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Thoughts on Jim Irsay, Peyton Manning, Jon Gruden, and the rumors that are swirling

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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for concrete information regarding the Indianapolis Colts and what they’re going to do, you’re not going to find it here.

At this point, there’s just a lot of rumors. But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, and Jim Irsay has stayed suspiciously silent since the end of the regular season. He hasn’t even sent out a normal tweet since before the regular season finale, and the Colts have even stopped tweeting roster moves from his account - something they’ve done for quite a while. Irsay has, in many ways, gone completely off the grid.

That has paved the way for speculation, because most people in Indianapolis weren’t convinced by the reports a week ago that Chuck Pagano was coming back. After all, Jim Caldwell had told people he was coming back after the 2011 season before he was fired more than two weeks after the regular season ended.

So in the meantime, the rumors have run rampant in Indianapolis, and recently they’ve focused on two people in particular: Peyton Manning and Jon Gruden. Our old friend Brad Wells has been out front in all of this, but others in the Indy media have referenced it as well - albeit as rumors. I can tell you that I’ve heard most of it as well, but I can’t tell you whether it’s all true. That’s the situation we’re in right now, because it’s hard to get substantial information out of anyone truly close to the situation and with Jim Irsay, you never know what he’s going to do anyway.

Either way, since it’s the offseason and this is pretty much all Colts fans want to talk about right now, let’s discuss these rumors. Here are a few thoughts I have:

  1. If something is going to happen, I think it will happen soon. For context, Caldwell was fired on January 17, 2012 after playing the final game on January 1. And that was after Irsay hired a new general manager. The reality is that Irsay can’t just let this linger forever. At some point, either he’s going to make a change or he’s going to stick with what he has, and I believe that if he’s going to do something it’ll come soon (though granted, that’s still a vague - just like the rest of this whole thing).
  2. If nothing happens, I doubt we’ll hear from Irsay right away. The time for Irsay to come out and address his fans if he is keeping Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano has passed. Think about it: If next week Irsay suddenly breaks his silence and says that he’s keeping those guys, it would almost certainly prove without a doubt that he’s been searching, which wouldn’t be much of a vote of confidence in those guys. So I think the Anderson Herald-Bulletin’s George Bremer got it absolutely right regarding Irsay’s silence: “My conclusion: Plausible deniability. Irsay very well could be out on the hunt, trying to make the big splash that changes the franchise's direction. But any hunt is never guaranteed to succeed. If no changes are made to the team's leadership structure, the past couple of weeks will be easy enough to write off as a media concoction.” At this point, I don’t expect Irsay to come out with a public announcement he’s keeping his guys. Rather, he can just sit back and at some point down the road confirm that they’re coming back, acting like that was the decision all along and no one should have been surprised. An easy win for Irsay, right?
  3. I don’t think Jim Irsay hates Colts fans. In fact, let me put it another way: I know Jim Irsay doesn’t hate Colts fans. You can say what you want about Irsay, but I’ve always maintained two things in particular about him: 1) he knows more about football than most owners in the NFL; and 2) he cares more about his franchise than most owners in the NFL. Furthermore, he saw the example of his father, Robert Irsay, and how he was an unpopular figure, and Jim Irsay wants to be remembered differently. He’s wanted to learn from his father’s mistakes, and in doing so he’s built the Colts into an incredibly successful franchise and has been, for the most part, well-liked in Indianapolis. So that’s part of why I have a hard time believing that this guy - who’s generally been somewhat media-friendly and who cares a lot about this team - is just saying silent because he doesn’t care what Colts fans think. I don’t think he’s staying silent just because he’s already made a decision and fans shouldn’t be surprised. Now, as I mentioned above, if things fall through I think that’s a fallback option for Irsay, but I don’t think that’s his intent.
  4. I believe Jim Irsay is exploring his options. Along those lines, I don’t believe Irsay has made his decision. His silence thus far is too suspicious, and the rumors are too strong. So I do think he’s conducting a search of his options, though it’d be a more targeted search. Some fans have wondered what Irsay’s doing as they’ve seen the other coach openings filled, as it sounds like the only one remaining is the 49ers. What’s Irsay doing? I think the most simple and logical answer is that he was probably never going to get in on a coaching search like the other teams; he wasn’t going to go around interviewing a bunch of coordinators hoping that he’d find one who he loves. For years Irsay hasn’t seemed too committed to Chuck Pagano, but he’s proven - such as with the extension last year - that he thinks he can do worse than Pagano. So if Irsay were to go on a coaching search, I think he’d lead a targeted search that narrows in on specific candidates who he knows would be an upgrade. My best guess is that’s what he’s doing now. The question, of course, is who that coach is. Nick Saban? We know Irsay has had interest in the past, but I’d be surprised if Saban’s the guy now. Sean Payton? WTHR’s Bob Kravitz seemed to shoot that down. Jon Gruden? Maybe...
  5. So, about Jon Gruden. At this point, the most likely option is that Irsay’s search deals with Jon Gruden. After all, this is a guy who’s said before he’d like to coach Andrew Luck and who is a big fan of Luck’s, and he’s a Super Bowl coach who would fit the bill as a big-name hire, the kind that Jim Irsay would surely want (As Kravitz wrote, “He either hits a homerun, a grand slam to be more specific, or he whiffs mightily”). That information makes Gruden a natural suggestion by anybody wanting to list possible candidates for the Colts job. And then there was the tidbit that Jim Irsay’s plane was in Houston on Saturday night for several hours, arriving at a time that very suspiciously coincided with the end of the wild card game, which was broadcast by ESPN and Jon Gruden. So Gruden was in Houston, and so was Jim Irsay’s plane. Was Irsay on it? We don’t know. Was it about Gruden? Again, we don’t know. See, here’s what’s tough: all we have to go on are rumors and tidbits of information that, by themselves, don’t mean much, but when put together might paint a more interesting picture. If we believe Irsay hasn’t decided what to do yet and is exploring his options, and if Irsay’s plane was in Houston on Saturday night, and if Gruden has the interest in the job we’re led to believe he has - well, it sure sounds like Jon Gruden could be Irsay’s target.
  6. So, about Peyton Manning. Then there’s another set of rumors, ones that have been around longer than the Gruden ones, and Colts fans are thrilled at just the thought of it: Peyton Manning, the most legendary player in the history of the franchise, returning to take on some sort of executive role with the franchise. This one even feels a bit more concrete, too, with 1070 the Fan’s JMV leading the charge and even reporting that Irsay is very interested, but Manning doesn’t feel like he’s ready yet. Do we know for sure it’s true? Nope, but I do think there’s reason to believe that Jim Irsay wants Peyton Manning working with the franchise. I’ve not been able to figure out what role it would be in, but my guess would be as the “vice president of football operations” or something similar (that’s the role that Tom Coughlin just took in Jacksonville and it’s the role, along with general manager, that John Elway occupies in Denver). So I do think that Jim Irsay wants Peyton Manning involved. What we don’t know is whether Manning is ready to jump into it just a year out of retirement, or whether the compensation is right (like whether Manning wants an ownership stake or something like that). So we wait, but at the very least I do think Irsay has a vested interest in bringing Manning back. Whether or not it happens - or when it happens - is another matter that we don’t know the answer to.

So there you have it - nothing concrete, but those are my thoughts on the rumors we’ve heard. And from an analyst’s perspective, I’d be for the changes. I think there are legitimate concerns about these potential moves that we’d address if something happens, such as Manning’s inexperience in the front office or the fact that Gruden has been out of coaching for eight years. But while I’ve never considered Gruden a truly great coach, he’s done well with quarterbacks far worse than Andrew Luck, he’s a big-name hire, and he’d be an upgrade over Chuck Pagano. For Irsay to be able to pull Gruden out of a comfortable job at ESPN, however, would likely take personnel control, and I think even that could work with bringing in Manning (if Manning and Gruden are ok with it). Manning is inexperienced, but bringing him in as a vice president or something like that while giving Gruden roster control could help both satisfy Gruden and cover over Manning’s inexperience as he learns the ropes. I think it could work, and I’d be in favor of at least giving it a try. Because the reality is, I think it would be an upgrade over what the Colts currently have.

But that discussion is for another time, because right now we don’t know for sure what’s going on. There are a lot of rumors, and there’s surely some truth behind them. The question everyone in the Indianapolis media is going through right now is how accurate those rumors really are, which ones are true, and whether they will happen. On those matters, it’s silent. But as I’ve shared in this article, I don’t think it’s over yet. In the words of the Indianapolis Star’s Stephen Holder, “stay woke.”

(Editor’s Note: Part of the reason for writing this article on my thoughts regarding the current rumors was to give fans a thread to discuss their thoughts on whether this would be a good move or not and to discuss all things Colts, Manning, Gruden, Irsay - and any other rumors too. So have at it, and use this as a thread to discuss these matters until we have something actually substantial to talk about.)