When Jim Irsay reached a decision to part ways with future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in in the spring of 2012, he realized that doing so would result in challenges for his NFL franchise. However, he had also reached the conclusion that rookie quarterback Andrew Luck would be so special that he could take advantage of his rookie contract by surrounding him with veteran players who could compete immediately for championships.
The early results were encouraging as Luck led Indianapolis to three straight playoff berths, each year advancing deeper toward the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl, until the plan came crashing down in a crushing defeat in New England in January of 2015.
Three years of a win-now philosophy with aging veteran players who were unable to turn back Father Time, two devastatingly inefficient drafts, and a discouraging level of success with young, developing free agents culminated in the realization that the old process was simply not going to work. If the Colts hoped to salvage the prime of Luck’s career, they would have to allow him time to get healthy and they would have to completely change their philosophy from “win-now” to “rebuild a winning culture.”
It should come as no surprise then that General Manager Chris Ballard is not leveraging his team’s future with splashy free agent signings early in his tenure. This franchise has already tried the “buy a ring” philosophy and came up very short against the Patriots.
Irsay realized that the team must build the foundation from within, establish an identity, and create a winning culture to sustain or even support the idea of making high dollar gambles in free agency.
In an interview with Indy Star’s Stephen Holder, Irsay commented on the direction for the Colts, the philosophy, and a cautious approach to free agency.
I think in the end, it’s about draft picks and it’s about accumulating high draft picks if we can. I couldn’t be more thrilled to see which directions we can head into. Free agency, it truly is fool’s gold. It’s Barnum and Bailey.
We want to give our fans excitement. We want them to have a chance to revel in big signings and things like that. But it’s something that, to me, we’re very cautious (about). Chris and I have had endless conversations.
If nothing else, the team’s owner and its new general manager are sharing the same message. They hesitate to leverage the team’s future, at least today, and while they are willing to consider making big free agent signings, they will do so cautiously. He told Holder that the rebuilds is a three-year process.
One part of that process will start with a high draft pick in next month’s NFL Draft. Irsay indicates that the team fully intends to come away with one of the top three non-quarterbacks in the draft at pick number six.
We can go a lot of different directions, we have a lot of needs. We could go pass rusher, we could go franchise running back, we could go offensive lineman. We don’t really feel the pressure to go any direction except the one that helps us have the longest sustained success going forward for greatness.
It’s not hard to figure out from his comments that Bradley Chub, Saquon Barkley and Quenton Nelson are all on the Colts’ list early in the draft. At this point, it is fair to believe that it will take a ridiculously lopsided deal to pry pick No. 6 out of Ballard’s hands. There are teams out there who have the capital to offer a ridiculous package but until that happens, the brass in Indianapolis believes a true difference-maker will fall to six and that Ballard’s move down in the draft will pay dividends.
[Ballard] quietly shocked the world. It was happening kind of behind the scenes and the trade was made. That was exciting and I think our fans started to get a little glimpse of what our plans are in terms of going forward.
While it may take time to build a team using the approach Irsay and Ballard have settled on for the Colts, all signs indicate that they’re willing to be patient. They’re not ready to gamble the future of the team on splashy free agents signings at this time and they’re all about bringing in young talent through the draft and finding ways to build draft capital to create the foundation for a new team with its own identity.
Like it or not, Colts fans are going to have to patient.