For much of the past several years, Colts fans had been growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with general manager Ryan Grigson, whose failure to put together a competent roster around a franchise quarterback was becoming more and more evident.
Andrew Luck just completed his fifth season, was as good as ever in 2016, and the Colts still missed the playoffs - for the second time in as many seasons. It was going to be hard for Jim Irsay, an owner who’s talked about wanting multiple Super Bowls in the Luck era, to put up with that any longer. So he fired Grigson.
He then went on a search that included some of the brightest personnel guys in football: Eliot Wolf. Trent Kirchner. Scott Fitterer. George Paton. Jimmy Raye III. And yes, Chris Ballard.
Ballard has been sought-after by teams in the past for GM positions, including the San Francisco 49ers earlier this year (though he didn’t interview with them). He’s been widely regarded as one of the top personnel guys in football, has long been considered a GM candidate, and is believed to be fully ready for this opportunity. He’s done tremendous work with the Chiefs, as director of player personnel for two years and then as director of football operations for the past two seasons. A longtime scout for the Chicago Bears, Ballard has helped build up the talent level of two successful franchises. It’s also been believed that he would put together an impressive scouting staff when he got a shot as a GM. And according to former NFL GM and current analyst Charley Casserly, since Ballard used to be a college coach “one of his strengths is understanding coaches and working with them.” Considering what situation the Colts are moving on from, that’s a massive plus.
And consider this: the Chiefs’ success has come with Alex Smith at quarterback. What they’ve done in Kansas City is build a very well-rounded team that can win in multiple ways. So for the Colts, hiring Ballard actually gives him a better starting foundation than with the Chiefs: a true franchise quarterback who’s already established himself as a top guy. Now, Ballard’s task is to build the supporting cast - mainly the defense - around Luck.
That fix isn’t going to come magically overnight. It’s going to involve making smart decisions with the $50 million in cap space that the Colts have to work with this offseason. It’s going to involve making smart draft picks, both in the first round and in later rounds. And it’s going to involve time, because a defense that in the last two seasons has recorded the two worst seasons in the Indianapolis era isn’t going to be fixed overnight. That process will be prolonged if the Colts opt to keep Chuck Pagano, because it would create a lame duck scenario in 2017 in what could ultimately result in a wasted year of sorts before Ballard brings in his own guy.
So things aren’t going to be fixed overnight, and there’s no sure thing in these hires - not unless the Colts could convince Bill Polian to come out of retirement (and leave his son with the Jaguars). But this is a hire that Jim Irsay had to make, as he went searching for a legitimate GM to work on building the team during Andrew Luck’s prime, and he delivered by bringing one of the most sought-after and well-regarded GM candidates to Indianapolis. Give Irsay credit for that: he was able to lure one of the top candidates and hired him as the Colts’ GM.
If you ask me, that amounts to a home run hire. The real challenge will be what comes next, but at the very least the Colts have a perfectly capable guy leading the charge.