INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Maybe they’ll get it right this time.
Maybe the vision Jim Irsay had for his Indianapolis Colts when he parted ways with Peyton Manning in March 2012 will become a reality under Chris Ballard, the engaging new general manager, after it failed to materialize with Ryan Grigson, the deposed GM.
No sooner had Irsay shared the stage with Manning and closed the door on a historic era of Colts football than he looked ahead. He lamented the solitary Lombardi Trophy produced by a roster stocked with a slew of future Hall of Famers despite the “Star Wars numbers,’’ and insisted life after Manning must follow a different path.
The Colts must be a more balanced team, both structurally and financially. Previously, too much money had been invested in too few players, primarily on offense. So much of the team’s success hinged on Manning.
Irsay even used arch-rival New England as a framework for the future. He saw a blueprint that involved a top-tier quarterback (Tom Brady) but was able to function at an optimum level without an overabundance of Pro Bowl-talent around him and while dealing with the roster fluidity.
Those plans, well intentioned, failed to take root as Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano put their imprint on the franchise. There have been too many whiffs with high draft picks, too much invested in failed free agents, not sufficient development of young players.
The result? Over the last five seasons, the Colts have gone as far as Andrew Luck has taken them. He’s certainly not blameless as the franchise has regressed since reaching the AFC Championship game after the 2014 season, but he represents hope of a return to prominence.
And that brings us to the shared vision of Ballard and Irsay for the ’17 Colts and beyond. It’s identical to the one Irsay shared post-Manning.
Yes, Andrew Luck remains the franchise fulcrum. The surest path to the Super Bowl is by following the lead of a top-tier QB. Look at the NFL’s recent Final Four: Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers.
But Ballard’s response to how the presence of Luck impacted his decision to relocate to Indy was telling.
“Let me say this, because Andrew is a great player, but it will never be about one guy,’’ he said. “It’s about all 53 men in that locker room. It’s about all 63 men, including the practice squad, that we have.
“Is he a good piece? Absolutely. But he is just one of the 53 men that we have to go win with.’’
We’re guessing somewhere Andrew Luck was smiling. He’s always deflected praise in good times and shouldered blame in rough times. He’ll never admit it, but we’re convinced he yearns for a more well-rounded team. A more consistent offensive line and running game. A more reliable defense. A complementary special teams.
The Chiefs lacked a marquee QB, but they had everything else.
Since 2013, Kansas City’s defense has ranked 7th, 3rd, 2nd and 5th in fewest points allowed. It has generated 168 sacks (5th-most in the league) and come up with 65 interceptions (No. 6) and held quarterbacks to a league-low 57.7 completion percentage.
The Chiefs have allowed 18.4 points per game over the last four seasons, second only to Seattle (16.4). Since 2012, the Colts have yielded an average of 23.7 points per game.
The Chiefs’ offense has been more conservative than explosive under Smith’s direction. The last four seasons, the ground game has ranked 10th twice, 6th and 15th. It’s founded in execution and efficiency. Kansas City has 66 turnovers since ’13, second-fewest to New England’s 58.
And special teams? The Chiefs lead the NFL in kickoff returns (26.3) and punt returns (11.2) with eight TDs over the past four seasons.
That’s not to say the Colts aspire to be the Chiefs. It’s to point out Ballard’s experience with helping build a roster in Kansas City has him in lockstep with his new boss.
“Defense wins championships,’’ he said. “I know you have to score points, but I’ve been blessed to be in this league to work for two places where we’ve been pretty special on defense – Chicago and Kansas City.
“But don’t get me wrong, we have to score points. We have to have weapons. Look, in this league, you win up front. You win on the O-line and D-line. And if you’re not good up front, it’s very difficult when you get into December/January football.’’
Irsay agreed. His mind flashed back to 2006 when the Colts won Super Bowl XLI. They featured Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and other offensive luminaries, but the world championship win over the Chicago Bears was a byproduct of a stout defense and physical running game.
“What really happened was the defense started . . . stopping the run . . . and the offensive line was coming off the ball and knocking people off the ball and we had a running game with Dominic (Rhodes) and Joseph (Addai),’’ Irsay said. “You guys could just imagine where we could be when we have that consistent sort of performance up front.’’
That’s the plan. Again.