I want to start by letting Colts fans and our Stampede Blue Community know how thankful I am to have a small role in covering the sport and team we love. It’s been a little more than five years, and I look forward to each new season.
Our five years together haven’t always been easy.
The first year was the last for Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano, with Andrew Luck missing every game after his recovery from shoulder surgery didn’t go as planned.
2018 was the beginning of the Chris Ballard and Frank Reich era, and that offseason was tumultuous, given that Snake McDaniels pulled the rug out on Chris Ballard. Begin the storylines about how Frank Reich relishes the role of being a backup and mastering comebacks.
After a single season with Luck, one that did show signs of improvement, Reich and Ballard were surprised by what will go down as one of the most shocking early retirements in sports history. The result of that one decision that Colts fans both support and loathe has set in motion a multi-year effort to mold a Super Bowl-caliber roster without a long-term answer at the game’s most important position.
Chris Ballard’s roster-building approach is closer to the one Bill Polian followed, as it relies more on the draft and developing players internally than searching for answers in free agency. Neither GM was quick to hand out large free-agent contracts or dive quickly into the early free-agency frenzy when the new league year began.
One big difference, Bill Polian was hired in 1998 and used the first pick in the draft on Peyton Manning. Manning played 13 straight seasons and sat out another, with Polian in control of the front office. It was one of the longest periods of continuity in franchise history and provided the stability that few teams could boast throughout the early 2000s.
Chris Ballard thought he was inheriting a quarterback who would provide a similar level of long-term stability but waived goodbye to that probability after only one season.
The Colts’ fan base should demand that the franchise continue to move in the right direction and that the ghost of Andrew Luck stop serving as an excuse for Chris Ballard, Jim Irsay, or the Colts coaching staff. The fan base should also be thankful for just how special Peyton Manning’s thirteen-year run was and how incredibly rare it is to experience something like that for most NFL fan bases and franchises.
This season has been perhaps the most difficult since Luck’s retirement. There were legitimate reasons for the fan base to feel confident that Matt Ryan could lead a playoff run with a roster loaded with talent at many positions. The prevailing thought was that Ryan would thrive behind the best offensive line he would play behind, perhaps in his career. Similarly, he wouldn’t be relied upon to carry that franchise weekly because Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines would dominate on the ground.
Instead, the offensive line has been horrible. In no small part because Chris Ballard gambled wrong that Matt Pryor would be a serviceable answer at left tackle and that the undersized Danny Pinter could hold things down at right guard. Turns out, the loss of Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed hurt the interior depth more than anticipated, and failing to make a move at left tackle aggressively may have also led to disaster.
Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson haven’t looked as dominant this year as they have in the past. Braden Smith started the year out poorly as well. The shuffling on the line and lack of continuity hasn’t done the unit any favors.
Is it fair to say that the failures on the offensive line are heavily to blame for this season flying off of the fails? Yes. In fact, before the trade deadline, I wrote a story indicating that the team’s record, standing in the AFC South, and playoff trajectory was a veteran right guard (like Mark Glowinski) away from being/doing something much closer than what the fan base had expected.
So, does that mean Frank Reich or Marcus Brady were somehow scapegoated?
Not exactly. Reich has been given a difficult task with a new starting quarterback since he took over in Indianapolis every season. There is no doubt. But his teams always appeared unprepared early in the year, they often played flat or uninspired, and the collapse at the end of the year in Jacksonville last year was embarrassing for the franchise.
Additionally, the presumed offensive mastermind behind a backup quarterback leading the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl win appeared entirely unable to utilize his best athletes in any consistent way.
How is it possible that Nyheim Hines is so incredibly gifted as a pass-catcher, a huge mismatch for defenses that creates favorable situations for the offense, and yet his usage in roles that suit his skillset was often absent on game day? How many times would Reich use Hines in his third-down or two-minute package and rush him into the teeth of the defense - not getting him in space where he can utilize his speed and elusiveness to create big plays?
Did hiring Jeff Saturday fix the roster shortcomings, especially on the offensive line? No. Is it realistic to expect Parks Frazier to start his career as a first-time play-caller with all of the answers? No. Is it likely that Saturday and Frazier will turn things around for the Colts this season? No.
But for many to rush to defend Frank Reich or pretend that he wasn’t culpable for his team’s performance is silly. I like Nick Sirianni, but his post-game “this was for Frank Reich” quote is ridiculous. Never apologize for a win. It’s tough to win in the NFL. But the Eagles have been the most dominant team in the NFL this season; they were coming from a loss to a bad Washington Commanders team. A bad Colts team under a head coach in his second game, with an offensive play-caller calling his second game, beat his team in every way other than on the scoreboard. Plus, outside of this being an in-season move, nothing should be terribly shocking about the change. So, respectfully, Sirianni can pipe down.
Either way, the franchise is acknowledging there is work to be done, and changes are needed. Expect that, one way or another, things will look different in 2023. Until then, it’s okay that folks will disagree on how to best right the ship, but we’re all in this together.
Enjoy your time with family and friends. Happy Thanksgiving!