Yet again, Colts and GM Chris Ballard confronting ‘unexpected challenge’


INDIANAPOLIS – There was a noticeable pause, probably because so much suddenly began whirling in his mind.

Unexpected challenges, they were called.

Next, there was a laugh. Not a ha-ha laugh, but the other kind that tends to keep you up at night.

Finally, there was a “knock on wood” response.

As Chris Ballard offered a preface Wednesday to a 2020 season that holds so much optimism for his Indianapolis Colts, it was impossible to do so without considering those unexpected challenges that have framed his four-year stint as general manager.

2017: As the season opener loomed, it became evident Andrew Luck’s surgically-repaired right shoulder wouldn’t be ready. In fact, it would force the three-time Pro Bowl QB to miss his sixth season – and Ballard’s first as GM – entirely. That necessitated a last-ditch trade with New England. Welcome to Indy, Jacoby Brissett. By the way, get up to speed ASAP.

2018: In search of Chuck Pagano’s successor, Ballard reached an agreement in early February with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. You know the rest. Shortly after “The Renege,” Frank Reich was that successor.

2019: As another season with lofty aspirations neared, Luck stunned the franchise and the NFL universe by announcing his retirement. The cycle of injury/pain/rehab had taken its toll. Just like that, Brissett was QB1.

2020: This is on an entirely different level, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to adapt.

As Frank Reich framed so well as the business of training camp is cranking up at the Farm Bureau Football Center, this won’t “be the normal training camp and not normal is any ways. It’ll be what we would call a new normal, right?

“Many times in life and in football, you’ve got to get ready for that. Sometimes we’ve got to make adjustments and get ready for new normals.”

Again, that’s been the case since Ballard settled into the GM’s chair in 2017.

Football types strive for continuity and thrive on routine, while understanding there inevitably will be unexpected hurdles. It’s how an organization handles the sudden changes that often defines it.

“We’ve seen a lot and we’ve handled a lot. Team’s had to handle a lot,” Ballard said. “So I do think when you show people when there’s a problem, when there’s something bad happens, that you’re not going to flinch and you’re not going to cave to the pressure of the situation.

“I do think it helps, and I do think it’s going to help our team. People forget how young our team still is, but it’s a young team with experience and they’ve been through a ton through 1-5 to coming back and ripping off games in a row, winning a playoff game in Houston, to starting last year with Super Bowl aspirations and Andrew retiring.

“That’s going to help us. I truly believe that.”

The first three seismic events in Ballard’s tenure rocked the Colts. The fourth is rocking the world.

Exhaustive discussions at the league and local level have resulted in specific protocols being installed to ensure – as much as possible when dealing with the undiscriminating coronavirus – that the NFL can carry on with this “new normal.”

The four preseason games have been scrapped. Players are reporting for camp, but must register three negative COVID-19 tests before entering the building and then are given daily tests for at least two weeks. Strength and conditioning will dominate on-field work before padded practices – a maximum of 14 – are permitted Aug. 16.

Kansas City and Houston kickoff the regular season Sept. 10 at Arrowhead Stadium. The Colts open their season Sept. 13 at Jacksonville.

At least that’s the plan.

It’s not hyperbole to insist that plan depends on the effectiveness of the COVID-19 protocol in place. The ultimate objective, of course, is to keep the virus out of the facility – locker room, meeting rooms, weight room and practice fields – and allow teams to properly prepare for what’s to come.

The ultimate wildcard in that plan? The players themselves.

The Colts monitor everything and have precautions in place inside the facility with head trainer Dave Hammer now assuming the role of infectious control officer. Hallways have been turned into one-way avenues. Players and coaches wear contract tracers that begin rapidly beeping if two individuals get closer than 6 feet apart.

But players leave the building at the end of their workday.

They’re on their own.

“Look, there’s going to be sacrifices that are going to have to be made by all of us,” Ballard said. “It’s the ultimate test of discipline right now. Can you sustain it for a long time?”

Ballard already has made a major concession. He won’t be having visitors in during the season. For now, post-game gatherings for family and friends at the Ballard household are on pause.

“Always got visitors coming in every weekend,” he said, “but that’s just not the world we’re living in right now.

“There’s going to be sacrifices that each one of us is going to have to (make). There’s going to have to be that peer pressure from within the locker room to know that if you do something outside of this building that puts the team at risk, that’s a selfish move.”

Reich believes the locker room that’s been put together gives the Colts a “competitive advantage.” There is a nice blend of veterans and youth.

Reich and Ballard often discuss the mature makeup of the roster.

“Naturally we’re biased like anybody’s biased,” Reich said, “but I just feel like what I said to Chris the other day . . . ‘This puts us in a competitive advantage.’ I believe that. I believe we’ve got high character guys, guys who are willing to sacrifice.”

Despite every precaution that’s been taken, the unforeseen lurks.

“There’s the quote-unquote luck factor. There’s providential factors that are sometimes out of our control,” Reich said. “We could be the most disciplined team, the most mature team in the league and you can’t stop it all.

“There’s some things you can’t stop and you have no control over. It’s the maturity to not only handle it the best way you can, but also if something does happen like that, you just can’t overreact. Stuff is going to happen, so let’s just do the best we can to handle it and we’ll respond accordingly.”

Reich described the COVID-19-impacted season as “the ultimate test” thus far of his young head coaching career.

“I just have a lot of confidence we’re going to handle it the right way,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s really going to come down to being able to adapt and adjust and not flinch.”

Yet the unknown lurks around every corner. One positive test and contact tracing could result in several players – perhaps at the same position – missing extended time. That must be dealt with by maximizing the 53-man active roster and 16-player practice squad.

Everyone associated with the NFL is as confident as possible the season will begin Sept. 10 in Arrowhead Stadium and end Feb. 7 in Tampa. But no one knows for sure. There might be a pause during the season. In a worst-case scenario, COVID-19 could force cancellation of the season.

Again, Ballard smiled.

“Ain’t nothing better than proving people wrong that we can do it, and we can do it safely,” he said.

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