ANDERSON, Ind. — The Indianapolis Colts had an off-season that reads like a fantasy football draft. They picked up receiver Andre Johnson, running back Frank Gore, and linebacker Trent Cole — players with 14 Pro Bowls among them — on top of other solid but lesser-known additions.
The moves were that of a franchise that believes it's oh-so-close to the NFL's mountaintop, the acquisition of onetime stars who, though on the back end of their careers, still have something left.
Now it's up to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to pull it all together, and he's a quintessential student of the game. He applies the same study habits he used at Stanford to the darkened quarterback meeting room at Colts headquarters. His dog-eared notebook and fistful of pens are seldom out of reach.
In the truest sense, Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
"I try to make sure I come to a meeting prepared," the fourth-year quarterback said during a recent post-practice break. "I love highlighters and pens. I try to get to every meeting early, so we can go over what we just did from the previous meeting, so I can figure out, 'OK, got that cemented, so now we can move on to the next step.' Then on any off-day, I go back and look at my notes from the previous four days or whatever, read them all again, compile them, and make sure I'm not repeating a mistake consistently.
"It's like, 'Hey, I said I need to throw these corner balls earlier and higher? OK, I've done that. I can graduate to the next step.' I don't want loose ends to just go, if that makes sense."
It does make sense, and so does the incremental postseason march of the Colts, who reached the wild-card round in 2012, the divisional round in 2013, and the conference championship last season.
The Super Bowl will be played in Santa Clara, just down the 101 Freeway from Luck's alma mater and the Colts have opened their wallet to make a push for the prize.
"It indicates to me that we aren't content being in contention or close," said Colts tight end Coby Fleener, Luck's teammate at Stanford. "I think there's a real emphasis put on winning the Super Bowl. There definitely could have been the mind-set of, 'Oh, we're really close. Maybe a few small adjustments will make the difference.' But I'm impressed that we went out and didn't play it safe. We went to the ends of the Earth to do what it takes."
The Colts added Cole in hopes of bolstering their pass rush, seeing as franchise sacks leader Robert Mathis missed last season because of a torn Achilles' tendon. There is no timetable for his return, although some in the organization believe the 34-year-old Mathis could be back as early as December.
Cole, 32, who played his first 10 seasons in Philadelphia, had double-digit sack numbers in four of five seasons between 2007 and 2011, and has averaged 5.8 sacks in the last three years. He said he feels invigorated in Indianapolis and appreciated by defense-minded Colts Coach Chuck Pagano.
"Leaving the Eagles was pretty tough," Cole said. "My legacy will always be embedded there. It was sad that I had to leave, but there are greater things in my future. In free agency, I was able to get with a team that I'll be able to go out with a bang with."
Johnson and Gore, college teammates at Miami, came to the Colts as a quasi-package deal. Immediately after Johnson was released by Houston, where he was among the greatest players in club history, he got a call from Gore, freshly released by San Francisco. The two agreed they wanted to go together to their next place, where they could win a ring. They looked at Philadelphia, but ultimately decided on Indianapolis.
"My decision was based on winning, it wasn't based on money," said Johnson, a two-time All-Pro who also had a more lucrative offer from San Diego. "After you've been in one place for so long, trying and trying and trying and it doesn't happen, and then you're released? You have to go where you feel you have your best chance to win a ring. That's what I did."
Johnson, 34, has averaged an NFL all-time-best 6.0 receptions a game in his career, and his per-game average of 80.5 yards receiving is second in league history. Although he knew the Texans planned to release him, he was stung when it happened.
"When it first happened it was like, man, it almost makes you feel like everything you'd done really didn't matter, or they didn't really care too much about it," he said. "But after you really sit down and think about it, it's just the nature of the business.
"You look at a guy like Jerry Rice. Played 20 years. In my eyes the best football player to ever play. He was released. Tim Brown. It happens. You just have to move on from it."
Gore, 32 who spent his first 10 years with the 49ers, has rushed for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns. He has topped 1,000 yards rushing in eight of the last nine seasons.
Luck called Gore "one of the best protecting backs ever in the NFL" and said he loves being in meetings with him.
"He's talking, he's constantly communicating," Luck said. " 'Here's the [middle linebacker]. Here's what I see. Here's what you see.' It's just a great lesson for anybody in there that, even if you're seeing something obvious, it's good to talk about it. It's good to know, here's why. Maybe someone picks up something they wouldn't have somewhere else."
Among the other free agents the Colts added were longtime Philadelphia guard Todd Herremans, Denver linebacker Nate Irving, and St. Louis tackle Kendall Langford.
Luck's backup, Matt Hasselbeck, is quick to point out that the Colts lost some highly significant players too — namely receiver Reggie Wayne and running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
"To me, the thing that's exciting, is that we've got some young talent at both positions, at running back and wide receiver," Hasselbeck said. "And now we bring in guys who are pros, perennial Pro Bowlers, and they're here in part because they think we've got something good going on here. Everyone would have signed those guys. But they wanted to come here."
Luck, for one, wants to show them their decisions were good ones. We know this: He won't be unprepared.