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Running up that hill: Are we witnessing the early ascent of Chris Ballard’s Indianapolis Colts?

From the unexpected retirement of Andrew Luck to navigating the treacherous landscape of free agency, GM Chris Ballard has faced a climb akin to Kate Bush’s iconic “Running up that Hill.” But now, with youth and potential on his side, could the summit finally be in sight?

Indianapolis Colts Training Camp Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

In the world of sports, there’s no blueprint for unexpected setbacks. For the Indianapolis Colts and their General Manager, Chris Ballard, the journey has often felt like Kate Bush’s hit “Running up that Hill.” It’s been a climb filled with challenges and the promise of the rewards accompanying reaching the summit.

When Ballard took the reins in 2017, no one could have anticipated the shocking retirement of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck just two years later. Like Bush’s song, it seemed that Ballard had made a twisted deal with the football gods that landed him on the hot seat. He faced criticism from every corner, with many doubting his approach to free agency and his attempts to address the Colts’ long-term future at the quarterback position.

Yet, many have grown impatient with the narrative and have lost interest in acknowledging that the departure of a franchise quarterback, especially one of Luck’s caliber, can set a team back for years if not decades. It’s not just about finding a new signal-caller; it’s about rebuilding team morale, reshaping strategy, and managing fans’ expectations.

Ballard didn’t use Luck’s exit as an excuse. Two seasons ago, under his leadership, the Colts had more Pro Bowl players than any other NFL team. This achievement speaks volumes about Ballard’s ability to spot and nurture talent. That talent and a genuine commitment to building a cohesive unit kept the Colts competitive when they could have languished at the bottom of the standings.

In Shane Steichen, Ballard seems to have found a coaching partner who can match his vision. Early indications suggest that Steichen may be a step up from his predecessor, Frank Reich. Another critical piece is the decision to select rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson with the fourth pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Despite battling injuries and dealing with whispers about inaccuracy and inexperience, Richardson has exceeded the gloomiest forecasts. His trajectory suggests he could be the key to the Colts reaching the football summit - assuming his bad luck with injuries does not extend into his NFL future.

The “Running up that Hill” metaphor goes beyond just Ballard and the Colts. It speaks to the journey of every NFL team. Ballard’s climb has been steeper than most, and while he has faced his fair share of slips and stumbles, the horizon looks promising.

In 2023, with a youthful roster bursting with potential, the Colts are exceeding any reasonable expectations. Richardson’s early performances have placed him in rarified air as a rookie quarterback in franchise history.

Similarly, rookie receiver Josh Downs has been more involved in the passing game, with two quarterbacks taking meaningful snaps, than any receive in franchise history - with players like Marvin Harrison on the list, it’s pretty impressive.

Ballard and his Colts are still running, still climbing, and the peak might be within reach sooner than expected. The franchise has faced its fair share of challenges, but nothing indicates that things are moving in the wrong direction, even with a young roster without superstar names at many positions.

Please make no mistake: Ballard will remain under a microscope, and owner Jim Irsay has clarified that expectations remain very high. However, the early returns in 2023 have exceeded expectations and should have changed the tune since a disastrous performance in 2022. The Colts may be further up that hill than anyone would have reasonably expected, and there are some signs of momentum.