The Indianapolis Colts fired Frank Reich but are sticking by Chris Ballard, according to Jim Irsay. Is this the right decision by the franchise?
As far as team Jim Irsay is concerned, Chris Ballard’s job heading into the 2023 season, like Frank Reich’s job was a couple of weeks ago, is reportedly safe. During the initial press conference for interim head coach, Jeff Saturday, Jim Irsay said, there’s “no question about that,” in regards to whether or not Chris Ballard will be retained as general manager going into next year. Now, Reich’s in-season job security was admittedly always going to be less secure than that of the general manager’s, mainly given how difficult it’d be to carry out a season via an interim GM versus an interim HC.
On the other hand, in Jim Irsay’s 25 years of owning the team, there has never been an instance (before Monday) where Irsay fired the team’s head coach mid-season. This goes to show a couple of things: first, amidst all the bad this franchise has seen over the last 25 years, never has it been bad enough to warrant a firing of the head coach mid-season— at least not in Irsay’s eyes. Secondly, with that being said, Irsay has grown immensely impatient with his team’s under-performance in recent memory, especially in divisional play, and seems poised to move on to a whole new regime entirely.
Should the Colts blow everything up and restart?
The notion of firing a general manager who has excelled in the draft during his tenure is certainly a tricky one. The questions concerning this idea, however, are more intricate than one’s drafting ability. A general manager is responsible for far more than the average fan may realize, and despite this being a behind-the-scenes role, for the most part, general managers have the spotlight on them more often than not.
There are essentially four main talking points when regarding these aforementioned responsibilities; some of these main tasks go as followed:
- Evaluating upcoming talent (i.e. college players)
- Making the ‘right’ draft selection
- Free Agency
- Mid-season changes (if applicable)
How has Chris Ballard fared as general manager of Colts?
First and foremost, Chris Ballard is widely known for his drafting ability. With one of the most notable and impactful draft classes of recent memory (Colts’ 2018), Ballard has been riding the coattails of the said draft for years now. To be fair, who wouldn’t be? Ballard traded back from the third-overall pick to the NY Jets for the sixth-overall pick and an early second-rounder so the Jets could select QB Sam Darnold. Those picks in return netted guard Quenton Nelson and fellow offensive lineman Braden Smith, while Ballard selected the heart and soul of the modern-day Colts’ defense, Shaquille Leonard, in between them with the team’s original second-round pick.
We could go on and on regarding whether or not Ballard has made the right picks, but in an attempt to be as objective as possible, it’s hard to argue that Ballard hasn’t, in the grand scheme of things. Chris Ballard has certainly had his fair share of misses, with the notables that come to mind being second-day flyers on defensive linemen (i.e., Tarrell Basham, Ben Banogu, and Kemoko Turay).
With that being said, it’s almost impossible to find a draft from his tenure (2017-2021) where Ballard has bombed a pick (a la Ryan Grigson’s first-round selection of Bjoern Werner). His 1st-round selection of safety Malik Hooker in the 2017 NFL Draft may seem like a bigger bust than it was, given his Colts’ tenure was cut short due to injuries, but Hooker was productive when he did play, and his 2017 draft class as a whole, leaves a lot to be desired, Ballard’s first draft landed a rising star in the fourth round in defensive tackle Grover Stewart. As the previous sentence alluded to, Ballard’s strong suit, and often the most overlooked aspect of his drafts, is his ability to land true play-makers on day three of the draft (rounds 4-7).
When determining how effective a general manager is when it comes to free agency, hindsight bias is almost inevitable. As the NFL is a true week-to-week league, backlash regarding these hits and/or misses is bound to be amplified. The issue with having success in free agency as a general manager is that these acquisitions are riskier. They are riskier in the sense that bigger, more guaranteed contracts are tethered to the commitment of a player, whereas in the draft, these rookie contracts are much smaller and overall, easier to abandon.
Let’s say a team is looking to add a new wide receiver to the mix; going after a 22-year-old in the early stages of the draft versus going after a proven, 28-year-old veteran offers so much more potential and flexibility when deciphering a team’s makeup. Essentially, you’re giving up proven experience and production at the pro level, but you’re gaining what could be the next best thing as well as saving millions of dollars to potentially address elsewhere. Needless to say, the mindset that Chris Ballard has operated with as the Colts’ GM may end up costing himself, and others (i.e., Frank Reich) a job moving forward.
Chris Ballard, similar to how he’s operated in free agency, likes to keep things in-house for as far as mid-season roster shakeups go. Ballard has refrained from making any trade deadline trades, as well as only making trades (or acquisitions) in light of unforeseen injuries (i.e., trading Phillip Dorsett for Jacoby Brissett after Andrew Luck went down for the 2017 season; also convincing veteran Jared Veldheer to unretire and play for the Colts in light of Anthony Castonzo’s season-ending injury during a 2020 playoff push).
Whether or not a hindsight-driven, hypothetical mid-season signing or trade acquisition would’ve rewritten history for the Colts’ organization, it’s safe to say that Chris Ballard’s patience and overall stinginess paired with Jim Irsay’s clamoring for two Lombardi-hoistings in the 2020s has resulted in a questionable future.
Should the Colts fire Chris Ballard?
Regardless of how one feels about the overall execution of Chris Ballard’s tenure as the Colts’ general manager, the negligence of premier positions is truly what has done Ballard in. One can argue whether or not Ballard’s drafting focus is the right mindset to have, but it seems irrefutable at this point where his faults have been. Neglecting the importance of key positions, at least up until recently, of the modern-day NFL (i.e., WR, LT, Pass Rush) has resulted in top-paid contracts at positions that are not only seen as less important but as the least important positions to address year in and year out (IOL, LB). This is not to say that players like Quenton Nelson and Shaquille Leonard aren’t deserving of the contracts they’ve signed, but it invites criticism of the job at stake.
All in all, Chris Ballard may very well be the best talent evaluator in the entire league. So much so that he has drafted elite players at these lesser important positions, and those players have blossomed into (arguably) being the best at their respective positions. Subsequently, this has caused concern for the betterment of the team because of Ballard’s mantra— which is one that nobody can knock him for as it is rather commendable —which is that he pays his best players, regardless of what the media or league executives believe the hypothetical value should be. So in an attempt to stick to his values and philosophy, Ballard has been reminded of one cruel thing, and that is this league is a business first and foremost, and that a family-oriented philosophy amidst a business setting, unfortunately, does not typically pan out.
As his tenure as Colts’ GM looks to have run its course, despite what Jim Irsay says about his job security moving forward, Chris Ballard should be let go in an attempt to save the team. It’s no doubt a collective effort to how we got here, but with Ballard’s faults coupled with Irsay’s impatience, the best move for both parties is for Ballard to start anew elsewhere.