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Like it or not, the Pressure is Mounting for Colts GM Ryan Grigson

Many fans are beginning to have questions about Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and his moves. Josh Wilson looks at why that is and why the pressure is mounting for the third-year GM.

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

"In Grigson We Trust."

That was the rallying cry for fans just over two years ago, after the new general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, Ryan Grigson, pulled off one of the most impressive draft classes in recent memory.  That draft class looks even better now two years later, but does the saying still apply, or is the unwavering trust in the Colts' general manager finally starting to wear off?

He just completed his third NFL Draft as the boss of the Colts franchise.  He only had five picks in the entire draft, and the reception of those five picks (and the trade that resulted in them not having a first round pick) had earned the Colts universally poor grades from experts.  The 6-6 former NFL offensive lineman had taken a unique road to get to being the general manager of one of the league's premier franchises, starting as a scout in the Canadian Football League before joining the NFL again as a scout for the St. Louis Rams in 1999.  Five years later, he joined the Philadelphia Eagles as a scout, and he remained with the franchise for the next eight seasons, first as a regional scout, then as Director of College Scouting, and then finally as Director of Player Personnel from 2010-2011.  When Colts owner Jim Irsay fired longtime general manager Bill Polian the day after the 2011 season ended, Irsay began conducting a search for who the next general manager would be and said he wanted a guy with a "vision and a direction back to greatness."  On January 11, 2012, Ryan Grigson was announced as the next general manager of the Colts.  "It's all about finding talent," Grigson said in his introductory press conference.  "You sense it or you don't. I feel that's one of my strong points."

On this day, shortly after completing his third draft in the Colts' war room, Grigson entered the press room at the Colts complex and seemed to be in good spirits and giving some good quotes that left the media laughing.  Yet when asked questions about two positions that fans have many doubts about, Grigson got defensive.  "Because we've done our homework. Because we're the ones that have studied. We're the ones that have watched all the film and not just 10 YouTube clips," Grigson said when asked why fans should be confident in Khaled Holmes as the team's starting center.  "We went into the school, had multiple scouts watch him, had our o-line coach work him out. Thirty-seven starts at USC, it's not like it's ‘Whatsa Matta U'. It's a pretty good program. The thing is too just to help you understand, we're going to put the best players possible and we go to every length, every length, we go to other continents. We're trying our best. If you look at other teams around the league, very rarely do you have just a true center waiting in the wings to play for you. It's usually a guy that's a guard that can snap to get you out of a game. Rarely do you have a surefire frontline starter sitting there waiting in the wings for you. We took Khaled in the fourth round because we believed that eventually he could be the guy."

It might have just been the result of having spent most of the last three days in the Colts' war room trying to put together a quality draft with only five picks, the first of which came at number 59 overall.  But perhaps it was a sign that Grigson knows what many fans had already realized: that the draft he just completed simply wasn't anything special.  Perhaps Grigson knows that the saying "In Grigson We Trust" no longer is the rallying cry of Colts fans but instead doubt has crept in.  Perhaps, he's feeling some pressure.

Pressure, or trying circumstances, is nothing abnormal for him, nor is overcoming them.  In 1992, while he was an offensive tackle at Purdue, Grigson took a hit from a helmet to his abdomen and was taken to the hospital with a life-threatening kidney issue.  For two weeks, neither of his kidneys worked and he lost a lot of weight, but just two short years later he was named a captain of the Purdue football team and played well enough to make it to the NFL through the draft.  After struggling to make it in the NFL Grigson played a season in the Canadian Football League before, in 1997, a back injury ended his playing career.  And then, nearly fifteen years later, he faced a number of challenges in his first few months of being a GM of an NFL franchise, including firing coach Jim Caldwell, releasing Peyton Manning, and releasing other popular players like Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, and Gary Brackett.  Plus, the fact of the matter was that the Colts just weren't a very good football team, having gone 2-14 the year prior due to a serious injury to Manning that ultimately led to his release.  Without their franchise quarterback, the Colts were revealed for what they really were - a sub-par football team held together by one of the greatest players of all-time.  Now, that player was gone, as were several of the fan favorites.  Grigson was building from scratch, and he had to start somewhere.  That start would lay the foundation for the future of the Indianapolis Colts for the next decade.

"With the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced on April 26, 2012.  Luck, considered by many to be the best quarterback since Peyton Manning in 1998, was coming to Indianapolis to replace Manning and carry on the tradition of winning.  But way before that, the team's new general manager had started building a roster despite being severely limited in cap room due to the release of several high-salary players.  Grigson signed an unknown prospect out of the CFL, Jerrell Freeman, as one of his very first moves.  Then, when it seemed inevitable that Hall of Fame caliber receiver Reggie Wayne was going to leave in free agency, Grigson convinced the fan-favorite to return on a new contract.  He also handed out a new deal to one of the league's best pass rushers and another fan favorite, Robert Mathis, who would be moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in new head coach Chuck Pagano's hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme.  Grigson signed Cory Redding in free agency, as well as stop-gap guys like Tom Zbikowski, Winston Justice, Mike McGlynn, and Samson Satele - and let's not forget his under-the-radar move to bring in Matt Overton at long snapper, a guy who just made the pro bowl this past season.

In the draft, Grigson got Luck, which was the obvious move.  From there, however, he put together one of the best drafts in recent memory, taking tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen with his second and third picks, then trading back into the third round to grab wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.  In the fifth round he drafted nose tackle Josh Chapman and running back Vick Ballard.  And in the sixth round, he picked up another receiver, LaVon Brazill.  Shortly before the season started, Grigson made a brilliant trade to get a young but very talented corner, Vontae Davis, from Miami for a 2013 second round pick and a late-round conditional pick in the same draft.  He also earlier swung a 2014 pick for cornerback Josh Gordy, another move that paid off.

Despite having very little cap room and a roster lacking in talent, Grigson put together an impressive group and that team would go on to win 11 games in 2012 and make the playoffs, rallying around Pagano as he dealt with leukemia.  Grigson was named Sporting News' 2012 Executive of the Year by his peers.  After he hit home run after home run in his first year on the job, fans were excited.  And they had reason to be - in addition to his moves in the draft and the off-season, Grigson also made moves to sign guys like Sergio Brown, A.Q. Shipley, and most importantly, Darius Butler.

With the expectations then squarely on him to equip the Colts to make the leap from surprise playoff team to legitimate Super Bowl contender, Grigson's second season as general manager fell short of his first year.  With plenty of cap room, Grigson handed out questionable contracts to players like LaRon Landry, Greg Toler, Erik Walden, Ricky Jean Francois, and Matt Hasselbeck.  He did make some good moves, however, franchising Pat McAfee, signing Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas, and then adding Ahmad Bradshaw.  Also, moves to get guys like Daniel Adongo, Josh McNary, and Caesar Rayford turned out to be great decisions, as did undrafted free agent Da'Rick Rogers, who he signed shortly before the season began.  In the draft, however, Grigson's success in year one didn't carry over.  In the first round he grabbed Bjoern Werner, and then in the third and fourth rounds he added linemen Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes.  Montori Hughes was drafted in the fifth round, John Boyett in the sixth, and then Kerwynn Williams and Justice Cunningham in the seventh.

In 2013, the Colts again won 11 games and made the playoffs, this time winning the AFC South and also winning a playoff game.  But the feeling was that the main reason for that was due to the development of the players added the previous year - not that there is anything wrong with that, but simply that Grigson didn't improve the team as much that offseason as some might have thought despite handing out upwards of $100 million in contracts.

It was during the 2013 season, however, that the perception of Ryan Grigson began to turn sharply.  After starting running back Vick Ballard tore his ACL in practice following week one, Grigson orchestrated a stunning trade after week two to acquire Browns running back Trent Richardson for a first round pick in 2014.  Some fans were excited, others were wary.  Some media praised the move, others doubted it.  But one thing was incredibly clear: Ryan Grigson was staking his reputation as a general manager on this blockbuster trade.  As he said to the MMQB's Peter King shortly after the trade happened:

"I know the risk.  I watched every game [Richardson] played for Cleveland. Believe me, I know the numbers-3.5 yards a carry, long [run] of 32-but I also know in this business you can go by the norm, and you can go by the eye test. What do your eyes tell you? They tell me he's special. He's a 4.48-second 40 guy who defenders don't want to tackle. I loved this kid coming out. He's only 23 years old, and I still think he's a great back.''

Grigson, the former scout who said in his introductory press conference that finding and identifying talent was one of his "strong points," was counting on those abilities again here in the biggest and riskiest move he had made as a general manager.  And fans trusted him - after all, "In Grigson We Trust" was still a statement commonly heard.  Grigson had earned that trust, and while fans realized that he was staking his reputation on this big move, they trusted the former scout in him to know what he was doing.

Then Richardson took the field.  And things didn't go very well.  In fact, in 14 games with the Colts in 2013, Richardson ran for just 458 yards on 157 carries, averaging a measly 2.9 yards per rush.  He scored only 3 touchdowns, and his biggest impact came in the receiving game, where he caught 28 passes for 265 yards and a score.  In two postseason games, Richardson carried the ball just 4 times and gained just 1 yard while also losing a fumble.  He was benched at the beginning of December and never regained the starting role over Donald Brown.  The player who Grigson put so much stake into had a disastrous first season with the team and Grigson was left without a first round pick and without the level of fan support that he previously had enjoyed.

The Colts aren't giving up on Richardson any time soon and I think that he'll be much better in 2013, but the damage had been done.  No longer did you hear the saying, "In Grigson We Trust."  All fans saw was the biggest move of Grigson's career blow up in his face, and the rose-colored glasses came off.  They saw the struggles his 2013 draft class was having.  They saw the contracts he gave out to some of those free agents.  And slowly but surely, fans began to squirm in their seats a little bit.

The 2014 offseason was where Grigson could really prove himself to fans once again.  And he started off very well, releasing Samson Satele and signing guys like D'Qwell Jackson, Arthur Jones, and Hakeem Nicks as well as re-signing guys like Pat McAfee, Adam Vinatieri, Vontae Davis, Ahmad Bradshaw, and a few others.  The free agent class looked good, but with Antoine Bethea leaving in free agency, fans thought that two big needs remained: center and safety.  The 2014 Draft would prove to be a time where Grigson could impress some people with the former scout in him and identify talent in the later rounds, since he only had five picks and the first one came late in the second round.  Draft expert Mike Mayock said in a pre-draft conference call that, "Ryan Grigson is a grinder and he came up the right way [as a scout]."  Mayock continued by saying that, "I believe that he's always going to be slightly ahead of the curve."  While the lack of a first round pick was a big blemish on the draft, many thought that due to Grigson's abilities as a scout he could find talent in the later rounds.  Maybe he did - truth be told, it's way too early to tell.  But the draft of Jack Mewhort, Donte Moncrief, Jonathan Newsome, Andrew Jackson, and Ulrick John didn't resonate too well with many fans.  Some of the picks were great and many of the players good players, but the Colts didn't address either the free safety or center positions and, combined with the overall feel of the draft, it wasn't good for Grigson's reputation.  Especially when fans waited for 58 picks because Grigson traded away the team's first rounder for Trent Richardson, and then watched the Cleveland Browns take that pick and use it to acquire a franchise quarterback in Johnny Manziel.

I was in a meeting today with a good friend who is a Colts fan but who, by his own admission, hadn't kept up with the draft.  He asked me who the Colts had gotten and what I thought, and then he asked me to remind him why the Colts didn't have a first round pick this year.  As I answered him that it was because of the Trent Richardson trade, I already knew what the reaction was going to be.  It was a groan and then some statement about how terrible that move was or something along those lines.  I've had countless people ask me about it, and I've always received one of two responses: either someone will respond with a groan or something similar like the guy I was talking to today did, or they'll respond with laughter to signify how terrible they thought the move was.  I've never had anybody respond with anything positive.  Sure, some mention how they're hopeful that Richardson turns it around, but the indication is clear: the move looks terrible right now, and the fans realize it.  Every fan realizes it.

Understand that I'm not a Ryan Grigson hater, though I know I'll get called that after publishing this article.  Understand that I actually really like the guy and, overall, I like what he has done.  I desperately want him to succeed as the Colts general manager.  But I wouldn't be doing my job if I said anything other than the truth, and that's that the pressure is mounting for Colts general manager Ryan Grigson.

No longer is the phrase "In Grigson We Trust" thrown around whenever Grigson's moves are talked about.  The last two drafts have left fans uninspired and doubting, and some of his free agent moves haven't helped.  Throw in the Trent Richardson trade that currently looks like a disaster, and it's not hard to see why fans have lost some confidence in the team's general manager.  I realize that this year's draft class could turn out to be amazing, and I realize that last year's draft class could emerge this year.  I realize how much variable there is in this discussion, but from where it stands right now, many fans aren't too confident and there's not much reason for them to be.  And then, when Grigson is asked why fans should be confident with the center position, Grigson essentially says that they should just trust him because he's been the one scouting.  But I'm not sure that works anymore, to be honest.  That's the same thing he said with the Trent Richardson trade, and fans trusted him about that.  Many were fooled once, and they're wary about being fooled again.  The lee-way that Grigson earned with his first year on the job has worn off, and now it's time for him to prove himself.

Listen, the Colts won't be getting rid of Grigson anytime soon.  Jim Irsay has had three general managers in his seventeen years as Colts owner, and one of them was around for only one year of the Jim Irsay tenure as he evaluated the state of the team he inherited from his father.  So of the guys that Irsay has hired, he has had just two in sixteen years.  Grigson is entering just his third season at the helm, and the Colts aren't like the Browns or the Raiders - they'll give him plenty of time.  No team in the entire league puts as much emphasis on the team being like a family as the Colts do, and that family atmosphere contributes to Irsay being hesitant to fire guys - and honestly, that's the way it should be.  Grigson absolutely deserves more time and I am in no way calling for him to be fired.  When you inherit the team that Grigson inherited and then turn it into a team that makes the playoffs in his first two years, that looks pretty good overall and it'd seem ridiculous to fire him after that.  Nobody is getting fired anytime soon - not Ryan Grigson, not Chuck Pagano.  But after the moves Grigson has made in the past year, fans are waking up.

As for me, I doubt Ryan Grigson's ability to read a draft and how it's going.  I think Ryan Grigson gets played by some other general managers.  I think that Ryan Grigson sometimes over thinks things and tries to make a big statement.  And lastly, I think Ryan Grigson expects fans to trust him no matter what he does.  I'm not pretending to be smarter than the Colts GM, nor do I claim to even be anywhere close.  But I've spent the last few years analyzing this team and the moves, and as a fan of the team I'm left with questions about Grigson.  As an analyst, I'm left with questions about Grigson.

It hasn't been all bad, as we've looked at, and honestly when looking big-picture things seem pretty good.  But some of the moves recently leave question marks and doubts, and those require answers - more answers than something along the lines of, "I'm the GM, so trust me."  I don't think that will work anymore, and the saying "In Grigson We Trust" has worn off.  Like it or not, the pressure is mounting for Ryan Grigson, and it's time that he answer it with his work instead of just his job title.