The Colts have left people around the NFL in a state of bewilderment.
“It’s hard to fathom what is going on there,” an opposing team executive wondered.
That was the consensus among a few executives who were polled by The Athletic and granted anonymity for this story so they could speak freely after the Colts fired head coach Frank Reich and replaced him on an interim basis with former center Jeff Saturday, who has no coaching experience in the NFL or college and had been serving as an ESPN analyst.
Furthermore, Colts owner Jim Irsay opted for Saturday over some qualified candidates already on staff. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and senior defensive assistant John Fox have a combined 20 seasons of NFL head coaching experience. It’s common for teams to promote a head coaching veteran in this type of instance, as the Panthers did last month with Steve Wilks on the heels of Matt Rhule’s firing.
Another possibility, the Colts could have taken a trial run with special teams coordinator Ray Ventrone, who is viewed as a coach on the rise. Or if they were more interested in the sentimental route by hiring someone from the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl championship roster, wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne and assistant linebackers coach Cato June are also on staff. How do Ventrone, Wayne and June now view their futures with the organization?
Diving further down the rabbit hole, if NFLPA leadership experience was enticing — Saturday was a key member who was credited for his role in negotiations during the 2011 lockout — Colts assistant offensive line coach Kevin Mawae was the PA president from 2008-12.
Some of those credentials are clearly more important than others. But throw them all together, and it’s a recipe for why other teams are so shocked by the unconventional hiring of Saturday. Others on staff had similar qualifications as Saturday — all have more coaching experience.
“Never seen anything like it,” the executive said. “Will never see anything like it again.”
What it came down to, of course, was Irsay’s strong relationship with Saturday. And every owner has the right to make those decisions. But those decisions, especially the unconventional ones, always send some type of a message, intended or otherwise.
How will others on staff feel about getting leapfrogged? How are the players going to respond?
The Colts, after all, are 3-5-1 and still only 2.5 games behind the Titans in the AFC South and the Chargers for the final wild-card spot. While the Colts haven’t consistently played like a team that has shown it’s capable of a second-half run, the 2021 Raiders were proof a midseason coaching change and a different leadership voice can sometimes be enough to spark a team.
Irsay believes Saturday can provide that spark.
“Because he’s a better fit,” Irsay said Monday night when asked why the Colts went with Saturday over the team’s own assistants with previous experience. “He’s the best man for the job, and there’s no question about it in my mind. I’ve been around it a long time. The last coach I hired as an interim coach was Bruce Arians. It was the right coach. So, (Saturday), was the best guy. That’s why. There’s no mystery behind that.”
“I’m glad (Saturday) doesn’t have NFL experience,” Irsay said. “I’m glad he hasn’t learned the fear that’s in this league, because it’s tough for all of our coaches. They’re afraid. They go to analytics, and it gets difficult. I mean, he doesn’t have all that. He doesn’t have that fear and there was no other candidate. We were fortunate that he was available. He has tons of experience.”
It’s fair to wonder now, however, if in the coming months, when the Colts are trying to hire their next head coach, how will prospective candidates view the stability of the position? If Saturday is the hand-chosen replacement by ownership, the next round of interviewees will be on alert that something like this could repeat itself, according to a former NFL head coach. Those with prior head coaching experience tend to be more selective with their next job opportunities, knowing it will likely be their last shot, and this could now be a factor.
Two opposing team executives and one assistant coach used the same word to describe Monday’s events: “Crazy.”
The confusion wasn’t necessarily rooted in defense of Reich, who is respected by his peers but understandably came under fire after a third consecutive loss — a 26-3, noncompetitive blowout in New England. It was the breaking point for a team that had high aspirations this season before opening with a 20-20 tie against the Texans and a 24-0 loss to the Jaguars. Frustration mounted almost weekly as the team underperformed, especially on offense.
Now, the rival executives, including a couple general managers, are wondering about GM Chris Ballard’s future.
“They have whiffed at the QB position since he got there,” a league executive said.
While that point has merit, Ballard — and Reich — have also dealt with some misfortune at the game’s most important position. Ballard arrived in 2017 and franchise quarterback Andrew Luck missed the entire season 2017 due to shoulder surgery. Luck returned in 2018 and made his fourth Pro Bowl while leading the Colts to the playoffs, but he surprisingly retired during the 2019 preseason.
Ballard signed Philip Rivers in 2020, believing the veteran was going to play multiple years, but he retired after one season despite taking the Colts to the postseason. The Colts then traded for Carson Wentz in 2021 and Matt Ryan in 2022, and neither quarterback panned out. Ryan was benched last month.
Ballard has only drafted two quarterbacks in six years — Jacob Eason in the fourth round in 2020 and Sam Ehlinger in the sixth round in 2021. Eason was on the team for 17 months, while Ehlinger has endured a tough couple of games in his audition for future consideration.
The Colts are in a precarious spot. Irsay could have promoted Bradley or Fox as a last-ditch effort to salvage the season, but he opted to deal with the optics of an eight-game tryout for Saturday.
It was a confusing decision as it happened Monday afternoon. And if it doesn’t work and the season is truly lost, this will only be the beginning of the fallout.
(Photo: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)