Colts taking more patient approach in pursuit of championship

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Chris Ballard (left) and Jim Irsay (right).

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The ultimate goal hasn’t changed. Never will.

To Jim Irsay, it’s all about the pursuit of another Lombardi Trophy – or two – to place alongside the one his Indianapolis Colts secured after the 2006 season. The sterling silver trophy remains an unwavering motivation.

What’s changed, though, is the means to that end.

The owner who’s committed to excellence on the field, coupled with first-time general manager Chris Ballard, is asking for a bit of patience from his fan base. It’s going to take time to revamp a roster, more precisely overhaul what was an aging defense. It’s going to take more than one offseason and one draft.

Winning in 2017 is important, and the AFC South remains one of the NFL’s more vulnerable divisions.

“We have a chance to compete for a playoff spot and that sort of thing, no question about it,’’ Irsay told Indy Sports Central Tuesday during a telephone call from the owners meetings in Phoenix. “There’s a lot of things that have to happen and gel – people’s health and that sort of thing – but there’s no reason to believe it won’t.

“Yeah, I’m excited, I really am.’’

That excitement, though, is somewhat curbed in the short term.

“Look, there’s a lot of work to be done,’’ Irsay said. “We have a lot of youth, a lot of infusion of talent.

“You definitely pump the brakes. I am excited, but I temper things because we have to continue to grow defensively.’’

Sustained success is the overriding objective for a franchise that has taken a major step back the past two seasons: 8-8 records and failing to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.

Irsay told reporters Monday he’d rather endure “a losing season or two’’ if the course plotted by Ballard and coach Chuck Pagano resulted in the opportunity “to win two Lombardis.’’

“We’re building this thing for the long term as well, the greatness,’’ Irsay stressed.

The Colts were one step away in 2014, reaching the AFC Championship game where they were outclassed in a 45-7 loss at New England. They loaded up with high-priced free agents during the next offseason for another title run – Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Trent Cole, Kendall Langford – but saw the season come unraveled as injuries forced quarterback Andrew Luck to miss nine games.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board under Ballard’s leadership.

During last month’s NFL Scouting Combine, he made it clear he inherited a roster that’s hardly championship-ready.

“I am not going to set some high standard to where I set unrealistic goals,’’ Ballard said. “Look, every year is precious. Every opportunity is an opportunity to win.

“To me, there is no such thing as rebuilding. Everybody is trying to win and that’s the approach we’ll take.’’

Since succeeding Ryan Grigson in January, Ballard has gutted the defense and restocked it with younger talent. Eight players who were 29 or older – seven on defense – either have retired, been cut or not re-signed. All were major contributors a year ago.

Of the 10 veteran free agents signed, seven are 27 or younger. The April 27-29 draft – the Colts hold seven picks, all in the first five rounds – will add additional youth to the roster.

“Defensively we’re going to be pretty young,’’ Irsay said, adding it will be imperative for Pagano and his staff to simplify the defense so those young players are able to contribute immediately.

So much of how 2017 unfolds hinges on the defensive renovation.

“We can put up points, a chance to put up high-20s or 30 points a game,’’ Irsay said. “Look, everyone knows where we were defensively last year.

“I’m willing to say pretty confidently we’re going to be better. That’s not really making a bold statement because obviously we really struggled defensively last year in all of the most important categories.’’

The Colts hold the 15th overall pick in the draft, and that could deliver a promising pass-rush threat to the defense. Don’t be surprised, though, if at some point during the three-day draft Ballard looks to acquire additional picks.

“I don’t think we’d hesitate trading down if the situation was right in certain rounds to try to get more picks,’’ Irsay said.

What of Pagano?:

Irsay seems to have created an awkward balancing act moving forward. While he and Ballard are in agreement patience is needed as the Colts restock the roster, Pagano’s long-term future with the team hangs in the balance. He’s under contract through 2019, but will be evaluated by Irsay and Ballard throughout the season.

Is Pagano coaching for his job?

“I think that’s overstating it a bit,’’ Irsay said. “I would say when you have a new general manager that already has a coach in place, (that coach) is going to be a guy who can take us where we want to go.

“That evaluation isn’t as simple as saying, ‘Well, win the division (and) win the first playoff game for Chuck to save his job.’ There’s so much more that’s going to go into it with Chris and ultimately coming to me and he and I talking about where we are.

“We’d love to have that continuity. (Pagano has) won a lot of games and done a lot of outstanding things. We’ll see.’’