INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Despite a rousing endorsement from his new boss, Chris Ballard settled into his new role as general manager of the Indianapolis Colts Monday with a humbling caveat.
I’m not a finished product. Yet.
“Let me put it this way: I’m probably not completely ready to be a GM,’’ Ballard said Monday. “. . . I wasn’t ready to be an area scout, but I figured it out. I wasn’t ready to be a director of pro personnel, but I figured it out. I wasn’t ready to be a director of player personnel, (but) I figured it out.’’
Beginning Sunday, when owner Jim Irsay signed him to a five-year contract, Ballard’s ability to figure it out – quickly we might add – directly impacts the short- and long-term future of the Colts. A franchise that reached the AFC Championship game in 2014 has posted 8-8 records the past two seasons and failed to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.
Irsay didn’t mince words when praising his latest GM, who replaces Ryan Grigson and was selected from a field of six candidates. Ballard, he insisted, is the best general manager candidate of the 21st century.
“What made him that, in extensive conversation with him, I think not just the knowledge and experience and all the traits necessary for a general manager to have learned in the NFL, but the communication skills to get those across to others,’’ Irsay said. “To make sure from the head coach to all the players on the team to everyone in the organization that he’s clearly speaking their language and there’s nothing lost in translation, so to speak.
“Sometimes you can have the right ideas, the right vision, the right passion, the right work ethic and sometimes when you go out there and try to get people to follow you and really believe that this is the way, some people falter when they get down those lines.
“It really takes a good communicator in this job, and I know Chris has that.’’
Some of Ballard’s most extensive communications will involve the coach he inherited: Chuck Pagano. When Irsay fired Grigson Jan. 21, he made it clear Pagano’s job was safe through 2017, after which time the new GM – Ballard – would evaluate things.
Pagano was in the audience Monday, as were several of his assistants and members of the scouting staff.
“There was no other options: Chuck Pagano,’’ said Ballard, who spent time with Pagano during the interview process. “Chuck Pagano is a good football coach in the National Football League. Three 11-5 seasons, went to the AFC Championship game, had two 8-8s back-to-back. But he’s won 49 games.
“We need to keep our eye on how hard it is to win in this league.’’
Hard or not, Irsay didn’t replace GMs expecting his franchise to remain mired in mediocrity.
“We’re about world championships,’’ he said. “That’s what we’ve always been about here.’’
To that end, Ballard must hit the ground running.
First, he must acquaint himself with the roster he inherited, warts and all. He declined to offer an initial appraisal until he’s had time to analyze last season.
“We have to get together with our pro staff, our coaching staff and we have to come up with a plan of where our needs are and where we think we’re weak and get ready to start acquiring players,’’ Ballard said.
Then in quick success come the NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 28), veteran free agency (March 7) and the NFL Draft (April 27-29).
Ballard will lean heavily on the existing support staff. Any changes in the personnel department won’t occur until after the draft.
“I’ve got enough good people around me that they’re going to guide me along the way,’’ Ballard said. “One of my real strengths is when I make a mistake, I own it. It’s on me. I don’t ever put the blame off and I’ll never put the blame off.’’
Ballard’s introductory press conference was long on generalities and short on specifics, which was understandable considering the whirlwind week he’s had. But there were a couple of telling snippets:
- Ballard: “Defense wins championships. You’ve got to score points, but I’ve been blessed to be in the league and work for two places where we’ve been pretty special on defense: Chicago and Kansas City.’’
Ballard’s most pressing concern is completely retooling a Colts’ defense that statistically was one of the worst in team history. It allowed 382.9 yards per game, second-most in club history, and 24.5 points per game. It’s old and lacks playmakers.
Over the last four seasons, the Chiefs’ defense has ranked no worse than 7th in fewest points allowed.
- Ballard: “Andrew (Luck) is a great player, but it will never be about one guy. It’s about all 53 men in the locker room . . . it’ll never be about one person. Is he a good piece? Absolutely, but he’s just one of the 53 men that we have to win with.’’
Perhaps, but it’s worth pointing out Ballard is going from Kansas City, which followed the lead of quarterback Alex Smith, to the Luck-led Colts. Indy has ranked in the top-10 in scoring in three of Luck’s four full seasons. During that same stretch, the Chiefs ranked 13th, 9th, 16th and 6th.
- Ballard: “You want to raise your own. We want to be a great drafting team. We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we’re producing players every year for (Pagano). You have to have at least three or four guys who are going to help you every year.’’
During Ballard’s four years in Kansas City, the Chiefs excelled at cultivating homegrown talent. Of the 63 players under contract at the end of the season, 41 (65 percent) were either their own draft picks or players signed as collegiate free agents.
Twenty-three of the Chiefs’ 32 draft picks since ’13 remain on the roster, including 14 starters. By comparison, 17 of the Colts’ 38 draft picks since ’12 still are around, including 13 starters.
The total package won over Irsay.
“Chris’ enthusiasm rubs off quickly,’’ he said. “I know that his optimism is going to turn into reality, but we have a lot of work to do.’’
Watch the full press conference below: