August 24th, 2019 - Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck fights back tears as he announces his shocking retirement from the NFL. “I’m in pain,” he utters as media members surround his makeshift podium. “I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live.”
At the moment all seems lost for the Colts - an organization seemingly on the come up. The 29-year old has carried the team on his outmatched shoulder for 7 years. Now, in the swift snap of a finger, it’s all gone.
Gone are Luck and his miraculous 4th quarter comebacks. Gone are the Stanford protege’s absurd tight-window throws. Gone are his gutsy scrambles and aggressive deep shots. Most importantly, gone are Indianapolis’ Super Bowl hopes.
Or so we thought.
Fast forward two months and the Colts are 4-2 and standing at the top of their division, playing like arguably the hottest team in football. It’s a miraculous turn of events and a middle finger to those who doubted them.
Even without luck on their side, they are legit contenders - a testament to how far this franchise has come in just a few short years.
Let’s take a look at the two key factors behind this improbable resurgence.
January 29th, 2017 - Colts owner Jim Irsay grins from ear to ear as the team unveils former Chiefs assistant Chris Ballard as his new general manager. “He’s the best candidate to come about in the 21st century,” Irsay declares in regards to his latest staff hiring.
It’s an ambitious statement by a notably outspoken owner, putting Ballard in a near-impossible situation to live up to the absurd expectations laid upon him.
But the lofty praise - just like the mess of a roster he was saddled with - didn’t phase Ballard. If anything, it sold him short.
See, through just 3 seasons as the Colts GM, Ballard has already had a lifetime worth of savvy moves. His first draft choice was a premier free safety. When he was gifted with the 3rd overall pick in the 2018 draft, he turned it into FIVE impact players, including the best offensive guard in football. It doesn’t stop there.
He’s claimed 3 players off of waivers who have become quality starters. He drafted an All-Pro linebacker 36th overall - a selection widely scrutinized by analysts at the time. He even traded a back-up WR for a starting QB who’s thrown the 2nd most touchdown passes in the entire league.
Some of Chris Ballard’s accomplishments as Colts GM:— Carter Donnick (@CDonnick3) October 22, 2019
- Acquired Jacoby Brissett for back-up WR
- Turned 2018 3rd pick into Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Kemoko Turay, Jordan Wilkins, and Rock Ya-Sin
- Claimed starters Pierre Desir, Mark Glowinski, and Kenny Moore off waivers
Ballard has taken his time in Kansas City and directly applied it in Indianapolis, structuring his new organization in a balanced manner. He collects assets like they’re coins, stashing them for good use until he has the sensible need to splurge.
A playoff team last season, Indy went into the off-season with an extra 2nd round selection and over 70 million dollars in cap space - something seemingly unheard of from a 10 win team. It would’ve been easy for Ballard to use that success to justify an abrupt and brash decision.
Yet - perhaps to the displeasure of some - Ballard remained patient, using a good portion of the cap but not all of it, structuring team-friendly deals and lessening long-term risk. He didn’t give in to temptation and trade up on draft day either, rather choosing to stockpile more picks in his overflowing treasure chest of assets.
If you would have told me the Colts would start the season 4-2 AFTER the franchise quarterback stunned the organization by retiring 15 days before the opener, I wouldn't have believed you. But that's how good a job Chris Ballard and Frank Reich have done.— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) October 20, 2019
Ultimately, his calm and patient demeanor is exactly what this team needed, especially after the short-sighted vision of former GM Ryan Grigson and his failed regime.
At this point, Ballard has yet to make a poor transaction, and his success has allowed Indianapolis to fast track not only one but TWO long rebuilds in only 3 years.
No decision has yet to rival hiring Head Coach Frank Reich, however, who just happens to be the other driving force behind the most shocking team in football.
February 4th, 2018 - As the Patriots and Eagles duel it out on Super Bowl Sunday, Colts fans have their own incentive in watching the big game - seeing future Head Coach Josh McDaniels live in action. Coordinating New England’s electric offense, McDaniels has just verbally agreed to a deal in Indianapolis. He’s the supposed savior to both Andrew Luck and a stagnant Colts franchise - a team in desperate need of a play-caller with his creativity and innovation.
Maybe McDaniels senses the desperation. Maybe he’s bitter after an unfortunate Super Bowl loss. But fast forward two days and everything’s changed.
The New England OC shockingly opts to stay with the Patriots, getting cold feet in the 11th hour and declining the head coaching gig he had accepted just mere days before.
“I just needed an answer,” Ballard explained about his last talk with McDaniels. “I needed a yes or no. He said no and I said okay, we’re going to move forward. I wish you the best of luck.”
A franchise that had finally found a direction was seemingly once again lost. It turns out, however, that McDaniels spurning the job was the best thing that could’ve happened.
On February 11th, a week after McDaniels was confirmed to be “the guy”, the Colts hired Philadelphia Eagles OC Frank Reich, who was seemingly a back-up option in Ballard’s failed mission.
What a story in Indy this year. From fans selling their season tickets after Andrew Luck retired to 1st place in their division after 7 weeks. Props to Frank Reich. #Colts pic.twitter.com/8j4fHPwx4R— Brian Chojnacki (@BroadcastingBri) October 20, 2019
Now in Year 2, Reich being Indy’s “plan B” seems like a distant memory, with both him and Ballard forming arguably the best front office combo in the entire league.
Able to accentuate Andrew Luck’s strengths during his tricky rehab, Reich’s original goal with the Colts was clear - help out the franchise QB by whatever means necessary. He did that and then some in his first season, centering the passing game around a quick and efficient style, limiting both the pressure Luck faced and the hits he took.
In one year under Reich - along with Ballard’s upgraded personnel - Indy went from allowing 56 sacks to just 18, the most dramatic decrease in NFL history. Furthermore, Reich helped invigorate a lackluster run game, using 5th round sophomore Marlon Mack to create a refreshing and committed approach on the ground.
The structured offensive attack finally created the perfect environment for Andrew Luck to succeed in, and by all accounts the passer took advantage. Blessed with a strong supporting cast for the first time in his career, Luck posted MVP-type numbers in his first season back after shoulder surgery, throwing for 39 touchdowns and posting a sparkly 4600 passing yards.
Reich was helping Luck and in return, Luck was helping Reich. The two were like peanut butter and jelly - the perfect match. But when Luck abruptly retired at the start of the season, Reich lost the key ingredient in his creative concoction. Yet, just like with Ballard, Reich wasn’t phased.
Coach was mic'd up for Sunday's win.— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) October 23, 2019
Yes, he brought plenty of juice. pic.twitter.com/UR4SDeyAHB
Operating the offense with Jacoby Brissett at the helm - a strong back-up who Ballard acquired for pennies on the dollar - Reich has largely operated the same scheme this season, posting near-identical success with an inferior passing option. In a sense, despite his MVP-like play, Luck hasn’t mattered.
Now that’s not to say Brissett hasn’t been a downgrade - he has - but he’s been a strong enough option to execute Reich’s impressive vision. Ultimately that’s all you can ask for in a tricky situation like the one Reich, Ballard, and the rest of the organization find themselves in
At some point, the improbable nature of this Colts team may wear off, but at the moment, it seems as if Luck never left. After his absence left a giant crater in both the team and the city, Ballard and Reich have this team on one of the quickest turnarounds in recent memory.
Ultimately, whether you expected it or not, Colts are legit contenders, and fans owe the majority of that success to the resilient regime right in front of them.