INDIANAPOLIS – Nick Sirianni felt butterflies in his stomach as he drove to work Tuesday morning.
He even switched off the radio and plugged in his usual game day playlist including artists like Eminem, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross.
“I’m old,” the 39-year-old offensive coordinator said. “I’m showing my age right there.”
It’s a fitting soundtrack for a season during which the Indianapolis Colts hope to turn back the clock.
The new starting quarterback – veteran Philip Rivers – is just a year younger than Sirianni, and the franchise is hoping for bounce-back years from a trio of 30-year-olds – wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Denico Autry.
If all goes to plan, those players will join 31-year-old defensive end Justin Houston and 30-year-old tight end Jack Doyle as veteran leaders on a team looking to return to championship contention after missing the playoffs in four of the past five years.
All that experience has helped fuel high expectations and a growing sense of optimism. After a spring without in-person workouts and a summer that featured a shortened training camp and no preseason games, the regular season kicks off Sunday on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars (1 p.m., CBS).
And Sirianni made no effort to hide his enthusiasm.
“You can feel the energy in the building,” he said. “I think that 100% (there’s) a lot of excitement.”
Indianapolis is hoping to turn around a couple of bad trends right out of the gate. The Colts haven’t won a season opener since 2013, and they haven’t won at Jacksonville since 2014.
During the four-game losing streak at TIAA Bank Field (the teams played in London in 2016), Indianapolis has surrendered an average of 31.3 points and lost by an average of 19.8.
That includes a 38-20 decision in the final game last season during which Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew completed 69.2% of his passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns.
All of which makes it unlikely the Colts will take much comfort from their status as eight-point favorites or put much stock in predictions that favor Jacksonville to finish with the NFL’s worst record in 2020.
“That’s one thing we really talk about is being 1-0, and going to Jacksonville — every time I’ve went to Jacksonville, I lost,” said third-year linebacker Darius Leonard. “So it’s definitely in the back of my mind.”
The challenge this year is unique. The Jaguars have a new offensive coordinator in former Washington head coach Jay Gruden, and there’s no film to study of the team’s current personnel running his scheme.
That’s caused players and coaches to work overtime — marrying cutups of Gruden’s previous offenses with footage of Jacksonville’s playmakers and making educated guesses about how the two will work together.
As a result, there will be plenty of adjustments to be made on the fly as the Colts react to what they’re seeing in real time Sunday.
“You just want to make sure everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s seeing the same thing,” Houston said. “So whether it’s something new they’re running or something we have seen already, we’re still gonna communicate regardless. So the conversations will be the same, making sure everybody’s on the same page and understanding what we have to do.”
There’s more to work with on defense, where Todd Wash has been Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator since 2016.
But there’s still plenty of change on the roster. Defensive end Calais Campbell was traded to the Baltimore Ravens early in the offseason, and pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue’s prolonged holdout ended when he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings on Aug. 31.
Jacksonville also dealt safety Ronnie Harrison — who started 22 games over the last two seasons — to the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 3. Along with the release of running back Leonard Fournette — who signed with the cross-state Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the moves have added fuel to speculation the Jaguars are taking aim at the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft and the chance to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
That’s of no concern to the Colts.
Rivers had one of his best games during a tumultuous 2019 season at Jacksonville, going 16-of-22 for 314 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-10 victory for the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 8. And Sunday will mark the debut of Indianapolis’ other big-name offseason acquisition — all-pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
Acquired in a March trade with the San Francisco 49ers, the 26-year-old already is showing leadership in the locker room and is expected to have a big impact on the field.
“I know he has high expectations,” linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said. “We have high expectations for him. I think he’s gonna be dominant this year. I think he’s been dominant throughout his whole career, but I think this year he’s gonna be special for us.”
At least one key veteran believes the same is true for the roster overall.
Hilton made no secret of his belief last year’s roster was the most talented group he’d been a part of since being drafted in the third round in 2012. He even stuck to that prediction after Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement in August.
The Colts were 5-2 when Hilton suffered a freak calf injury in practice. Neither he or the team was the same for the rest of the year.
But he feels like this group can erase the memories of last year’s 7-9 disappointment.
“I think this team right here — you’re going to see a different team, and it’s going to show on Sunday,” Hilton said. “I can’t wait. I can’t wait. I can’t wait. Tune in. It’s going to be fun.”