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Why did the Colts fire Ryan Grigson?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts-Minicamp Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Indianapolis Colts made the move to fire general manager Ryan Grigson. And to be sure, it was perfectly justified.

Grigson’s personnel moves over the last five years have been suspect at best. He’s missed on a ton of draft picks, a ton of free agents, and has failed to build a competent defense. No defensive player from his first three drafts is still with the team, and the unit in the past two years have been the two worst in Colts history in terms of yards per game. He traded a first round pick for Trent Richardson and spent another one on Bjoern Werner. He signed LaRon Landry and Gosder Cherilus to big-money deals, among others. He failed to build a competent offensive line in five years. The on-field struggles and failures are numerous, and they’re certainly reason enough for the Colts to move on from Ryan Grigson.

But interestingly enough, none of that was mentioned by Jim Irsay in his press conference Saturday. In fact, it seemed to be the opposite: Irsay was praising what Grigson had done through five years.

Here are some snippets of what Irsay had to say about Grigson:

“He is a good man, and as part of this organization, he worked tirelessly to make us better. As I have said before, he has a record to be proud of, not easily accomplished some of the things that he accomplished in his five-plus years here.”

And this:

“Again, I don’t think you guys understand and give Ryan enough credit for what he’s done here. I really don’t. I know there’s never been a football team in the history of the league that came in with a rookie coach, a rookie quarterback, a rookie general manager, had a coach that battled potentially fatal cancer and didn’t have a losing season in five years. The expectations that have been put out for us are unrealistic in a lot of ways, but we accept them and we’re proud of them because we’re the ones who kind of have set those expectations with what we did in the last 15 or 20 years and even what we started with this regime. I don’t look at Ryan’s time as a failure. In this thing, I know only one team wins a Super Bowl each year and that sort of thing.”

And this too:

“Ryan was a good man, and anyone who can’t see that is unfortunate. Look, I know emotions go into our game and all that sort of thing, but this man slept at the office. He just gave his sweat, blood and tears, Colts fans should know, to desperately try to bring us the best game, the best season, the best year he could and I believe his record speaks for itself.”

It’s certainly possible (and probably likely) that part of that is simply due to Irsay not wanting to throw Grigson under the bus on the way out. Irsay probably wanted to keep things more professional than that, and it’s understandable. Because here’s the reality: If Grigson truly was such a tremendous general manager, he’d still be with the Colts. But Irsay’s comments sure do give the implication that there was a lot more going on with the decision to fire Ryan Grigson than just his on-field results - and Irsay’s praise for Grigson’s tenure certainly seems to indicate that as well.

So what’s the real story? It’s likely due to some behind-the-scenes stuff fans didn’t get to see. Remember the reports of all the dysfunction within the building in 2015? Did you see what all of those current and former players said about Grigson yesterday? It paints the picture of a guy who wasn’t well-liked and who was more trouble than he was worth. Maybe, Irsay figured that Grigson was the one most responsible for that dysfunction. Some of his comments seem to hint at that possibility:

“I will say that this timing was right for us. We needed the time to go through the process. Internally, we worked through some things, even through this week, that gave us some direction on our final decision. I am very excited about the direction we are going.”

Later, he added:

“It was a gut, intuitive instinct from looking at where we were and where we are as a franchise. I think that we needed to make a change. Intuitively you get the feeling when the timing is right, where a change will help. Whereas continuity is something that I really want and long to have as much as we can have it, but in this case I really felt that the time was right to make a change, that we needed some new direction in the vision of our football program. That is from talking to a lot of people and giving it a lot of thought.”

Irsay said that the new general manager will evaluate everything about the way the franchise operates:

“The new general manager will come in, evaluate our whole football program and we will see where we are at.”

Irsay said that the organization worked on communication, and that he believes Pagano will be better than ever in 2017:

“But let me just say this, there was a lot of work going on within our organization to evaluate how interaction happens, how people communicate and how we get better. It wasn’t just sitting and staring outside at the Indiana winter. Through that process, I think both men grew and understood where they have to change. Unfortunately for Ryan, as I told him earlier this afternoon, we had to make a change there and that hurts. He is a good man. Like I said, I don’t like to see change happen if we can avoid it. I do believe that Chuck being here, that improvement has to be made and he understands that and he is excited. Him and I met for a while this afternoon. He is fired up for 2017. He understands what we have to do. I really believe he will be the best coach he has ever been going into this year, I really do.”

Irsay said that while he didn’t talk to Jon Gruden about the head coaching job, he did talk to a lot of people about the state of his team:

“I talked to a ton of people about, ‘What do you think about our franchise? What did you see when you’ve watched us play?’ And all those sorts of things. I talked to a lot of people, a lot of ex-coaches, that sort of thing.”

He talked about the previous reality that Grigson and Pagano were tied at the hip:

“I untied them. I can only tell you that because it was in the best interest of the franchise. Chuck did not ask for Ryan to be fired, it wasn’t me or him or anything like that. Neither did Ryan. But again, my decision was based on what is best for the horseshoe, what is best to make us the best football team on the field. There have been a lot of relationships throughout the years where the general manager and head coach aren’t the best of friends, but professionally they move forward and excel. Both of these guys have great affection for each other, that may shock you guys, but I will let Chuck speak for himself or Ryan. There is a lot more affection than you guys even know. However, we are in the business of professional football and that is the business of winning. It’s about winning and you do everything you can to make sure you are in the position to win, period. Again, in my feeling, it was time to make a change and move forward. There is no question in my mind that this was the right move for the franchise. There is also no question in my mind that we went through an extremely thorough process before we reached that decision so I feel a lot of comfort in knowing that. Obviously there are still big challenges coming forward, but I really feel good about the direction of the franchise and the potential of where we are headed.”

And Irsay also spoke about his message to Colts fans:

“I’m excited about the future. Colts fans, this is the move that we needed to make. I made it slowly, cautiously, prudently, because it’s a big decision. I prefer continuity, but this move was the right move. There’s excitement in people’s eyes in the building today in talking to Chuck Pagano and Jimmy Raye (III) and others. There’s a lot of excitement and a tinge of sadness with leaving someone behind who worked so tirelessly to try to bring Colts fans a championship. They should know that we are really excited for the season and we look to take back what is rightfully ours and I’ll just leave it at that when it comes to starting to play ball again.”

That’s a lot of quotes to take in, and by themselves they probably don’t mean much. But take them all together, added with what we know of the disagreements and dysfunction in the Colts’ front office and added with what we’ve heard from those who worked with and for Grigson, and maybe you begin to get the picture of a move that’s about more than just football.

Irsay mentioned how he talked with a lot of people about the state of his franchise. Maybe some of those people were players, who clearly disliked Grigson. Maybe some of those people were outside observers who could see that there was a problem at the GM position. But whatever the case, maybe those conversations with people and the study Irsay put in to make this decision led him to decide that Grigson wasn’t the answer. Keep in mind that Irsay has been fond of Grigson, and you’d have expected him to move on from Pagano if he thought he needed to make a change. But whether this move was reached on his own or whether it was reached through these discussions with others, it’s clear that Irsay felt that Grigson wasn’t the right fit.

Furthermore, Irsay mentioned how he thinks Chuck Pagano will be better than ever in 2017. That statement will be met with scoffing from Colts fans and it’s questionable whether it will actually prove to be true, but don’t miss the underlying point: without Grigson around, Irsay thinks Pagano will have his best year. So that dysfunction and disagreement between Grigson and Pagano? It seems Irsay thinks Grigson is more to blame for the mess and was hindering Pagano.

Additionally, Irsay actually mentioned the disagreement between Grigson and Pagano unprompted. Irsay mentioned that there have been previous GM/coach relationships that haven’t been particularly friendly but they move forward professionally and still succeed, and he also mentioned how there was a lot of work within the Colts done to evaluate how people interact and communicate. See a pattern? Irsay was hinting at the disagreements that had been talked about for a while, and it seems that played a role in his decision too.

All of that, added with Irsay’s praise for Grigson’s accomplishments and tenure with the Colts, seems to make it clear that the Colts fired Ryan Grigson for more than just failed draft picks and free agent signings. He failed to build a defense, but he also wasn’t well-liked. He failed to build an offensive line, but he also didn’t really get along with his head coach. And when back-to-back 8-8 seasons are added to that dysfunction, it gives plenty reason to move on from the general manager.

Maybe that’s reading too much into it. Maybe Jim Irsay made the move simply because of Grigson’s failures building the team. But every indication we got yesterday pointed to something else, something more. And clearly, Irsay thought that the best move for his franchise was to part ways with Grigson moving forward. “Obviously there are still big challenges coming forward, but I really feel good about the direction of the franchise and the potential of where we are headed,” Irsay said yesterday. Perhaps the same couldn’t have been said with Grigson still in charge.