There are a number of cliches that surround the National Football League. One is that “NFL stands for ‘Not for Long’.” Another is that the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” kind of league. There are numerous others that all point to the fact that whether you are referencing a player, coach, general manager, or franchise you had better do well when you get a chance or you will quickly find yourself looking for a new career, or floundering to keep your fan base interested.
One area that exemplifies this rat race is the free agency tampering period and first week of the new league year. With an ever-rising salary cap that has grown to reflect the ever-increasing profitability of professional football, the feeding frenzy for free agents has grown to incredible proportions. Contract prices are soaring, records are constantly broken, and veteran players are looking to sign the one big contract that makes their careers.
The introduction of a rookie wage scale for the draft put even greater pressure on teams to make big moves in free agency because they were able to reduce the impact of ridiculous rookie contracts — particularly in the early first round.
Numerous franchises have attempted to find the magic formula for playoff success and Super Bowl relevance through free agency throughout the years. Just how effective this method of roster building is can be endlessly argued without gaining any meaningful insight. Suffice to say that signing the right free agents can help push a franchise over the top while signing the wrong free agents can set back a franchise for years. Similarly, finding outstanding players in the draft will set a franchise well ahead while failing to succeed in the draft will quickly spiral out of control.
For Chris Ballard and the Indianapolis Colts, a conscious choice has been made to spend carefully in free agency until the atmosphere and culture can permeate through a locker room that is heavily represented by players who entered the league donning the horseshoe. These players will have established a team identity and when free agency signing periods come around and bigger names join the roster, there will be a foundation laid and expectations for the incoming players that will make it easier to acclimate to what it means to be a member of the Colts.
While a lot of this might sound ridiculous, like coach speak, like chopping wood, there is a truth to it. In an effort to not use a tired NFL comparison (Patriots), I’ll switch gears and use the Indiana Pacers as an example.
If you are completely uninterested in basketball, feel free to skip ahead.
After Paul George publicly requested a trade and destroyed any leverage the front office might have in getting something big in return, it was assumed that the franchise would get fleeced. When Kevin Pritchard took over for Larry Bird and chose to trade for former Indiana Hoosier guard Victor Oladipo and second-year forward/center Domantas Sabonis the fears of the entire fan base became a reality — or did it?
Somehow, the Pacers have come out of the trade as the clear winner. Victor Oladipo went to his first All Star game, Sabonis represented Indiana in the Rising Stars challenge, and a team who was presumed to miss the playoffs and have a high pick in the upcoming draft has secured a playoff berth with eight games remaining in the league year. This team is currently sitting in fifth place in the East and is only 1.5 games out of third.
Heading into the trade deadline, Indiana was one of only teams in the league with the cap space to swing a major trade and attempt to make the roster more formidable down the stretch.
Pritchard didn’t flinch.
It was his thought process that the locker room chemistry was so strong and had such a major influence on the team’s on-court success that blowing it up at that point in the season simply didn’t make any sense.
How far the Pacers can go in the playoffs is anyone’s guess but something else that has become true for anyone who follows the team is that they are a very close group. The team plays for each other, the culture is very real, and they have been able to quickly get Trevor Booker acclimated to what is expected — he is already bonding with the team.
It is very likely that Pritchard will make a move or two following the season and that there will be changes to the 2018-2019 Indiana Pacers roster, including a big name or two who could join the roster. While Pritchard could be risking some of the team’s chemistry when he makes these moves, it should be clear by now that the foundation of this team is young, loves playing together, and has established an identity that any new player will recognize the moment he enters the locker room.
Back to football.
During league meetings in Florida, Chris Ballard discussed some of his decisions during free agency and made it clear that he was not idle in reaching out to big name free agents.
It’s funny, because we were involved with some of the bigger name guys, but the value of what the price tag got, we backed out. We knew there was a chance we were going to be inactive the first 5, 6, even 7 days of free agency. I don’t want to act like we are opposed to free agency. There will come a point where we are going to need a piece and we will go buy one. We just felt like we had so many (missing) pieces, that going to add 2 or 3 big name pieces, they weren’t going to fill all the holes that we have.
Right or wrong, Chris Ballard doesn’t feel the Colts locker room has established chemistry yet. He doesn’t feel the group has an identity. He doesn’t feel that there is a young core of players who are the foundation of his roster or who provide a backdrop that will allow for big name free agents to join and have success.
Financial discipline in this league you don’t see it in this league like you used to. I think it’s a good thing to have. Because what happens is these guys are re-tooling the roster every two years. You are signing all these free agents and then two years from now, you are seeing them all get cut and then they are back on the street again. We have to get some roster continuity with 10-to-12 players that are going to be Colts for a long time. Then you feel better about dipping into free agency and getting a guy. Not just good players, they need to be able to influence the locker room with their character. A culture needs to be built. A coach can do so much, but the players in that locker room build the culture that you want, with their work ethic, with the standards that they set. We have to get more players like that in our locker room.
Ballard inherited a team that required a major rebuild. The win-now philosophy of Ryan Grigson following Peyton Manning’s exit to Denver has past. Andrew Luck needs to get completely healthy. A new coaching staff is taking over with entirely new systems on the offensive and defensive side of the football. These coaches will have an opportunity to work with the players, influence them on and off of the football field, and help put a stamp on the expectations for Colts football players.
It is Ballard’s thought that this will take some time and patience, that it will take some financial prudence. On working inside of a three-year rebuild window Ballard commented:
I think anytime you are transitioning to a new coaching staff you are kind of starting from this point forward. Having said that, I think last year we acquired some players who are going to help us going forward...We’ve got to build up our young core of talent. We have to. It’s critical we do that. It’s an important draft for us. One, because we have 4 picks in the top 50 picks in the draft. But we also have 9 picks (this year) and 8 next year with the possibility of getting another (compensatory) pick. So that’s 18 picks in 2 years. We have to get some core players that are going to be Colts for a long time. We have to get guys that are going to grow up and play and get up to speed fast.
I can respect what Ballard is trying to do. While this process is not as fast as I would like — it just might work.
I have expressed that I feel there should be balance in the approach to free agency as it relates to roster building. I happen to think that there are players who commanded more money than they’re likely worth, who could have also help speed up the process of creating that culture. There aren’t many players like that who find their way to free agency but the team had the money to spend and may have been able to outbid other teams to add a key piece like that to the roster.
Either way, it is fair for fans to expect Jim Irsay and Chris Ballard to put a competitive football team out on the field. Not in three years but right now. With a healthy Andrew Luck, they might be able to pull that off. Just don’t expect Ballard to leverage the team’s future on big name free agents until he sees the team start to establish an identity and starts to feel comfortable with the culture in his locker room. When that time comes, his frugal spending philosophy just might pay off in a big way.
We will have to wait and see.