The Indianapolis Colts are a mess. After years of neglecting to address the quarterback position, on Monday owner Jim Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard fired head coach Frank Reich for underperforming on offense. To replace Reich, the duo introduced interim head coach Jeff Saturday – a man with zero head coaching experience in either college or the NFL. It’s the first time a coach with such a light resume has taken control of a team since Norm Van Brocklin in 1961.
While the entire operation in Indy is confusing, three questions stand out after watching the team’s rambling press conference announcing, and ostensibly explaining, the hire:
Why fire Reich halfway through the season?
When Irsay was asked why he let Reich go just eight days after saying that he’d given no thought to making a coaching move, Irsay said: “We saw things collapse, and I’ve seen things go from bad to worse. I thought it was time, and it was necessary to make the change.”
He also said his decision was driven by intuition born from his years of experience in the league, and that there’s no rulebook for when to hire and fire a coach. “The math doesn’t always work in this league,” he said.
As goofy and incoherent as the spectacle in Indy has become, it seems difficult to believe that Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady were fired based solely on vibes. But perhaps there’s another explanation—one Irsay himself kept referencing throughout the presser.
On numerous occasions Monday night, Irsay bragged that he’s never hired a losing head coach. It’s something he’s clearly proud of, and he seems to believe it helps attract talent to Indianapolis: “My first hires [were] a Hall of Fame general manager, a Hall of Fame head coach and a Hall of Fame quarterback. Never been done before. …Those kinds of things lead to someone like [Ballard] wanting to come in.”
But with the Colts’ struggles this season, his streak was in danger of ending if Reich stuck around. Reich’s career record in Indy was 40-33-1 before his termination, and there are eight games left in the season. So do the math: If the Colts lost seven of them, Reich would no longer be a winning coach.
Yes, it’s kind of an out-there theory. And to be fair, Saturday probably has a pretty low chance of ending his Colts tenure with a winning record, too. But interim coaches are stopgaps, not fully vetted hires (subject to things like, you know, the Rooney rule). If this is truly Irsay’s rationale — again, a big if, I’ll grant you — he could salve his wounded pride with the knowledge that he still hasn’t hired a full time coach who didn’t turn out to be a winner.
How much of the Colts’ failure this season is on Ballard?
The short answer: A lot. In no small part due to their weak division, the Colts began the season with a 61 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo-based model. Their odds now stand at just 5 percent.
Hope for a postseason berth was only just recently lost, too. Prior to Week 7, we gave Indianapolis a 56 percent shot at making the tournament. But after losing to the Tennessee Titans (when Matt Ryan injured his shoulder) the bottom quickly fell out. With Ryan benched for Sam Ehlinger, the Colts lost to the Washington Commanders 17-16 in Week 8, and their playoff probability plummeted.
In the presser, Ballard identified the reason why the Colts have been bad: The offense. And, okay, fair. But he completely misdiagnosed the root cause. “Two things: you can’t win when you don’t block, and you can’t win when you turn it over,” he said.
Ballard is right that most of the blame for the Colts’ underwhelming performance this year should be directed at an offense producing a league-low 14.7 points per game, but it’s not offensive line play that’s killed Indy’s playoff hopes. It’s not even turnovers, at least not exactly. It’s the people they’re trotting out behind center.
At the risk of developing the obvious, the quarterback position matters in the NFL. Since Andrew Luck retired, Ballard has done little to provide his coaches with a difference-maker at the game’s most important position. In 2019, a year when Ballard could be forgiven for scrambling after Luck’s surprise retirement, Jacoby Brissett ranked 20th in adjusted net yards per attempt and 21st in Total QBR for Indianapolis. Philip Rivers was only a little better the next season, ranking 11th in ANY/A and 19th in QBR, as the Colts made the playoffs but lost in the Wild Card to the Buffalo Bills, and Rivers followed Luck into retirement. And last season, although Carson Wentz ranked 13th in ANY/A and ninth in QBR, he reportedly failed to step up as a team leader, and Indianapolis improbably missed the playoffs after losing the final game of the year to the laughingstock Jacksonville Jaguars.
Yet even after seeing all the failure at QB over the previous three seasons, Ballard saw fit to trot out another declining vet, 37-year-old journeyman Matt Ryan, this year. It’s not particularly surprising that Ryan has been terrible, ranking 24th in QBR and throwing for 4.98 ANY/A, good (bad?) for 29th in the league.
And it’s not like Ballard has lacked the opportunity to take a swing on a QB franchise. Before the 2020 season, right after the Colts suffered through a 7-9 record with Brissett and Brian Hoyer behind center in 2019, Ballard didn’t even attempt to address his team’s biggest need via the draft. Armed with two high second-round picks after trading the 26th overall pick in 2019 to Washington for 2019 and 2020 second-rounders, Ballard decided to play it safe rather than take bold action. He selected wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor in the top half of the second round, letting quarterback Jalen Hurts fall to No. 53 overall for Philadelphia, a team that already had a starter: future Indianapolis Colt Carson Wentz.
Passing on Hurts was a mistake, but Ballard compounded it by doubling down and trading a conditional first-rounder and a third-round pick to the Eagles for Wentz. Ballard appeared to be betting that Philly was making a mistake committing to Hurts — and that passing on Hurts in the draft was actually a sharp move. If so, he was wrong again. Wentz was gone after a single season in Indy (though not before earning the conditional first-round pick for Philadelphia), and this year’s smoldering rubble is a direct result. Meanwhile, Hurts ranks No. 2 in ANY/A, and the Eagles are undefeated through eight games in 2022. Whoops.
Why choose Saturday over other, more qualified options?
No one knows — not even Jeff Saturday: “I’ll be frank, I asked Mr. Irsay: ‘Tell me why I’m a candidate you would consider in any role to do this,’” he said Monday night.
In picking Saturday, the Colts chose to ignore that the team already had two former head coaches on staff in Gus Bradley and John Fox. Saturday also bypassed special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, former Edmonton Football Team head coach Scott Milanovich, former East Carolina University head coach Scottie Montgomery and even current wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne — who was Saturday’s teammate for 11 seasons and is a fellow member of the Colts Ring of Honor.
For his part, Irsay thinks Saturday’s lack of experience is a positive, since he will shield him from the influence of analytics, of all things: “I’m glad he doesn’t have any NFL experience. I’m glad he hasn’t learned the fear that’s in this league because it’s tough for all our coaches. They’re afraid. They go to analytics, and it gets difficult.”
On that count, Irsay picked the right man. Saturday seems to agree that analytics are unhelpful, saying that he will take the points as a head coach rather than go for it on fourth down like his predecessor.
Irsay claims he’s not tanking, but he’s said that before. Hiring someone as inexperienced as Saturday could be a way to covertly ensure the remainder of the season goes about as poorly as possible.
But perhaps the most logical explanation is the one put forward by the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, and it makes sense whether or not the Colts are tanking. According to Rapoport, Irsay lacks insight into what’s happening in the front office and on the coaching staff, and he wants Saturday to give him an unvarnished picture of just how bad things have gotten in the building. If Rapoport is correct, Saturday’s hire appears to be about evaluating the GM position. Ballard and Reich were close, and Irsay might need fresh eyes on the situation before he can make a decision about Ballard’s future.
Irsay has denied that Ballard is on the hot seat, saying firing him is “not ever really in the consciousness” of his mind. But Irsay is the son of a man who once fired a coach for refusing to switch quarterbacks and replaced him with the general manager — even though the GM didn’t know the playbook — and the younger Irsay is now doing the same meddling he said wouldn’t ‘t do. Lurching, unpredictable hiring and firing decisions are in Irsay’s blood, and as the Colts’ season slides into the abyss, Irsay’s ability to fend off his impulses may go right down with it.
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