donald Thomas and receiver Reggie Wayne. Meanwhile, Luck and his fellow 2012 draft picks can start signing contract extensions following the 2015 season.
Grigson, as usual, is considering all of it before meeting with Pagano to formulate a full-fledged offseason game plan.
But he does have some idea of what the Colts need to take the next step.
"You win in this league with great quarterbacks and we have a great one," Grigson said. "We have to keep surrounding him with the right people that are like-minded, that are aspiring to greatness like he does every single day when he walks in this building and when his head hits the pillow at night. Those are the type of guys we need."
NOTE: Indy has signed offensive lineman Lance Louis to a reserve-future contract. The 6-foot-3, 320-pound guard was Chicago's seventh-round pick in 2009 and has played in 41 games with the Bears and Rams.
Author: MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer