Jim Irsay to Chris Ballard: Go invest $1 billion to return Colts to prominence

Owner Jim Irsay, head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard of the Indianapolis Colts pose for a photo during the press conference introducing head coach Frank Reich at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 13, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Jim Irsay has given his right-hand man access to his checkbook and encouraged him to do whatever it takes to enrich the family business.

Whatever. It. Takes.

That means spending as much as Chris Ballard deems necessary – even billions – to upgrade the Indianapolis Colts roster and keep it trending toward a possible world championship. Or two or three Lombardi Trophies to sit alongside the one the franchise secured with its Super Bowl XLI win over the Chicago Bears after the 2006 season.

Ballard has unfettered access to the company funds. That’s a phrase Irsay repeated a few times during a Tuesday conversation with Indy media attending the owners meetings in Phoenix.

The Colts entered free agency with approximately $122 million in cap space,  most in the NFL. They sit at roughly $61 million, still the fattest in the league, after several personnel moves.

Irsay recalled a conversation he had with Ballard after naming him general manager in February 2017. The Colts were in full-blown rebuild mode after missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons for the first time since a seven-year drought that spanned 1988-94.

Irsay understood he would have to invest over the next several seasons to regenerate his franchise.

Here’s a billion dollars. Go invest us a billion dollars.

“You have to have some serious trust in your partner and the guy who’s right there in your organization doing that,’’ Irsay said, adding there have been occasions Ballard pursued a particular free agent only to “back down’’ when the price got too steep.

Irsay didn’t elaborate on which free agent – or free agents – Ballard has targeted only to walk away when the financial commitment became problematic. It’s been reported the Colts had interest in former New York Giants safety Landon Collins and ex-Washington linebacker Preston Smith.

Each secured massive contracts on the open market. Collins signed a six-year, $84 million deal with Washington that includes nearly $45 million in guarantees. Smith relocated to Green Bay with a four-year, $52 million deal that included $16.6 million in guarantees.

Ballard’s free-agent investments to this point have been defensive end Justin Houston (a two-year, $23 million deal with $18.5 million in guarantees) and wideout Devin Funchess (a one-year contract that could be worth as much as $13 million if incentives are hit).

“When free agency hit, we had the lines in the water on several other guys. We didn’t get them,’’ Irsay said.

Now comes the salient point.

“We could have got them,” Irsay continued, “but Chris is very disciplined in his belief on how you build a team and it was great to see him stick to his discipline. Sometimes when we were bidding on someone – an inside linebacker or whatever in free agency – once the number exceeded a certain point, he’s like ‘No, we’re going to walk away from this one.’

“I know he really, really wanted to bring the player in and when the number got to a certain thing, with the agent he’s like, ‘I’m out. That’s just too much. I can’t do it. I can’t live with myself if I do it.

“I say bravo to that.’’

Irsay reiterated he essentially has given his GM carte blanch.

Do whatever it takes.

Irsay never has been reluctant to pay for top talent. Often, that’s meant overpaying for it. His commitment in that regard has not changed one iota.

“I told Chris, ‘Look, I’m in it to win. You know that. So if you come to me and say hey, this is what we need, we’re going to get it done,’’’ Irsay said. “That’s a commitment you guys know that I have.’’

Instead of being more active in the free-agent market, Ballard has focused on retaining as much of his talent as possible from the group that posted a 10-6 record, earned a wild-card berth and won a first-round playoff game at Houston.

Among others, the Colts have re-signed Adam Vinatieri, Pierre Desir, Margus Hunt, Clayton Geathers and Mark Glowinski.

When it comes to adding a high-profile, high-priced free agent, Ballard has a plan and isn’t likely to deviate from it.

He admitted during a recent appearance on 1070 The Fan his personnel staff believed there was good players on the market and the Colts “dabbled in to see if we could get something done. Just couldn’t get a price point where we felt comfortable with what the player was going to give us.

“If we get to a point . . . (where) a true difference-maker in the free-agent market, I’m good paying for. But they have to be a true difference-maker. Unquestionably. Not the media saying he’s a true difference-maker (but) the tape saying he’s a true difference-maker.’’

Justin Houston lined up with what Ballard wanted, and he paid handsomely to add a 30-year old, proven pass rusher to his emerging defense.

Additional components could have been added, but they didn’t make financial sense. That didn’t seem to be a deterrent with the previous regime, which was much more active in acquiring talent on the open market.

Ballard’s approach requires patience from the team’s fan base, and trust that he knows what he’s doing.

Irsay’s trust is unwavering.

“It’s really good to have someone who really understands the cap and the numbers, and he does,’’ Irsay said.

The Colts’ budgetary plan includes the likelihood of signing a few of their own players to extensions.

“We’re going to look at our roster for possible extensions, maybe even a little earlier than normal,’’ Irsay said.

Among players who’ll be free agents at the end of this season are left tackle Anthony Castonzo, tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, punter Rigoberto Sanchez, Funchess and Vinatieri.

Center Ryan Kelly is heading into the final year of his four-year rookie contract, but the Colts have the option of picking up a fifth year. Or, they could forego that fifth year and sign him to a multi-year extension.

We could argue Castonzo’s situation is the most interesting. He turns 31 in August and is coming off one of the best seasons of his eight-year career. Do the Colts view him as their long-term left tackle? Or do they believe it’s time to find a replacement? A multi-year deal probably would pay Castonzo at least $12-14 million annually.

Irsay also believes it’s prudent to maintain sufficient cap space in the event the team opts to pursue a costly player during the season, presumably through a trade.

“We want to be one of the few teams that when a great player becomes available in October, maybe before the trade deadline, ‘Hey, the Colts have room to get him, most teams don’t,’’’ he said. “We want to be an opportunistic organization and be wise.’’

That all starts with Chris Ballard and his patient, selective approach to building the roster.

On the flip side, free-agent deals that fizzle can have long-term impact.

“It doesn’t take many ill-fated signings to destroy your cap and destroy your strength,’’ Irsay said. “Ill-fated spending never turns out to be anything positive.

“I can assure you Colts fans should really take comfort in the leadership we have with coach and with Chris.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

Listen to the weekly Colts Bluezone Podcast to hear Chappell and the gang give an in-depth breakdown on everything Colts.

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