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Surprising success has Indy thinking big for 2013

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Surprising success has Indy thinking big for 2013

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Andrew Luck spent Monday morning poring over a little more game film. It's never too early to start thinking about his next game.

Less than 24 hours after Indianapolis' magical 2012 run ended with a 24-9 playoff loss at Baltimore, Luck and the Colts were already contemplating what improvements they need to make before next season begins.

``I think I'll take this week to sort of figure it out more,'' Luck said. ``I don't think I've had enough time to really digest a lot of things.''

The Colts (11-6) were the surprise of the NFL this season. Some critics said they made the wrong move by releasing Peyton Manning, then took the wrong guy with the No. 1 overall draft pick. Surely the Colts had no chance of succeeding with a first-time head coach, a rookie quarterback and dozens of other new faces on the roster.

And that was long before Chuck Pagano missed 13 weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians spent the playoff game in the hospital instead of calling plays. Arians was still in the hospital Monday with an undisclosed illness.

Turns out those doomsayers were as wrong as the Mayans.

Arians went 9-3 in Pagano's absence, tying the NFL record for most wins after a midseason coaching change, and somehow, the Colts kept winning games in improbable ways. There was Reggie Wayne's orange-gloved stretch that beat Green Bay and Vick Ballard's backward dive into the end zone to beat Tennessee in overtime. There was Luck's winning TD pass to Donnie Avery in Detroit as time expired and the emotional win against Houston when Pagano returned to the sideline Dec. 30.

``This is probably one of the most memorable seasons since I've been here and that includes my rookie season when we went 14-0 and went to the Super Bowl,'' said cornerback Jerraud Powers, who spent most of the season on injured reserve. ``Because of the turnover, because of the new faces, people didn't expect a lot from us.''

The Colts didn't care what was expected.

Luck played with a sore right knee and still set NFL rookie records for attempts and yards passing and fell just short of the league's rookie marks for completions and touchdown passes. He set a new franchise record for TDs rushing by a quarterback and managed to throw 10 fewer interceptions than Manning did in 1998. Luck's quarterback rating (76.5) was even higher than that of Manning or John Unitas in their first NFL seasons.

Based on the one universal barometer to judge quarterbacks - wins and losses - Luck did well, too. He won more games than any No. 1 draft pick in the Super Bowl era, tied the league's single-season record for most winning drives in the fourth quarter (seven), produced a league-high nine wins in one-possession games and reached the postseason one year sooner than Manning did when he was in Indy.

But Luck is far from satisfied after completing just 54.1 percent of his passes, being sacked 41 times, getting hit dozens more times and having all those passes batted at the line of scrimmage. His plan is simple.

``I think just improving accuracy, footwork, making the different throws,'' Luck said. ``I think I have a feel for how fast things occur, how our different guys get out of breaks, depths of routes, things of that nature. Just building up more rapport with the receivers, the tight ends and running backs.''

Other rookies are just as eager as Luck to get started on Year 2.

Tight end Dwayne Allen hopes to return in better shape after spending so much of last offseason prepping for the combine and his pro day. Running back Vick Ballard said he will spend countless hours working on his run reads. And all this after the Colts produced the highest combined yards rushing and yards receiving (3,108) by rookies since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

``It just tells me how hungry they are and how passionate they are about football. When (GM) Ryan (Grigson) and his staff get together and they go and look for football players and they look for players with Colt traits, that's exactly what we loved to hear and exactly what we expect to hear, from those type of guys,'' Pagano said. ``They will get away from it a little bit but again, they are hungry to get back and start working toward that ultimate goal.''

The coaching staff and veterans know this will not be the same team a few months from now.

Arians was scheduled to interview for head coaching jobs in Chicago and Philadelphia and there has been speculation he could be on the wish-lists of Cleveland and San Diego, too.

Dwight Freeney, the longtime face of Indy's defense, had his third successive decline in sacks after moving from defensive end to outside linebacker and could leave in free agency. Powers, Avery and right tackle Winston Justice are all scheduled to become free agents, too.

And after making all those tough decisions last winter, general manager Ryan Grigson has more than $40 million to spend in free agency to help reinforce the offensive line, the Colts' secondary and just about any other spots he and Pagano deem necessary. Pagano said they have not yet had that discussion.

So as Luck took a quick peek at the three pairs of shoes and the three empty hangers in his locker Monday, he wasn't thinking about what he was leaving behind. He was already planning ahead.

``It's weird. You've been going 100 mph 20-something weeks, and now, you're at 0 mph with nothing to do. It's weird coming in here and cleaning out your locker,'' Luck said. ``Talking to Dwayne Allen earlier this morning, I said, `How long ago does Week 1 against Chicago feel, and how much better do you think we've gotten since then?' Hopefully, we'll continue on that upward trend.''

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Now that the Lakers got Anthony Davis, could the Knicks and others turn to Bradley Beal?

Now that the Lakers got Anthony Davis, could the Knicks and others turn to Bradley Beal?

With all but one of the brick-and-mortar movie stores closed down, there are really only two instances that you hear the word 'blockbuster' these days: when describing Marvel movies and for the type of trade we saw this weekend between the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers.

The Anthony Davis deal is a blockbuster trade in every sense. It is big in the number of pieces involved and because Davis is one of the best players on the planet.

It is important because it could immediately vault the Lakers into title contention. And it provides a new superteam for the league to revolve around and for people to loathe with the Golden State Warriors currently licking their wounds.

But it is also the type of deal that will have major consequences around the league, one that will affect far more than just the teams at the top. It will force a collection of other teams to redraw their blueprints.

The obvious ones are the Knicks and Celtics, the two teams most closely linked to Davis in trade rumors. Now, it is New York that has more urgency, if not desperation, to strike in free agency. Boston to regroup and will probably need to ponder other trades if they want to reassert themselves in the Eastern Conference.

The Davis trade would be a major deal no matter the year, but it is fascinating to evaluate in the context of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson's injuries. The league went from being very predictable to a wide open pasture of possibilities.

Now, the Warriors are good still but are also a beatable team. A window of NBA parity is cracking open and surely the Lakers won't be the only team to pounce.

Houston, Philadelphia and Oklahoma City are always aggressive and will clearly be thinking big. Portland and Denver could see this as the year to go all-in.

Not all teams looking to make a splash will have money to spend in free agency. That points to an aggressive trade market this summer, but there is arguably one big problem. After Davis, it doesn't seem likely many other stars will be available.

Teams seeking stars via trade have enjoyed plenty of options in recent years between Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Jimmy Butler. The formula is generally fairly simple: an All-Star player on an underachieving team with the end of his contract in sight. Recently, the supply has met the demand.

But currently, few fit that description. There are some like Mike Conley Jr. of the Grizzlies, and Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside of the Heat. But none of those players are All-Stars in their prime.

All of that makes it easy to connect the dots to the Wizards and Bradley Beal. They are in an interesting spot, needing to decide whether to retool for playoff contention or take the long view and undergo some degree of a rebuild.

Beal, as their best player, is the catalyst. There are logical reasons to keep him or to trade him. He is one of the best players in franchise history, is only 25 and he's on a team-friendly contract in the era of the supermax. But the Wizards are going to have a tough time improving their roster with John Wall's Achilles injury and contract, which starts at 35 percent of the salary cap. 

The Wizards have held a stance of not wanting to trade Beal and still do. They also likely wouldn't make such an important decision without a long-term team president in place.

But that won't stop teams from calling and there is already speculation around the league about whether Beal will be dealt. One front office executive told NBC Sports Washington that Beal could be the top prize in the trade market if made available now that Davis is gone. 

For a lot of these situations, trades are more likely when a player is entering his walk year. Beal is signed through the 2020-21 season and, even if he grows unhappy, will say the right things.

He won't create necessary drama. And, if you take him at his word in a February interview with NBC Sports Washington, he wouldn't request a trade himself.

Also, there is a reason to believe keeping Beal wouldn't hurt their ability to rebuild through the draft. With the new lottery system, bottoming out doesn't offer the guarantees that it used to. And even with Beal playing all 82 games last season, the Wizards still lost 50 of them and finished with the sixth-best odds.

Just like some have argued the Wizards have reasons to trade Beal, they also have reasons not to. But that won't stop other teams from picking up the phone.

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

WASHINGTON -- Most baseball managers try to operate in monochromatic fashion. They see one goal each day, and it only rests in those 24 hours. Some -- like Davey Martinez -- claim they don’t look at the standings in June. His standard message is to “win today” then move to tomorrow.

Human nature often runs interference on compartmentalization. It even crept up on Martinez on Sunday morning when in the midst of an answer about Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner playing daily. 

“For me, this is a big week,” Martinez said. “We have a chance to make up some ground here. I want these guys readily available to play.”

He’s right. The claim of significance is valid for once in mid-June, not a concept drummed up by overzealous television promos or interminable Internet space. 

The Nationals have seven games in seven days against two teams near the top of the division. Damaged Philadelphia arrives Monday. The Phillies’ bullpen is hurting and ineffective. Bryce Harper could miss the All-Star Game for just the second time in his career. Philadelphia is 6-8 in June. Meanwhile, Atlanta is rolling along. Its lineup remains deep, the pitching functional and Dallas Keuchel set to make his debut here in D.C. next weekend. The Braves hold a 2 ½-game lead in the not-so-great National League East. 

“Not thinking too big picture,” Adam Eaton said. “But knowing we have an in-division rivalry, we’ve got to win those games. It’s important. We’re trying to chase at this point. Not to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to play some really competitive baseball. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves these next four games. Play good baseball and not beat ourselves. If we play the brand of baseball we know how to play, and play clean, we have a good chance.”

Washington is five games under .500. Days are clicking off the calendar. Departing along with them are opportunities to chop at an 8 1/2-game deficit in the division. Following this week, only seven games against Philadelphia remain. However, 13 with Atlanta remain on the schedule, including seven in 10 days in September. The question is if those will matter. Sink this week and they won’t. Pull off a deficit-halving six of seven and everything changes. 

This week’s ramifications will first be felt on the phone lines in a month. The non-waiver trade deadline arrives July 31. Drag back to a double-digit deficit this week and plunk down the “for sale” sign. Rocket through the week and perhaps reinforcements will be found.

Monday brings a dreaded series opener. The Nationals are 6-17 in the first games of series this season. No one knows why. It doesn’t make sense. But, here they are, incapable of winning a first game and constantly playing from behind.

Patrick Corbin will be on the mound attempting to counter the trend. He, like the team when a new opponent shows up, has been in arrears the last three games. Corbin’s ERA dipped to 2.85 following a 116-pitch shutout of Miami on May 25. He’s been bludgeoned since. His ERA is up to 4.11, he will start twice this week, and the Nationals need him to right his ills.

Friday, Corbin threw a bullpen session focused on his line to the plate. Pitching coach Paul Menhart describes what they are trying to accomplish to get Corbin back to the version he was earlier this season:

“His lines and his east-west motion have made it very difficult for him to get the ball to where he wants it to be,” Menhart said. “He needs to be more direct to the plate and have more of a north-south rotation with his upper body and being more stable lower-half wise will allow him to do that and have his deception and hide the ball better and keep that tunnel.”

Corbin agreed. He doesn’t watch much video to cure ruts. He also doesn’t want too much information. The team’s analytics trackers have informed him his arm slot remains in a good place. He thinks his body is still in a running at a high level, dismissing any correlation between his struggles and the workload against Miami. He’s also going through the most common element of reduced success: trying not to chew on it too much.

“I think when I’m away from the field, you think about it more,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington. “You’re frustrated about it a little bit -- what the heck is going on? But when you get here, you just try to work, try to do things to get better. That’s how I approach it. I’m just looking forward to my next start on Monday going out there and trying to get back to how I know I can pitch.”

Philadelphia arrives after being thumped in Atlanta on Sunday, 15-1. Washington had the opposite day in a 15-5 win. Monday night starts a reckoning of sorts for both. The Nationals will send out their three high-end starters during the four games. Philadelphia is trying to right itself and not let the Braves get out of touch at the top of the division. So, even for the one-day-at-a-time crew, the coming seven carry significant weight, and they’re finally admitting it.

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