WESTFIELD, Ind.– At some point, Chris Ballard might decide to just forego these introductory training camp press conferences.
“Of course I can’t have one of these without something going on,’’ he said as he plopped down behind a microphone.
It was Monday morning and the Indianapolis Colts’ general manager was on hand at Grand Park Sports Campus essentially to offer an update on a team with lofty expectations.
Instead, Ballard dropped what amounted to a team-related F-bomb.
“So, Frank has tested positive,’’ he said. “He’s fully vaccinated. The good news is no symptoms.
“There are going to be breakthrough cases, we know that. I don’t want this to turn out to be a negative in terms of people running away from getting vaccinated because it’s still critical.’’
Ballard’s exasperation was understandable. Two of his previous pre-camp gatherings were dominated by Andrew Luck-related conversations. In 2019, it was to discuss Luck’s status for camp after the Colts’ franchise quarterback missed the entire offseason work while dealing with a calf injury.
A month later, Luck announced his retirement.
Monday, Reich’s status was front and center.
The initial impact with the full team reporting Tuesday morning: Reich won’t be there. He learned of his positive test Thursday or Friday. Another unnamed staff member also tested positive, although it’s not related to Reich’s situation.
“We keep moving forward,’’ Ballard said. “It sucks.
“I think the earliest he can be back is Monday, but we’ll see. Maybe sooner depending on a test that he takes.’’
Reich is out of sight, but hardly out of mind. Until he’s cleared to return, he’ll stay immersed in daily positional, team and staff meetings via Zoom.
“He’s still involved,’’ Ballard said.
Instead of having an interim coach in Reich’s absence, coordinators Marcus Brady (offense), Matt Eberflus (defense) and Bubba Ventrone (special teams) will divvy up the daily hands-on work. Ventrone likely will be handle a larger load since he generally has more free time during practice.
Reich issued a statement through the team: “I’m excited for training camp, however I’m disappointed I won’t be there with the team as we start. I’m fortunate to be fully vaccinated and I’m asymptomatic. I’m feeling well and I’m looking forward to returning as soon as I’m medically cleared.’’
At a time Ballard, Reich and management would prefer to focus on an upcoming season teeming with high expectations, vaccination rates dominate the conversation. The NFL and NFLPA collaborated on COVID-19 protocols that significantly encourage players to get vaccinated and place stern restrictions on those who don’t.
According to NFL Network, nearly 84% of all players have received at least one COVID-19 shot and 10 teams have at least 85% full vaccinated. Only five teams are below 70%, including the Colts.
“We’re above 60% with at least one shot,’’ Ballard said. “Whatever the percentage we end with we’ll deal with and we’ll handle it.’’
The team has done everything possible to provide players and the staff with the necessary information to make educated decisions. That includes bringing in medical experts and sharing long, spirited team meetings with players – vaccinated and unvaccinated – urged to speak their mind.
Ballard said there are team leaders who have chosen to be vaccinated, and team leaders who have gone the different direction.
“I think at the end of the day people are going to do what in their heart they think is the best,’’ he said. “If they’re unvaccinated they’re going to protect their teammates. I fully believe that because I saw it happen last year.’’
While making it clear he respects everyone’s decision, Ballard remains dumbfounded so many are going the anti-vax route. He used the 59-year old Reich as an example. He tested positive, but has no symptoms.
“The chances of death and us getting deathly ill are very low because we all got vaccinated,’’ Ballard said.
Vaccinations, he added, work.
“It’s a shame in our country right now we’ve politicized something that is good and that’s going to help the entire country, but it’s where we’re at,’’ he said. “When you hear some of the stories of people who are not vaccinated and who are getting sick, the difference is dramatic between the two.
“I can’t lie to you. There are times I wonder why our country doesn’t have consequences for not being vaccinated to keep other people safe. This sucks (and) I’m going to get off on a tangent here. We have lost the sense of team. That used to be a real advantage for us as a country, the service and thinking about others and taking care of each other.’’
Ballard and the organization want the players to get vaccinated “because it’s the right thing to do. You want to get vaccinated because you’re not going to die . . . you’re not going to end up on a ventilator in the hospital.
“That’s why you want to get vaccinated. And it reduces the chances of spreading it. That’s why. Guys that make that decision (not to get vaccinated), OK, fine. But there’s consequences to protect the team.’’
While Ballard’s view on vaccinations is evident, he insisted a player’s vaccination status won’t be factored in when roster cuts are made in late August.
“No, we want to win,’’ he said. “Whoever wins the job on the field, that’s who’s making the team. I’m not going to take a player just because he’s vaccinated.
“What message are you sending to your locker room and are you giving yourself the best chance to win on Sunday?’’
Leonard on the mend
Ballard revealed All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard is on the mend after undergoing ankle surgery in June.
“He had a little procedure on his ankle, but nothing major,’’ he said. “Decided let’s just get it fixed so it’s not an issue during the season.
“We’ll monitor him early. He’ll be ready.’’
There was no update on extensions for Leonard and right tackle Braden Smith other than negotiations continue.
“Getting these early extensions done is never easy,’’ Ballard said.
Even so, the Colts won’t hesitate to dole out substantial extensions for a player that deserves it, regardless the position.
“You’re never going to regret paying a great player,’’ Ballard said. “I don’t give a crap what position it is.’’
Sunday, the team placed left tackle Eric Fisher (Achilles) on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and rookie defensive end Dayo Odeyingobo (Achilles) on the non-football injury list. There’s no timetable for either player’s return.
“Both rehabbing really well, but no timeline on either one of them.’’ Ballard said. “We’re encouraged about where they’re at and where they’re going.’’
Also, defensive tackle Rob Windsor was placed on IR and will miss the season after undergoing hip surgery.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.