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Can Colts Owner Jim Irsay Take Back Seat in Chris Ballard’s Search for New Coach?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the feeling among the Indianapolis Colts fan base when Ryan Grigson was canned and Chris Ballard was brought in to lead the team into the future, the excitement begins to build as it looks nearly impossible that Chuck Pagano will be retained into the 2018 season. His recent pressers, his mannerisms and noticeable dejection are making it increasingly obvious that he knows he has been coaching for his job, and hasn’t proven himself worthy of maintaining employment.

After being forced to hold on to Pagano last season – partly due to owner Jim Irsay’s instruction, and the lack of time available for Ballard to complete the hiring process – the presumption has always been that the Colts new GM would bring in his own guy for the following season.

It’s largely a rite of passage for incoming GM’s to have that luxury when they’re hired, rather than to have a coach forced upon them. However, a hasty hire isn’t in the best interest of the organization long term either. Many perceived candidates have been talked about throughout the course of the season including David Toub (special teams coordinator Kansas City Chiefs), and rumors of Jon Gruden will never stop while people’s strange affinity towards a career .540 head coach persists, if only because he has that ever-elusive Super Bowl win on his resume.

You can say what you like about how Pagano’s wins were attained throughout his tenure in Indianapolis, but his win percentage is .565 and has taken his underwhelming roster to the AFC title game and I don’t really see the difference in one from the other when looking at the big picture to be perfectly honest. More possible candidates have popped up as well, but understand that Ballard has brought in a large portion of his front office that he trusts to assist him in player evaluation. Additionally, you can be assured that like-minded, right-hand men such as Ed Dobbs and Rex Hogan will assist in bringing in the right replacement to fit their collective vision to lead the team going forward.

On the other hand, something has been eating at me for a while now. Think back to the 2012 hiring of Grigson and Pagano. The lead up to the hiring of Pagano – soon after Grigson was brought in – was that Grigson was going to be making a decision on then-coach Jim Caldwell within roughly a week-and-a-half and that he and Irsay agreed that they wanted to go about making the decision “the right way.”


After Pagano was announced to have been the decision to lead the Colts through the transition, there was a severe lack of communication from Grigson – almost nothing in fact – and when Irsay spoke about it, he never even mentioned Grigson. I think it’s safe to say that the common assumption at the time was that while Grigson may have decided Caldwell’s fate, Irsay was likely solely responsible for Pagano getting the nod.

Do we need to rehash all of the issues that came to light between Pagano and Grigson while they shared the same building? Does it make sense that Irsay would have had to have been the mediator between the two had Grigson had a strong hand in bringing him in? I don’t think so. Grigson, for all of the attempts he made at strong-arming organizational staff and for the coordinators who were scapegoated instead of Pagano being held accountable, possibly shows that Grigson was most likely micromanaged by Irsay as well.

Irsay is an emotional man. An owner who knows football very well, but we’ve begun to see him more and more involved since making the move in 2011 to reshape the horseshoe from the top down. He had great trust in Bill Polian but made a move that he felt needed to be made to modernize the organization, hoping to create a more well-rounded roster with a brash, young leader in the front office and a soft-spoken, player’s coach. As a result, this created an oil-and-water type power vacuum destined to fail, setting up the Colts for their current situation.

Now, much like Grigson’s tenure ended in Indianapolis – only in reverse – Ballard has been brought in with the prospect of having to string along a lame duck coach. Without knowing any of the specific predetermined agreements between Irsay and Ballard previous to him taking the reins, can we really just blindly assume that Ballard will have carte blanche in making the decision on the incoming coach? We’d all like to think so, but given the past 6 years of decision-making, I’m not completely convinced that that is the case.

Bringing in a guy like Ballard, who has been chased for years by several organizations to no avail before being hauled in by Irsay, it’s hard to imagine that he would accept such an agreement to ride shotgun on any coaching hires in the future. But, can Irsay even help himself at this point?

Well, I’ll keep this part of it short and sweet.

He better take a backseat during the hiring process, and maybe even completely recuse himself from it altogether. And there are some possible severe repercussions if he doesn’t.

Irsay, with excessive meddling, could ruin the relationship he has with the most important – and smartest – hire he’s made in years. This could, again, set back the Colts even further from where they hope to go and could severely hamper the chances of retaining Ballard, as well as any further hiring processes.

The Colts job then becomes a joke, and Irsay a sort of cancer who can’t allow the football people he puts in place make football decisions. More or less, the Colts then become a B-level job regardless of who the quarterback is. This simply cannot happen. The organization can’t be seen as having an owner who can’t get out of his own way, yet still holds demands for significant improvement almost immediately. They can’t become the Browns.

Now, granted, this would be a worst-case scenario and there would likely be several more steps within this fall from grace. Let’s just hope that the Colts owner, and family, allow Ballard to do what he does without forcing their hand into the process which could shape the team for several years to come.