Colts, Chris Ballard heading into franchise-shaping four-month stretch

Colts GM Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Just like that, Chuck Pagano was the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Just like that, the franchise opened a coaching search for the first time since 2011.

Just like that, the fate of the franchise rests in Chris Ballard’s hands.

And as a reminder, this is a franchise that has lost its way. The Colts are 20-28 since reaching the AFC Championship game after the 2014 season, and they’ve missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons for the first time since a seven-year drought in 1988-94.

It’s not hyperbole to consider the next four months arguably the most critical in the Colts’ Indy era. During that defining stretch, the general manager, with input from owner Jim Irsay, must:

  • Hit on his replacement for Pagano. It must be, in Ballard’s words, “the right fit.’’ Settle in, this might take a few weeks.
  • Come to grips with Irsay’s $140 million quarterback. Either Andrew Luck’s surgically-repaired right shoulder handles the workload when he resumes throwing sometime this month, or the soreness and swelling return and corrective surgery is required. That’s a numbing either-this-or-that conundrum. If Luck is wingin’ it with no issues, it’s full speed ahead. If not . . . well, we won’t go there, yet.
  • Determine which of his own free-agents-to-be to pursue. At the top of the list should be placekicker Adam Vinatieri and cornerback Rashaan Melvin.
  • Maximize the NFL’s veteran free-agent market. The Colts are expected to have more than $80 million of cap space this offseason, and an owner more than willing to pay for talent. Ballard has the resources to address a team with so many deficiencies: the offensive line, inside linebacker, the offensive line, the pass rush, the offensive line, wide receiver. Did we mention the offensive line?
  • Inject a few top-tier or near top-tier players into the mix, and the overall complexion of the roster changes dramatically.
  • Hit a couple of home runs in the April draft. The third overall pick offers Ballard the opportunity to snatch the draft’s premier pass rusher, perhaps North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb. Who the new defensive coordinator will be and whether the Colts are a 4-3 or 3-4 are legitimate topics. But so is Ballard’s ability to add pass-rush talent to the defense.

Irsay mentioned the possibility of using the third overall pick on “an Edgerrin James type of player’’ to go with Luck, which was a clear endorsement of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. But remember, it’s January and, hopefully, the owner will allow Ballard and his personnel staff to do what they’ve been hired to do.

If Ballard doesn’t find a suitable replacement for Frank Gore in free agency, that’s added to his “To Do’’ list during the draft. A viable three-down replacement – the jury remains out on Marlon Mack’s ability to be that guy – could be found in the later rounds.

Step one in the process is hiring Pagano’s replacement. Ballard and Irsay spent a good portion of Monday’s press conference sharing their philosophies on pursuing a head coach, and ferreting out the one who’s “the right fit.’’

Ballard insisted the search will be wide open and possibly could include someone at the college level. No NFL head coaching experience is necessary. The ability of the new coach to form a solid staff that includes “teachers’’ who are capable of developing talent is a must.

The search itself falls at Ballard’s feet.

“Chris is going to go out, do a lot of the heavy lifting,’’ Irsay said, adding at some point during the interview process he will meet with the top candidates.

“My philosophy has always been the general manager is the head of all football operations. The general manager is in charge of leading the search, bringing in the candidates, eventually bringing the owner the best candidate or two or three.’’

Ballard won’t be sharing any search details with the media.

“We’re going to keep everything we do internal, including who we’re interviewing,’’ he said.

According to various reports, the Colts already have sought permission to speak with New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, Seattle defensive coordinator Kris Richard, Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel and Kansas City offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.

Ballard also is expected to consider Kansas City special teams coach Dave Toub.

Barring the unforeseen, Irsay said he will support Ballard’s decision. “I’m sure there hasn’t been a time where I haven’t followed the recommendation of what the general manager had recommended to me,’’ he said.

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