The Indianapolis Colts have enjoyed long stretches of front office continuity and strength over the last two decades. Hall of Fame General Manager Bill Polian put a highly competitive team on the field consistently during his tenure, and boasted the best regular season winning percentage of any team in the from 2000-2010.
It all started by selecting Peyton Manning in 1997 but he selected or acquired other current or future Hall of Famers during his tenure. Those who are already in the Hall of Fame include Edgerrin James (thought to be a reach when drafted) and Marvin Harrison. Peyton Manning will be a first ballot Hall of Famer in 2021. There are strong cases to be made for Jeff Saturday (for on-field and off-field contributions) and Dwight Freeney, who could both find themselves in the Hall of Fame in the future.
Polian was also responsible for bringing Tony Dungy to Indianapolis, a Hall of Fame coach, who led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory. Both Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis are on Polian’s resume and currently sit in the Colts Ring of Honor and could be joined by Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett and possibly Bob Sanders (despite a shortened career).
To say that Polian had a big impact on making a small market team, big-time relevant would be an understatement. A couple of more Super Bowl victories could have made the team all-time great against any resume but the franchise enjoyed considerable talent during much of his tenure.
The follow-up to Polian, Ryan Grigson, will be seen as an abject failure. Grigson was standoffish to media and fans. The culture at West 56th Street and in the locker room under Grigson was toxic.
He enjoyed early success, in no small part to having Andrew Luck as his first selection, but the team quickly went off the rails. The only Colts players remaining from Grigson’s tenure are T.Y. Hilton, Ryan Kelly and Le’Raven Clark. Busted draft picks include second round safety T.J. Green, first round wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, third round cornerback D’Joun Smith, third round wide receiver Donte Moncrief, first round edge defender Bjoern Werner, third round guard Hugh Thornton, and fourth round center Khaled Holmes.
Perhaps Grigson’s greatest failure was his inability to provide Andrew Luck with reliable protection on the offensive line. He was a former NFL offensive lineman with the biggest quarterback prospect of at least a decade in his hands and whiffed on acquiring legitimate offensive line talent more often than not. His last draft was his best for the offensive line but by that point enough damage had already been done.
Grigson’s failure to build a legitimate offensive line helped lead to Andrew Luck’s premature retirement (as he was hit more than any other quarterback in the NFL early in his career), set back the franchise considerably, and significantly reduced the chances of the franchise seeing another Super Bowl berth or victory any time soon.
Luckily for the city of Indianapolis and the Colts franchise, owner Jim Irsay was able to find a replacement that is Grigson’s polar opposite in many ways.
Rather than have a tyrants attitude in the locker room, Chris Ballard has spent his time cultivating a positive culture where players want to play for him and for each other. Rather than arrogantly disregarding the opinions of his scouts or otherwise pretending that he knows it all, he openly asks his scouts to speak their minds and to not hold anything back when it comes to player evaluation. Rather than treat members of the media as hostile for asking questions or becoming combative when pressured for answers, Ballard conveys a sense of openness and a willingness to take personal responsibility for the team’s failures.
Ballard has been meticulous in his preparation, stingy with his draft and salary cap capital, and focused on laying a long-term foundation. The results have been encouraging.
The talent on the current Colts roster is better than it has been in a very long time. Nearly all of that talent has been drafted or otherwise acquired by Ballard over the last four offseasons. The Colts have arguably the best offensive line in all of football and are very good at most other positions. If Andrew Luck was still here, this franchise would be well positioned for another sustained, dynasty-like run of success.
These traits are not lost on members of the larger NFL community. The Athletic put together another survey of 30 NFL player agents regarding numerous topics and offseason story lines. If you don’t subscribe to The Athletic, you should really considered it.
When asked about which general managers or front-office leaders agents trust most, Ballard earned top honors with 6 votes. Here are some of the agent comments:
“Find him to be completely forthcoming. Offers info. Extends himself when not needed.”
“He’s just a straight shooter. He’s not gonna lie to you about your guys and say they’re better than they are worse than they are. You know what you’re getting and they always get back to you.”
“I don’t know how we can (trust front-office executives) as agents. Their job is to battle for their team. Our job is to battle for the players. I don’t think I could trust any of them. If forced to pick one, Chris Ballard with the Colts.”
When asked who is the smartest general manager or front-office leader, agents voted Ballard as third overall with three votes. Only Philadelphia’s Howie Roseman and New England’s Bill Belichick received more votes.
When asked to identify the best talent evaluator at general manager, Ballard again earned top honors with 5.5 votes. This is two votes ahead of Bill Belichick. Here are some of the agent comments:
“He’s the best by far. He’s the easiest to deal with and I think he’s great at talent evaluation as well.”
“Really solid at his job. Doesn’t get outside of himself. Doesn’t reach.”
(Author’s note: Agents also selected Ballard as the top talent evaluator in 2019, followed by Belichick, Dorsey, Roseman and Schneider)
While the team has not gotten over the hump on the field yet, in part because Andrew Luck didn’t player two out of the three seasons in Ballard’s tenure, they are poised to breakout soon. The young, homegrown talent is really starting to accumulate.
Ballard feels the team is close and finally has an established locker room culture. He took bigger and more aggressive swings in free agency in 2020 than in his previous seasons and has a team that many see as current favorites in the AFC South and on a short list of teams who are most likely to represent the AFC in the 2020 Super Bowl.
Let’s see if the confidence Ballard has enjoyed during his Indianapolis tenure is justified. The next couple of seasons may well prove as a barometer for what fans can expect moving forward.