ON THE DAWN of a new season, the Colts are poised to get back on top with a new quarterback, some roster tweaks at pass rusher, and a confident brain trust in general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich.
Sound familiar? It should. This is essentially the third consecutive season of that same refrain, while technically being Indy’s fifth straight season with a new quarterback, and the eighth since their last division championship. Yes, hope springs eternal once again at West 56th Street, which extends to a fanbase that has mentally overcome plenty of disappointments lately, the most recent being Indy’s entire season going the way of the Hindenburg in Jacksonville last January. The fiery collapse abruptly ended a once-promising season, which included a rout of Josh Allen’s Bills in Buffalo and a decade-long, drought-busting win over Bill Belichick and the hated Patriots. Just when it appeared that the Colts were peaking at the right time, they unraveled post-Christmas, culminating with that historic calamity in north Florida. The last time we saw the Indianapolis Colts in a real contest, a win-or-go-home game against the NFL’s worst team, the woeful Jaguars not only sent the Colts home, they cremated the entire Colts 2021 campaign and stuffed the urn into one of the overhead compartments in Jim Irsay’s private jet.
But that’s a distant memory now! It was way back in … 2022. Hey, did I mention an exciting new quarterback?!?
As we prepare for Sunday’s kickoff in Houston, Ballard is embarking on his sixth year at the helm and Reich enters Year Five, each searching for their first-ever division title and first playoff win since their opening season together. While the duo remains well liked, Indianapolis is a place where it’s really easy to be liked. You can be an awful in-game manager with a dated head-coaching philosophy, but if you spout cute cliches and hold up a poker chip at press conferences, the fans will start Twitter hashtag campaigns to keep you around. Play really hard, blow in a legend’s ear, and mix in a little air guitar? Hell, you’re an Indy icon! Congrats! In the case of the Colts’ brass, it’s impossible to not be endeared by Ballard’s polished demeanor and Texas drawl and Reich’s cool-pastor-with-the-acoustic-guitar–type vibe, but there’s a shelf life for that endearment, even with this hospitable fanbase.
“We’re such a nice city filled with nice people who are nice fans, and it certainly helps that Ballard and Reich are extraordinarily nice people,” says Bob Kravitz, senior writer for The Athletic, who has covered the team for over two decades. “And while that helps their relationships with the media and fans, I get the sense everything is about to change if the Colts fail to win the division—or, heaven forbid, miss the playoffs.”
Ballard and Reich may be well-regarded by most fans and enjoy a cozy relationship with the media, but in the actual, tangible things we judge executives and coaches on—wins, playoff wins, division championships, etc.—they’ve mostly fallen short. Their predecessors, Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano, also enjoyed a long leash (especially in Pagano’s case), though they did produce some on-field results. The Colts won the division twice and improved their postseason standing in the first three seasons of the Grigson/Pagano regime, even if those accomplishments felt like they came in spite their leadership. Pagano, a nice guy who was popular (#ChuckStay), was completely out of his depth as an in-game tactician. Grigson, more of a recluse when it came to the fans and media, continually slid backward after peaking in his first year at the controls, going from NFL Executive of the Year to a bevy of draft (Bjoern Werner and the entire 2013 class), trade (Trent Richardson!), and free agency (LaRon Landry, Andre Johnson, Trent Cole, etc.) busts. The Colts haven’t regained their footing since, going 58-58 since their AFC Championship Game appearance in 2014.
Ballard and Reich have been unable to kick the Colts out of their middling funk, an issue certainly hampered by Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement in 2019. However, it’s been three seasons since Luck’s departure, seven seasons since the Deflategate debacle at Foxboro, and 12 since the Colts were in actual, serious championship contention. Being stuck in the middle is something we’ve mocked the Pacers for in this city, but the Colts have largely escaped that derision, despite playing in a league where the constraints of market-size and franchise stature are largely irrelevant—unlike the NBA—and upward mobility is far less challenging.
Even when taking Luck’s retirement into effect, the Colts have had consistent issues in other critical spots beyond just QB1. For some hits in the draft, Ballard’s misses have come at key spots like pass rush, where the Colts have already cycled through several Day Two draft picks and are still trying to find their way. On the other side of the ball, the Colts’ wide receiver room, outside of an ascending Michael Pittman Jr., has largely been held together with Scotch tape and loose change from the film room’s couch cushions, with undrafted scrap-heapers playing expanded roles to overcome the injuries and underperformance of projected frontliners. While the Colts may have led the NFL in Pro Bowl selections last season with seven, those spots were taken by a running back, several interior linemen, an off-ball linebacker, a slot corner, and a long snapper—generally deemed as low-impact positions when it comes to winning in today’s NFL.
Meanwhile, every quarterback that Frank Reich has inherited has improved from the previous season’s performance, just not quite enough to steer the Colts to their desired destination. The latest experiment, Carson Wentz, a reclamation project that Reich lobbied for, ultimately left the head coach apologizing to his superiors by the end of the season. Reich is a gifted offensive mind, and his analytical and aggressive approach are necessary departures from his predecessor, but the right coaching mindset and philosophy can only get you so far in a bottom-line business. Even if the process is correct for Reich, any NFL head coach needs his team to eventually produce the result.
So what does that result have to be for the 2022 Colts? Most agree that while Ballard or Reich may not be on the hot seat, they’ve run out of excuses for another middling, go-nowhere–type season.
“They need to win the AFC South,” says Kravitz. “Anything less would be a massive disappointment and an indictment of the brain trust.”
“My question is, if not now, when?”
Jim Irsay’s memorable “all chips in” line following the team’s collapse last season has perhaps been overused this offseason, but there’s no doubt that his patience is wearing thin. While the team’s owner has seemingly shared the same faith in his brass as the Colts’ fanbase has, the hall pass he tore off for Ballard and Reich after the 2021 implosion might be the last one on the pad. Ryan, while not the MVP-type player he was six seasons ago, should alleviate the Colts’ instability at quarterback for now, and, even beyond Indy’s flaws, the NFL’s Crappiest Division is still right there for the taking. A return to division supremacy and a postseason win or two would certainly signify a long-awaited change in direction for this franchise. It’s widely believed that it’s only a matter of time that Chris Ballard and Frank Reich get this team out of neutral, but entering Year Five together, it’s time for the nice guys off the field to shift the Colts into gear on it—before Irsay yanks the wheel from them.