This is a huge offseason for the Colts organization. The last time they were faced with this level of adversity was following the 2011 season when they decided to say goodbye to the legendary Peyton Manning. Unlike then, there is no first overall pick waiting to step in and take over. Instead, the Colts will pick at 13th overall, and it is unlikely they’ll find a quarterback there who is a finished product in the way Andrew Luck was when he entered the league and dragged a 2-14 roster to 11-5 finish as a rookie.
They have major needs at other positions as well, with wide receiver, tight end, defensive tackle, and cornerback all in need of being addressed. Additionally, there is a strong possibility that they’ll be looking for a starting left tackle with Anthony Castonzo mulling retirement.
While the decisions they make in this season will be critical for the team going forward, they have a lot more going for them than they did back in 2011. First, this is an organization that is of one mind. They know what they are aiming at as a team, and have the people in place to get them there. There is no in-fighting, jockeying for control, or tension between the coaching staff and front office.
As Zak Keefer of The Athletic wrote, they have the leadership and patience of one of the best owners in the league. Irsay knows the significance of what is happening, and while many owners move frenetically from one solution to the next, all the while imposing themselves on their staff and disrupting the process, Irsay understands the value of hiring the right people and then letting them go to work. He watched the alternative unfold under his father’s ownership.
Certainly Irsay’s patient style has been to his detriment at times, as evidenced by the prolonged Chuck Pagano/Ryan Grigson experience. However, what is clear through all that, is that Irsay understands that building a winning organization takes some time, and it takes the right people at the top.
The Colts unquestionably have that in general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich. Neither man has been perfect, by any means. Ballard has largely eschewed free agency in favor of building his roster through draft picks, and by his own admission, has let some valuable veteran leadership leave his roster. Most recently, he stuck with a clearly struggling Adam Vinatieri too long, and that move cost the team.
His 2017 draft class is now heading into their 4th season, and the results are a bit of a mixed bag. Marlon Mack and Anthony Walker are unquestionable hits from the class. Malik Hooker and Grover Stewart are players that have shown promise but still haven’t had a breakout season. Quincy Wilson is the only remaining player from that class on the roster, and his spot is in serious jeopardy.
The results from the 2018 and 2019 drafts have been more promising. If Reece Fountain is able to return from his ankle injury, it is fully possible that every one of the first 8 picks in the 2018 draft class will be on the roster and getting significant snaps. That is an incredible feat, and one we brush aside perhaps too casually. Yes, drafting two All-Pro players is a big part of what makes that class great, but it is also the sheer number of major contributors selected.
While the 2019 class hasn’t fared quite as well, they’ve been solid, with guys such as Rock Ya-Sin, Bobby Okereke, and Khari Willis having very good rookie campaigns and looking to improve upon them in 2020. Parris Campbell had a season marred by injury, but is likely another player from the 2019 class who will take a step forward in 2020.
In total, Ballard has been a steadying presence and has proven his ability to evaluate players as they fit with what the Colts want to do. He came into the organization with a lame duck coach, a roster devoid of talent and a quarterback who was beaten half to death. He hired a coach who promptly backed out of the job so late in the game that some of his assistants had been signed, and then had his generational talent at quarterback surprisingly retire two weeks before the season began.
Few organizations could have weathered that kind of storm so well, but Irsay’s patience and Ballard’s calm in the face of adversity made it possible to come out the other side of this whole saga not just in one piece, but with a roster filled with young talent and a ton of cap space available to re-sign that young talent as well as to pursue free agents.
In Frank Reich, the Colts have a talented offensive head coach who has brought a level of leadership, innovation and creative play-calling to the team that they desperately needed. Reich has had struggles as well. In his two years as the head coach he has been at the helm when his teams have undergone long stretches of slumping play under his guidance. While injuries have no doubt played a role in those struggles, to take the next step as a head coach Reich will need to show he can overcome those issues. Can he do that? Only time will tell.
This triumvirate has the Colts firmly placed as one of the most stable and well-run franchises in the NFL. Recency bias has muddied the water on Ballard and Reich in the eyes of some, and it is certainly true that they need to be better. With no Andrew Luck coming to save the day, these men will need to be at the top of their games to make this franchise a winner again.
How they address the roster holes this offseason, and most importantly, what they do at the quarterback position, will determine just how good this team can be. It will be absolutely essential that Reich and his staff are able to develop the talent brought in by Ballard in order for their draft-first model to work.
Additionally, however much he may wish to avoid it, Ballard is going to have to loosen the purse strings a bit in free agency. While it rarely pays to break the bank for big name players, doing so can certainly provide an advantage for the roster if done carefully. It can also alleviate dependence on certain positions in the draft, something that could be tough for the Colts since they have several pressing needs early.
This year will be a big one for the Colts, because they have to make some really important decisions that will impact them for a long time to come. They’ll need to be bold, because the alternative is to stay a mediocre franchise without a chance to truly compete in the division, or in the NFL at large. The good news is, the men in place are not the kind to shy away from a challenge. This offseason should be a very interesting one.