Much of the talk this past week was about the relationship between Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians and had us all reminiscing about the incredible feel-good story that was the 2012 Indianapolis Colts and the #ChuckStrong campaign. Bruce Arians did a phenomenal job at holding the team together in Pagano's absence while the first year head coach battled leukemia, and a team that was rebuilding less than a year after blowing everything up after a 2 win season.
But someone who deserved (and got) just as much credit was the Colts first year general manager, Ryan Grigson. A longtime scout who most recently was the Eagles' director of player personnel before being hired by Jim Irsay as the Colts new general manager, replacing Bill Polian. Ryan Grigson went to work early, hiring Chuck Pagano as his head coach and then selecting quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft - a pick that Irsay made as much as Grigson and a pick that seems easy now, but if you remember there were some who thought Robert Griffin III was actually better than Luck (you don't hear from them anymore because they quietly put on Andrew Luck jerseys trying to right their mistake).
But Grigson didn't stop there. In the second round, he selected Coby Fleener, Luck's tight end at Stanford. In the third round, he grabbed another tight end, Dwayne Allen out of Clemson. He traded back up into the third to draft a speedy wide receiver out of Florida International, T.Y. Hilton. He added running back Vick Ballard out of Mississippi State in the fifth round.
Additionally, Grigson scoured free agency, trying to find lower-priced players who could help the severely cap-limited Colts, who were paying upwards of $30 million dollars to players not even on the team any more. He signed defensive lineman Cory Redding from Baltimore, and signed linemen Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn and traded for Winston Justice - all three of whom were nothing more than stop-gaps to try to hold the line over until the following year, when the Colts had the resources to actually address it. Grigson went to unconventional places too, signing Jerrell Freeman out of the Canadian Football League shortly after being hired. Freeman seemed like an insignificant signing early on, but ended up being a huge move. Grigson made trades for cornerbacks Cassius Vaughn, Josh Gordy, and most importantly Vontae Davis - a player with shutdown corner potential but who had yet to reach that level. Grigson never stopped, either. Midseason he signed cornerback Darius Butler, who played a key role in the Colts' season last year.
It was a magical year in many different ways, and one of those was the fact that Ryan Grigson put together a squad that made the playoffs despite winning just 2 games the year before and having serious salary cap limitations - in his first year as a general manager. Ryan Grigson was named the NFL's Executive of the Year and everything came together perfectly for the Colts as they went 11-5 and made the playoffs.
Because of his incredible success in building the Colts team so quickly, Ryan Grigson's name was being thrown around NFL circles as one of the hottest general managers in football and, with another great year this year, many thought he would then be considered one of the league's best general managers, period.
Perhaps Ryan Grigson fell victim to his own success. Perhaps the Colts magical season turned out to be a curse. This team was never supposed to be contending this soon. When Peyton Manning signed with Denver, I said that I thought the Colts might be starting to contend by the time he was getting close to retirement - in three or so years. That seemed like the best case scenario, and then by training camp I made the super bold statement and said that there was a chance they could make the playoffs in as little as two years.
But then 2012 happened, and with it 11 wins and a playoff appearance behind a phenomenal effort by Grigson's additions - namely, the rookies. Entering this season, Grigson's job was not to continue to rebuild this team - it was to make and win a Super Bowl. That is an extremely tall task for a team that still had numerous holes to fill. The Colts were still rebuilding, they just now were expected to build on the go. They didn't get a chance to put everything together; they had to do it on the fly.
Still, though, the Colts had over $40 million in cap space to spend. They had several needs, but Ryan Grigson also had a lot of resources to address them. Brad Wells outlined the five major needs for the Colts in the offseason as running back, offensive line, defensive end, outside linebacker, and safety. And, Ryan Grigson addressed each of those areas.
And in each of those areas, it looks like he failed.
Running Back: He would have gotten a bit of a pass here. After all, it wasn't his fault that Vick Ballard or free agent addition Ahmad Bradshaw would both end up on season ending IR after playing just three games. And he also took a low risk seventh round pick on Kerwynn Williams that, while it didn't work out, wasn't a bad move. The injuries would have given him a pass. But then he made the blockbuster move and gave up the Colts' first round pick in 2014 for Trent Richardson. The trade - so far - has been a disaster. While I'm not ready to give up on Richardson as a back quite yet, I'm certainly ready to say that so far, the trade was terrible. The Colts gave up a first round pick that is even more valuable to them than most playoff teams, seeing as they are still trying to rebuild, and in exchange got a running back who has averaged less than three yards per carry. In fact, here is a list of all the Colts players who have impressed me more running the ball than Trent Richardson: Donald Brown, Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw, Andrew Luck, Daniel "Boom" Herron, and Stanley Havili. The Richardson trade has been awful for the Colts so far, and it hasn't impacted this year's team as much as it has impacted their future - which, right now, is more important anyway.
Offensive Line: Early on, I said, "well, at least he tried!" when talking about Grigson's efforts to improve an offensive line that was perhaps the worst in football a year ago. Jim Irsay even said publicly multiple times that the Colts absolutely needed to improve in their protection of their franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck. Instead, it has been Ryan Grigson's biggest and most glaring failure this year. The offensive line is just as bad as it was a year ago. Andrew Luck is still getting hit more than anyone in the NFL and there is nowhere for the running backs to run. Those "stop gap" linemen I mentioned he signed last year? Two of the three still start, despite Grigson having over $40 million to spend and with the offensive line the first priority for his owner and, as a former offensive lineman himself, for him as well. He signed guard Donald Thomas from New England and tackle Gosder Cherilus from Detroit. He drafted guard Hugh Thornton from Illinois in the third round and center Khaled Holmes from USC in the fourth. Many believed he overpaid on both Thomas and Cherilus and the earliest he took a lineman was the third round. This position too has been affected by injury - Donald Thomas was lost for the season shortly into the second game, and he looked to be a good addition. Cherilus, though? He has been an upgrade, but his 5 year $34 million dollar contract could have been better spent on someone else. Thornton and Holmes both missed training camp, but Thornton was thrust into the starting lineup after Thomas' injury. He has struggled since entering the starting lineup. And Khaled Holmes, despite playing behind a center in Samson Satele who has been just plain bad, has only managed to be active in one game and played sparingly. Some might still use my old excuse of, "well, at least he tried," but honestly, was that a good effort? I mean, overpaying for two good but not great linemen (when there were a few great ones available) and drafting two linemen in the mid rounds isn't exactly showing that the offensive line was priority number one. The play on the field hasn't shown that either, and the result has been that Andrew Luck has had no time whatsoever and has had to do it all himself, and the run game hasn't been able to get any holes to get any sustained success. The Colts once again have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and it doesn't matter whether Grigson tried to fix it or not - the bottom line is that it didn't work, and it never seemed like he did the best he could, either. It seemed like he settled a bit. And now, it's clear that he failed at his biggest priority of the offseason: improving the offensive line to protect Andrew Luck.
Defensive End: Grigson added three defensive linemen this offseason, signing Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin and drafting Montori Hughes. Honestly, RJF and Franklin have played well for the most part this season (Hughes hasn't played much and has been active in just two games). It's hard to fault Grigson too much for this one because the issues of the run defense go way beyond the defensive line and Grigson's additions have been solid, but it's still nothing to write home about and if these are the moves that the reigning executive of the year hangs his hat on this year, then it's not good.
Outside Linebacker: Grigson added three outside linebackers this offseason, and none of them have been all that impressive. He signed Erik Walden to a big contract that surprised pretty much everyone and signed Lawrence Sidbury to a one year deal. He used the team's first round draft pick on Bjoern Werner, a defensive end from Florida State but a player who the Colts were going to use at outside linebacker. Walden struggled early on, then started to play well and begin to improve, then made a stupid decision in a game against the Titans and headbutted a player, resulting in a one game suspsnsion. Even before that, though, he wasn't good. He started to improve, sure, but he wasn't good before he started improving. Sidbury was placed on season ending injured reserve before he ever got a chance to play in a game this year, so you can't really blame Grigson for that one. And then Bjoern Werner has been bad for the most part this year too, having next to no impact and sometimes even a negative one. He has generated little pass rush - which was precisely the reason he was brought in. It was unfair to expect that out of a rookie player making the switch from DE to OLB, and so while Werner hasn't been good I find it hard to be super critical of him right now. Grigson, on the other hand, deserves to be criticized for the lack of a pass rush by the Colts. If it weren't for Robert Mathis, who should break the single season franchise record for sacks in a season, the Colts would have no pass rush. None. And like I said, it was unfair to expect a rookie to have to step up in such a big way, but that's what Grigson was doing. He needed to find another pass rusher, because Walden wasn't and Sidbury, honestly, was more of a project than a threat at that point.
Safety: Ryan Grigson made a big splash by signing former Jets Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, a very physical and talented safety who has struggled to stay healthy over the years. Grigson gave him a 4 year, $24 million deal and so far, he has played in just 7 of 11 games. And when he has played, he hasn't always been what he was expected to be. Especially on Sunday against the Cardinals, where he was terrible. Grigson did find a nice prospect in Delano Howell who played well in Landry's absence and who might get a look as Antoine Bethea's eventual replacement, but so far I'd say that the LaRon Landry signing was a poor signing too.
Those five areas - the five biggest needs entering this season for the Colts - were all addressed by Ryan Grigson this offseason, and they all were not addressed well. Whether it be through Grigson settling for players or whether it be Grigson just being wrong on players, things haven't worked out.
And then there are others, too. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey has started all 11 games but has been terrible in doing so, hurting the offense more than he has helped it. Cornerback Greg Toler started the first 7 games and was only decent, and he has missed the last 4 games due to injury - something he too has struggled with some throughout his career. And only 2 of Grigson's draft picks have even played in more than 2 games this year, with only 9 starts between his 7 draft picks combined - and two of them aren't even with the organization anymore.
Colts fans and some media have been quick to criticize Chuck Pagano, Pep Hamilton, and Greg Manuksy for the failures of this team - a team that, mind you, is still 7-4. They have been inconsistent all season long, and the last four weeks the consistency has shown up, but in a bad way, as they have fallen behind big in the first half in four consecutive weeks. Sure, the coaches deserve some of the blame. But I don't place it all on them, nor do I consider any of them to be "bad" coaches yet. I'm giving it time. And I see that this team isn't as good as they played early on this year, which probably resulted in expectations that were unrealistic for the talent level of this team. Put quite simply, the talent is not there for this team to be what we all want it to be this year. That's not on Pagano or his staff. That's on Grigson.
Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey wrote yesterday on how to fix the Colts, and he nailed it:
"That's why it's so important, however, to not reach for shortcuts that just aren't there. This team should be stockpiling draft picks, not trading them away. This team should be letting high-priced free agents walk and banking the compensatory picks rather than overpaying guys like offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus and linebacker Erik Walden.
"They shouldn't be convincing themselves that running backs like Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw are the final piece, instead of trying to find valuable late-round backs to round out their roster.
"Yes, the Colts have some immediate changes to make with their offense, but if 2013 teaches the Colts any lessons at all, it must be that there are no shortcuts to success and that their big-spending offseason may have done them more harm than good."
The Colts had the money to spend. You can't blame them for spending it, but it wasn't spent well and Grigson has been way too willing to part with his draft picks - especially his first rounder next year. Perhaps this isn't Grigson's ideal way to build and perhaps this is in part because of an unrealistically placed Super Bowl expectation for this team this year by the owner Jim Irsay that is causing Grigson to trade away his draft picks and dish out a lot of money to players not deserving of it. But the bottom line is that it is Ryan Grigson's responsibility to make sure that the best team possible is put out on the field each and every year, and this year you can't help but feel that this isn't the best team possible the Colts could have put out, even without all of the injuries.
I'm not going to sit back and criticize Chuck Pagano or his coaches over the top or when it's unnecessary, because I realize that this team isn't nearly as good or as talented as most people think. And that's not Pagano's fault. That's Grigson's. And that's why, if you want to criticize someone, it needs to start first and foremost with Ryan Grigson.
I'm not giving up on him as a general manager any more than I'm not giving up on Pagano as a head coach. I still have faith in last year's executive of the year. But this year, he has been anything but. This year, he's a big part of the reason that the Colts are struggling. And ultimately, it all may just boil down to expectations that were way too high in the first place.