INDIANAPOLIS – It was an extensive, exhaustive recap of a season that fell short of expectations and a look ahead into an uncertain offseason for a franchise on the cusp of something.
It was a 70-some-odd-minute Zoom conference call with Chris Ballard reaffirming his belief the Indianapolis Colts were absolutely good enough to win the Super Bowl and lamenting not providing the coaching staff with sufficient depth to deal with the rash of injuries at offensive tackle.
“Our goal every year is to go win the Super Bowl. That’s it,’’ he said Thursday. “Some years (are) probably more realistic than others. I thought it was realistic this year, and I think it’s going to be realistic for us going forward.’’
It was being evasive when the discussion turned to which of his free-agents-to-be might be re-signed, but letting his emotions flow when singling out T.Y. Hilton, Marlon Mack, Anthony Castonzo and Anthony Walker.
Mack, the team’s leading rusher in 2019, tore his right Achilles tendon in the opening loss at Jacksonville.
“Broke my heart,’’ Ballard said. “That sucked.’’
It was showing disgust that Castonzo, who retired Tuesday after 10 stellar seasons, never was selected to the Pro Bowl, and addressing how the franchise fills his void. The Pro Bowl snubs were “an absolute travesty,’’ Ballard insisted.
“Anthony Castonzo is the most underrated left tackle in the National Football League.’’
So it went. On and on. The status of the cornerbacks, defensive line, offensive line, a young wideout corps, etc.
Not surprisingly, though, Philip Rivers’ name kept finding its way into the conversation and the line of questioning.
Every aspect of the franchise will be dissected and analyzed over the coming weeks and months. Again, who stays and who goes? How best to invest the seven picks in the April draft, including the 21st overall selection? How to budget salary-cap space that is projected to exceed $70 million?
But it seems as if everything lines up behind determining the Colts’ QB1 for 2021.
“Do I want Philip back? Yes,’’ Ballard said.
He and Rivers met for an hour Wednesday. Ballard and Reich have broached the subject, and Ballard was to meet with owner Jim Irsay Thursday afternoon.
Nothing has been decided because we’re not at that point. Yet.
There’s a massive decision to be made because of the unique situation.
“Look, if this was a 30-year old Philip Rivers or a 35-year old Philip Rivers, we’re not having this talk,’’ Ballard admitted. “But this is a 39-year old Philip Rivers who might have one, maybe two years left.
“I was honest with him. I said, ‘Do we want you back? Yeah.’ But I told him I need to go through the process, and he needs to go through the process with him and Tiffany and the family if he wants to go and play again.’’
Rivers’ one-year, $25 million contract expires in March. He’s 39 and coming off his 17th season, and said shortly after the season-ending playoff loss at Buffalo he and his family will pray before making any decision on the future.
“He’s going to take time, and we’re going to take some time, and we’ll meet here in about a month and figure out which way we’re going to go forward,’’ Ballard said. “Do I think Philip Rivers is a winning quarterback that we can win and go to the Super Bowl with? Absolutely I do.’’
Ballard made one thing crystal clear from his first day on the job: it never will be – can be – about one player or one position. It’s about building a roster strong in all areas.
“I promise you we get the importance of the quarterback position,’’ Ballard said.
If Rivers decides to retire or the Colts decide to go in a different direction, common sense tells us the easiest path to deal with the situation is investing the 21st overall pick in the draft. Ballard offered a word of caution.
“Just go back and look at first-round quarterbacks drafted over the last 10 years,’’ he argued. “It is not an exact (process). Everybody just thinks you take one and you’re going to fix the problem.
“Look, taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t work, play well, I’m going to be the first one run out of the building.’’
The internal due diligence will delve into every option, including the draft.
“The difference between just taking one and taking the right one is the key in our minds,’’ Ballard said.
He doubts a viable option will be on the board when the Colts are on the clock with the 21st pick.
“It’s a good class, I’ll say that,’’ Ballard said. “It’s a good class. They all get pushed up. Little bit of luck has to come in play.’’
It’s entirely possible there’s a year 2 with Rivers under center. Ballard didn’t rule out veteran backup Jacoby Brissett, who also becomes a free agent in March. Also in the mix at some level is Jacob Eason, last year’s fourth-round pick whose rookie progress was impeded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which reduced training camp and eliminated preseason games.
Ballard described Eason as a “really good, young talent,’’ but stopped short of penciling him in as a backup possibility in 2021.
“I’m not ready to say I’m comfortable with it yet,’’ he said. “I just don’t know enough. We think he’s really talented. It doesn’t take long to see his talent. Now we’ve just got to see him play.’’
The bottom line: getting QB1 right is paramount.
“We’ll explore it. We’ll examine it. We’ll go A-to-Z on it,’’ Ballard said. “I promise you, that position never leaves my mind, and it’s something that we want to get fixed, but also there’s got to be a little bit of timing and luck come into play.’’
Ballard’s mind drifted to the last two franchise quarterbacks that led the franchise.
“You think about when you’ve got two of the greatest quarterbacks in this franchise’s history since it’s been in Indy – Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck,’’ he said. “And it took the first pick in the draft.
“Well, I can promise you this: if we hit the first pick in the draft, we’re not going to be having these press conferences with me. It’s going to be somebody else.’’
A few of Ballard’s comments on other topics:
The third-leading receiver in franchise history is in the final year of his contract, and turns 32 in November. “He’s really a special dude, man. Before we played Buffalo I walked (up) and said, ‘I love ya. I do.’ And T.Y.’s not the most emotional guy, but he gave me a hug. He’s special, man, as a person and as a teammate and as a competitor. As to his ability, T.Y. can still play. Whether it’s at the level it as four or five years ago . . . We value T.Y. We think he still can play, and he’s been a great Colt.’’
His rookie contract expires in March, and he’s coming off the Achilles injury. “(The injury) was hard and it was hard on him. Marlon Mack deserves a contract; unequivocally he deserves a good contract. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that here. Saying that, I’m not going to say Marlon Mack’s not going to be back because he’s a special player.’’
The three-year starter will be one of several free agents in March. “I’ve got a special relationship with Anthony Walker. Selfless, team guy, rare leader. Mark my words on this: Anthony Walker, if he gets into coaching, will be a head football coach in the National Football League. And if he gets into scouting, he’ll be a general manager. I know Anthony wants to play more. We value Anthony.’’
The offensive line
There is no suitable replacement on the roster for Castonzo. “We’ve got Quenton (Nelson), Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith, and we’ve got (Mark) Glowinski. So we’ve got four damn good offensive linemen right now, and we’ve got some young ones we like in (Danny) Pinter and (Will) Holden. We’ll let it all sift out through the offseason, and when we get to training camp play with some different combinations to make sure we get the best five on the field.’’
In three seasons, he’s led the Colts to a 29-22 overall record with two playoff appearances. “He’s really special. I don’t think anybody should ever take Frank Reich for granted. He’s a special leader as a coach.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.