Earlier today, new Colts general manager Chris Ballard was introduced to the media for the first time. Owner Jim Irsay gave him very high praise, calling him the best GM prospect to come about in the 21st century.
Winning the press conference doesn't really mean much of anything, but that's certainly what Ballard did in the minutes that followed: he won. He was very impressive and came across as a very likable guy, inspiring even more confidence into the fanbase. But what did he actually say? Let's take a look at seven takeaways from his press conference that stuck out about him and how he'll approach things with the Colts.
1. It's all about the team
Probably the biggest takeaway from Ballard's press conference was his emphasis on this being a team project. He heavily emphasized the team and the locker room, while he also emphasized that his relationship with Chuck Pagano and the rest of the staff will be a team process.
"Alright, let me say this," Ballard said when asked about Andrew Luck, "because Andrew's a great player, but it will never be about one guy. It will never be about one guy. It's about all 53 men in that locker room, it's about all 63 men, including the practice squad, that we have. It will never be about one person. It will always be about the team. And is he a good piece? Absolutely. But he's just one of the 53 men that we have to go win with."
Ballard said that he developed that philosophy "over time" as he's been blessed to be around several great coaches, as he mentioned Barry Alvarez, Ron Harms, Lovie Smith, and Andy Reid and how "it's always about the team. Everything we do is about the team. We're going to always do the best thing for the team."
Ballard also plans to bring the team approach to his relationship with head coach Chuck Pagano, a relationship he considers to be very important. "It's essential, he said. "So I just left a place where John Dorsey and Andy Reid are tied at the hip and they make decisions together. Me and Chuck will make decisions together for the best interests of the Indianapolis Colts."
And last but certainly not least, Ballard plans to bring that team approach to his staff as well. He was clear that he will rely on the analysis and opinions of others on his staff who have been studying things as the draft and free agency process approaches. "Absolutely. Absolutely," he said. "Everything we do will be together. Everything we do will be together. It'll be a different process for our guys a little bit, but everything and every decision we make, we will do together. The draft room, in my opinion, is a lot like the locker room. It's a special place. And you better not be defensive, because we're going to poke holes in guys and we're going to make that guy earn his way to be an Indianapolis Colt. He's going to earn his way."
It's not hard to miss the emphasis: it's all about the team. In some ways, the press conference set Ballard up as an anti-Ryan Grigson type, as he came off as extremely humble and eager to embrace all facets of a team-based approach. We've heard about how Grigson had a tendency to come off as arrogant, and so while a press conference certainly can't tell us everything we need to know about a person, Ballard came across as a very humble guy who's ready to work with everyone he can to build the Colts into a championship team - with an emphasis on that team part.
2. He's still learning as he goes
In what may have been the best and strongest quote from Ballard's press conference, he was asked what makes him ready to be a GM and he responded with a very honest response.
"Let me put it this way: I'm probably not completely ready to be a GM," he said. "I'm going to screw some things up, I'm going to make some mistakes and I'll own them. But I'll say this: I wasn't ready to coach Al Harris, who played in the National Football League for 14 years, when I coached the secondary. I played receiver in college but coach put me in, but I figured it out. I wasn't ready to be an area scout, but I figured it out. I wasn't ready to be a director of pro personnel. I figured it out. I wasn't ready to be a director of player personnel. I figured it out. It's never about - I've got enough good people around me that they're going to help guide me along the way. And one of my real strengths is, when I make a mistake I'll own it. It's on me. I'll never put the blame off and I'll never put the blame off."
Here's why that was a great response: everyone knows that a first-time GM won't be perfect and that there will be some learning moments, and Ballard didn't try to hide that or pretend that he was greater than he really is (there's that humility again). Instead, he acknowledged that he'll make some mistakes, but was clear that he will take responsibility for them and not blame others. And the bottom line is that, as he's done everywhere he's gone, he'll figure it out.
It was a fantastic response, but it's also a great reminder for Colts fans: this is a first-time GM and he will get some things wrong, after all, but he'll take responsibility for those mistakes and keep on improving and learning and figuring it out. With that mindset, he probably will.
3. His approach will be to acquire young talent
It's great to talk about Ballard and who he is, but what's his approach going to be in building this Colts team? In other words, will he get heavily involved in free agency or build mainly through the draft?
"No, look, you want to raise your own," Ballard said. "You want to raise your own. We want to be a great drafting team. We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we're producing players every year for the Colts. You have to. You have to produce three or four guys that are going to help you every single year. Now saying that, between street free agents, between waiver claims, we'll get into free agency a little bit, but we will not - like I said earlier, you can't buy a locker room, and you have to be very careful when you enter into free agency. But we're going to try to acquire as many young players that we can [for] a competitive roster. I mean, we want the most competitive roster we can get. That's how you get great. That's how you get to be special as a team, when daily they've got to go out there and compete to get better."
Here's my take on that: don't expect the Colts to be too involved in free agency this year. They'll make a few moves, but that doesn't seem to be the way Ballard operates (including that very interesting quote about how you can't buy a locker room). The Colts have significant money to spend this year, but their primary means of building will figure to be through the draft. Ballard emphasized growing their own talent, and that's the best way to build a team - but it requires hitting on draft picks.
We can also expect the Colts to focus heavily on the defensive side of the football and in the trenches while Ballard is in charge. "Defense wins championships," he said. "And I know you've got to score points, but I've been blessed to be in this league to work for two places where we've been pretty special on defense, Chicago and Kansas City. So definitely it's a priority. And that's probably why I have such a fixture for Chuck, because here's a defensive head coach. But don't get me wrong: we've got to score points, we've got to have weapons. Look, in this league you win up front. You win on the o-line/d-line. And if you're not good up front it's very difficult when you get into December football, December/January football."
Ballard will make the defense and the trenches a priority, and that's a good thing for the Colts: because they could sure use help in both areas. And though the NFL Scouting Combine, free agency, and the draft all aren't far away, Ballard doesn't feel behind in the process despite just getting hired.
"No, we'll get rolling," he said confidently. "We'll be alright. We have plenty of days before the draft. We've got time. Look, I was scouting all year. We have certain meetings that we do in Kansas City so I'm pretty up to date on the UFA class, the free agent class, for this year. It'll be a different process for our guys, but no, we're good. We're in good shape. We have plenty of time."
4. He's a talent evaluator
Chris Ballard has done a nice job evaluating talent everywhere he's been, whether it's with the Bears as a scout or with the Chiefs as director of football operations. He's had a knack for seeing talent, but it's an inexact science. What does he look for in guys?
"Each position has certain traits," he said. "Physical traits are very important, especially for the high end talent in our league, most of them have great physical traits. But look, the tape tells you everything. I'm into analytics, there's some stuff we'll do with analytics just to kind of help bring our decision making into focus, but the tape tells you everything. And I'm telling you, the really good ones pop off that tape fast, and then they do it consistently."
Ballard mentioned Jerry Angelo and John Dorsey as some of his major influences as far as evaluation and scouting goes, as well as coaches he's worked with. But a lot of Ballard's job right away will be evaluating the players currently on the Colts' roster to see where they need to go from here. He didn't reveal much about what he thinks the Colts' biggest needs are right now, saying that he needs to watch all 16 games, talk with the coaching staff, and talk with the pro scouting staff to see where the needs are and where they're weak.
5. He has a clear vision for the Colts
Ballard was also asked what his vision is for the Colts, and he made it quite clear.
"My vision for the Colts is simple," Ballard said. "We're going to work together as an organization to build a winning culture that is competing for championships year in and year out. That's easier said than done, and it's going to take a lot of hard work by everybody. Everyone will have to understand that we're all a part of something bigger than ourselves and that every decision we make will be in the best interest of the horseshoe. It will never be about one person. It will take all of us to come together as one. We will set high standards throughout the organization, and make sure that winning becomes our edge. This has to happen at every level of the organization, and we have to make sure we have an organization full of team-oriented problem-solvers to get this done.
"To our past players, who have created such high expectations and high standards, we will make you proud of the team that we're going to build together, and know that you're always welcome back here in Indianapolis. I think it's very important to bring back the former players and get them around our current players so they understand the history and the high standards that have been set from the past successes. I care about our ex-players in this game, and I want to help them find their life's work. I want to help our current players find their life's work. I think that's very important. The locker room is very important, and you can't win without a strong one. You can't buy a locker room. That has to be developed over time. We want a locker room full of guys that love football, are self-driven to be great, and will push each other to be great every day. We want the great fans of Indianapolis to know that our players have each others' backs, and that they're going to put their self-serving goals aside and do their best for this city and the Indianapolis Colts."
Ballard's vision for the Colts involves several parts worth pointing out. First, he wants a winning culture. This is something that Colts fans will love, especially after the dysfunctional culture of the previous regime. Jim Irsay seemingly traced the root of the problem to Ryan Grigson, but it was clear that the Colts needed a bit of a culture change. Chris Ballard wants to emphasize a winning culture. Secondly, he wants to build a team that is competing for championships every year. This one should be (and is) quite obvious, since anyone taking the job would have understood and shared this expectation. Third, Ballard expanded upon the theme of team quite heavily, talking about how it will take a building filled with guys buying into the team approach, as well as a strong locker room with players doing what's best for the team. Again, there's a very strong idea of team with Chris Ballard that resonated throughout his entire press conference. And fourth, Ballard talked about welcoming back former players and helping both past and present Colts figure out their life's work - the idea that there are things more important than football. He mentioned that he got over 560 text messages yesterday and that around 200 of them were from former coaches and players. "That was very humbling," he said. "Very humbling. Because that's what it's about, it's about making a difference in others' lives, it's about influencing others, and I feel blessed to have had those people a part of my life."
That's an impressive vision statement, but now the tougher task is to make it happen. But according to Jim Irsay, Ballard's enthusiasm rubs off quickly and he'll turn that optimism into reality.
6. He's a family guy
Ballard was very appreciative of his family during his press conference, thanking his wife, Kristen, and his five kids. "All y'all mean the absolute world to me, and I love all y'all," he told them. "They've sacrificed a lot for their father. I've moved them twice in the last six years and they've been troopers and never once complained, they just jump on board and get ready for the journey. And that's what it's about." Ballard also thanked his mother and step-father during his press conference, specifically thanking them for allowing him to play football even though he was a severe asthmatic and doctors told him not to play.
Family also played a critical role in Ballard deciding to accept the job in Indianapolis with the Colts.
"So my family's very important to me, and where we end up and the city we live in is critical," Ballard answered when asked why he was attracted to this job. "So a midwestern city like Indianapolis, very similar to Kansas City, good family environment to raise children, that was very attractive. Ownership. Very loyal ownership. They've had two GMs in the last 20 years. Very loyal ownership. Good city. Strong organization. History, great history. Those are the things that attracted me to Indianapolis."
7. Chuck Pagano will be back
Jim Irsay said as much last week, but Chris Ballard confirmed it today: Chuck Pagano will return as the Colts' head coach for 2017.
"There was no other options, there was Chuck Pagano," Ballard responded when asked what his head coaching options were. "Chuck Pagano is a good football coach in the National Football League. Three 11-5 seasons, went to the AFC Championship game, had two 8-8s back-to-back but he's won 49 games. We need to keep our eye on how hard it is to win in this league. It is hard to win. And he's won 49 games in the National Football League. No, it was Chuck Pagano and his staff, and we're rolling."
That was certainly the indication we had been getting, but there was always going to be some bit of caution until the GM situation was figured out. Now that Ballard has been hired, however, it seems quite clear that Pagano will be back. Ballard spoke quite highly of Pagano (probably the only part of his press conference Colts fans didn't like), and Pagano himself was in attendance at the press conference.
Though that's not the ideal move for the Colts, there is one main reason to have at least some optimism: Ballard's team approach and emphasis on working with Pagano could present a nice shift in the way things work in that building. By all indications, Ballard is a good guy to work with, and after the last GM that should be a welcome change for Chuck Pagano.