INDIANAPOLIS – The mea culpa came early and was revisited often.
And how could that not be the opening tenor of Chris Ballard’s 38-minute, 47-question State of the Indianapolis Colts? His Indianapolis Colts.
A season that began with legitimate playoff aspirations and a first AFC South championship since 2014 disintegrated into an absolute mess. Instead of dealing with the first round of the postseason this weekend, Ballard and everyone associated with the franchise is focused on determining how everything unraveled and they lost the last seven games of the season for the first time since 1953, their inaugural NFL season.
Ballard walked into the media room at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center Tuesday morning and made it clear where the buck stopped.
“Look, I failed,’’ he said. “I’m not going to sit up here and make excuses. Failed a lot of people. Highly disappointed where we’re at, how the season went. I never take lightly what’s at stake. It’s not the wins and losses. People’s lives are on the line. Players’ families, coaches’ families, front office, people in this building.
“I’m disappointed where we’re at, and ultimately that falls on my shoulders. I won’t walk away from that. I won’t run from it. Unfortunately, our greatest moments of growth . . . happen in the darkness. You’ve just gotta keep your eyes open and see the light.’’
Ballard was asked if he was surprised to be addressing the media after the team’s comprehensive collapse in 2022: 4-12-1, losses in 10 of the last 11 games, the worst point differential in the league (minus-138), historic collapses at Dallas and Minnesota, a league-high 34 turnovers, atrocious at scoring in the red zone (30th) and preventing red-zone TDs (32nd), etc.
The Colts are 46-54-1 and have failed to reach the playoffs in four of his six years as general manager. That track record often is cause for a change.
“I don’t even worry about that,’’ Ballard said. “I come to work, I give you everything I’ve got. I don’t short-change anything, and I don’t worry about getting let go and fired.’’
At one point, he joked: “I’ve fired myself 50 times this year. I sit in that press box and agonize.’’
Then he returned to a more serious tone.
“I do the best I can, and even the best-laid plans sometimes – even the best thought-out plans – they don’t work sometimes,’’ Ballard said. “It didn’t work last year. I’m not going to sit up here and make excuses for that. I’m not going to make excuses for having a job.
“I’ve got to do my job better.’’
The questions bounced from Ballard’s job performance, to how he plans on fixing what he helped break, to whether owner Jim Irsay has usurped some of his control, to whether the team plans on investing the fourth overall pick in the April draft on a quarterback (we’ll save you the suspense; the answer is yes), to interim head coach Jeff Saturday and how he fits in the coaching search, to whether that search will include Jim Harbaugh (again, we’ll save you the suspense; he wouldn’t bite on that one) to how the lack of stability at quarterback has crippled the team’s development.
Here’s a sampling:
Irsay’s heavy involvement in recent decisions
The owner was the driving forced behind jettisoning Carson Wentz after the failed 2022 season, benching Matt Ryan after seven games and firing Frank Reich and replacing him with Saturday.
“Let me say this about Mr. Irsay,’’ Ballard said. “I love working for him. He’s a good man and a good owner. He has a lot of experience in this league, and we talk about everything. We don’t always agree. If we’re agreeing all the time, I’m not doing my job.
“There’s some decisions that I’ll make and he’ll say, ‘Good, Chris. I don’t completely agree with that, but let’s move forward.’ And there’s some decisions he’ll make and I’ll say, ‘Look, I don’t completely agree with that, but I’ll move forward.’ When we make one, we make it together.
“Mr. Irsay lets me do my job.’’
Targeting a QB in the first round of the draft
The Colts have tried to be good enough at the position since Andrew Luck’s retirement prior to 2019. That’s resulted in Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Wentz and Ryan. Clearly, that’s not been good enough. Holding the fourth overall pick offers a rare opportunity to add a potential franchise QB.
So, should fans be surprised if the Colts don’t select a quarterback in the first round?
“No, I wouldn’t be surprised,’’ Ballard said. “I mean, it’s the fourth pick of the draft. (Expletive), excuse my language, but we earned that.
“I’ve said this before, and I think history proves me right. I can take one, we can take one as an organization, and y’all are going to celebrate it and say we have got the savior for the Colts. And then if he doesn’t play well, ‘Why’d you take that guy?’
“We got to be right. We understand the magnitude of where we’re at in the draft, and we understand the importance of the position.’’
It’s possible – even likely – the Colts will have to move up to ensure they get the QB they covet (Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud). That might mean securing the first overall pick in a trade with the Chicago Bears.
“I do whatever it takes,’’ Ballard said. “If we thought there’s a player that we’re driven to get that makes the franchise and the team better, that’s what we would do.’’
The coaching search
In keeping with how they’ve handled things previously, the Colts won’t reveal which candidates they’re interested in.
“I’ll lead the search,’’ Ballard said. “Ultimately, Mr. Irsay makes the final call. There’s 32 teams, 32 owners. They own the team. We give them our thoughts, and Mr. Irsay’s a good listener. Ultimately, he’ll make the final call, but he’ll lean heavily on our work and what we do to get the candidates in place.’’
How Jeff Saturday fits in
The Colts finished 1-7 during Saturday’s interim stint, and honestly showed no progress over the final two months.
“He is going to be a candidate, OK?’’ Ballard said.
When Irsay made the decision to hire Saturday on an interim basis, Ballard pointed out the obvious.
“I voiced my concerns,’’ he said. “Which were, ‘Look, this is unprecedented, and we’re putting him into a really tough situation here, taking a team over midseason.’ I wanted to make sure he understood that, and I had the same talk with Jeff.
“But look, here’s what I know about Jeff: He is smart, he is a good teammate, and he is a leader. Those things are real. He’ll go through the process like everyone else. It’ll be interesting to hear his vision, how he wants to build it.’’
The key to finding the right guy
This is Ballard’s second coaching search. He settled on Josh McDaniels in February 2018, but had to reboot when McDaniels reneged on their agreement. That resulted in a second search, which produced Reich.
“I’m gonna tell you what I learned,’’ Ballard said. “One, don’t start with an end in mind. OK? That’s big. A lot of times what happens in you get a vision of what you want before you . . . I mean, you’ve made up your mind up, and then you might ignore somebody that’s really freaking good right in front of your face.
“So, we’ve got a very detailed process put together on the traits and attributes we’re looking for in the head coach. Don’t care what side of the ball. And then, be patient. I don’t care if it takes to mid-February. It’s about getting it right.’’
About that minus-138 point differential
There’s no way to sugarcoat that stat.
“It says we weren’t very good,’’ Ballard said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like what happened in Dallas, where, you know, it’s 21-19 into the fourth quarter and . . . then it was just a complete meltdown (33 unanswered points).
“Look, we got to get better. I’ve gotta get more talent on this football team. Our best players have to play to their capability. And the young players have to play to their capability that we thought (they could).
“I don’t think the cupboard is dry.’’
Was effort ever a concern?
After leading the Vikings 33-0 at halftime in week 15, the Colts were outscored 97-16 before the season-ending 32-31 loss to Houston. The defense failed to hold a fourth quarter lead in four of the last seven games. Against the Cowboys, Vikings and Giants, the Colts gave up at least 31 unanswered points.
“I didn’t ever feel like, you know, they weren’t competing,’’ Ballard said. “Our competitive confidence, somewhere along the way, we lost. Like when it got hard in the game, we would melt down.
“I wish I could have a complete answer for you. But I don’t. That’s something we have to work through and go through this offseason.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.