INDIANAPOLIS – The search for the man continues.
That overshadows the looming search for The Man, but it shouldn’t.
We’re not dismissing the importance of general manager Chris Ballard talking to a zillion candidates for the Indianapolis Colts’ vacant head coaching position. OK, it only seems like a zillion. It’s closer to several of dozen.
OK, to date, Ballard’s “wide net’’ has encompassed 13 individuals.
At some point, the initial pool will be narrowed, a second-round of interviews will commence, and owner Jim Irsay will join Ballard in arriving at the right head coach to lead the franchise into the future. Ballard told us this could last until mid-February, and we believe him.
But the NFL demands multi-tasking, especially for those in Ballard’s position. As much as he’s focused on determining the right head coach, he and his personnel staff are doing due diligence on determining which quarterback in the April draft gives the Colts the best opportunity to slam the brakes on the revolving door that’s left everyone woozy and is The Man to help return them to prominence.
Timing is everything. The Colts hold the No. 4 pick in a draft that seems to be teeming with intriguing quarterbacks: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Florida’s Anthony Richardson.
The Colts must get this one right. Their immediate future hinges on it. We’re in the camp that believes getting the right QB in place is more important than hitting a home run with the head coach. Get The Man, and he gives you a chance every single game.
“We know there’s the elite of the elite,’’ Ballard said last month. “We know when you walk out on game day, when you got one of the elite of the elite on the field man, all of a sudden, it just feels different.’’
Colts’ fans understand the concept. A game was never out of reach with Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck under center. Remember the Colts trailing 35-14 at Tampa Bay with 5 minutes remaining in 2003? Remember them being in a 38-10 hole in the third quarter of a first-round 2013 playoff game against Kansas City?
Special quarterbacks often do special things.
Here’s a breakdown of the Colts’ quarterback situation and their options at finally getting it right:
Since 1998, the Colts are 237-164-1 (.591) with 16 playoff appearances. For those keeping track at home, that’s the fourth-best record in the league, trailing New England (279-123), Green Bay (250-150-2) and Pittsburgh (248-151-3).
But no one should be surprised when we take a closer look. They’re 194-100 (.660) with 15 postseason berths with Manning and Luck under center, and 43-64-1 (.403) with one playoff appearance with anyone else. That includes 13 different starters. Only Philip Rivers (11-5, wild-card spot in 2020) was a short-term fix.
Yes, a team must be able to compete for a playoff spot with a non-elite quarterback. Not everyone was in the right place at the right time and walked away with a Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert or Trevor Lawrence, or was rewarded for finding one later in the process (Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson and, of course, Tom Brady).
“You’ve got to find a way,’’ Ballard said. “I think there is a way to win every game. Just look across the league right now. Teams that might not be getting great, superstar quarterback play, but getting solid quarterback play, are finding ways to win.’’
The inability to recover from Luck’s sudden retirement prior to the 2019 season is a franchise failure. There weren’t a lot of attractive options. Maybe the 2020 or 2021 drafts, if the Colts hadn’t first opted for Rivers and then invested heavily in Carson Wentz.
“Hindsight is 20/20,’’ Ballard said. “It’s easy to look back and criticize what you’ve done in the past.
“Look, at the end of the day, we made the decision we did.’’
The unsuccessful byproduct: a different starter in six straight openers and five in each of Frank Reich’s five seasons.
The Colts used three different starters this season for just the fourth time since 1997. The records each year reflect that instability: 4-12-1 in ’22, 8-8 in ’15, 2-14 in ’11 and 3-13 in ’97.
It’s a good bet the starting QB for the 2023 opener isn’t on the roster. The existing options are Matt Ryan, Nick Foles and Sam Ehlinger, and all are under contract through next season.
For now. We expect Ehlinger to return – he was thrown into the fire before he was ready, and still could be a viable backup – but there’s little reason to believe Ryan and Foles are back for a second season in Indy.
Ryan turns 38 in May and showed his age while being roughed up behind an ineffective offensive line. He’ll count $35.2 million against the 2023 salary cap, with $18 million guaranteed. But the Colts save $17.2 million by parting with him prior to the start of the new league next in early March.
He isn’t ready to retire.
“I still love playing . . . Here, wherever, I have to see how it shakes out,’’ Ryan said last month. “I still feel like there’s a lot of good football in my body.’’
The Colts gave Foles a two-year, $6 million contract last offseason, but the only reason he came to Indy was to be reunited with Frank Reich.
Like everyone, Irsay is committed to drafting and developing, not signing another vet and plugging him in. There’s no time like the April draft to add that stabilizing presence at the most consequential position.
Losing the final seven games of a season for the first time since 1953 and finishing 4-12-1 put the Colts on the No. 4 rung in the draft order behind Chicago, Houston and Arizona.
Coinciding with favorable positioning is a draft featuring at least three quarterbacks who are consensus first-round prospects: Young, Stroud and Levis. Richardson is a few steps behind that group.
Early evaluation seems to have settled on a definite pecking order: Young, Stroud and Levis. An outlier is ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who has Levis ahead of Young and Stroud.
The only voices that matter belong to Ballard and Irsay. Their evaluation will determine how the Colts handle draft day.
If Ballard and Irsay are convinced there’s not much separating the top 3, they might stand pat at No. 4 and take whichever QB still is on the board. But even that comes with risk. Houston needs its quarterback of the future. While Chicago and Arizona don’t, it’s conceivable QB-needy teams – the Raiders, Atlanta and Carolina come to mind – could jump in front of the Colts.
The only way to ensure Indy gets The Man it covets: swing a trade with the Bears for the first overall pick. At the very least that probably involves flipping 1s, and the Colts adding their second-rounder and 2024 first-rounder. And that might not be enough. The more teams trying to deal with Chicago simply drives up the cost.
“I do whatever it takes,’’ Ballard said. “If we thought there’s a player that we’re driven to get that makes the franchise and the team better, that’s what we would do.’’
This is going to get very interesting.
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