INDIANAPOLIS – It was time, because Jim Irsay – down deep – felt it was time. And necessary.
As the owner of the Indianapolis Colts noted during a Monday evening press conference to introduce Jeff Saturday as interim coach following the firing of Frank Reich, there’s no roadmap for these situations.
Intuitive, Irsay mentioned once, twice, at least three times.
Lengthy and spirited conversations with general manager Chris Ballard in the wake of Sunday’s 26-3 loss at New England – the Colts’ third straight and one of the worst offensive performances in franchise history – convinced him it was necessary to move on from a head coach with a 41-35-1 overall record in four-plus seasons (Reich) and turn to a franchise icon who has zero coaching experience at the collegiate or NFL level (Saturday).
“There is no rulebook that tells you now you should make a change, now you shouldn’t,’’ Irsay said. “It’s something from being in the league 52 years. It’s intuitive.’’
Irsay assumed control of the franchise in 1995. Monday was the first time he’s fired a coach during a season.
Was that a reflection of his mounting disappointment and frustration with his 3-5-1 team, and its leadership? Remember, the Colts entered the season as slight AFC South favorites, and until recently Irsay still believed his head coach/general manager tandem possessed the wherewithal to lead the team to a world championship.
“Things change,’’ he said. “In 27 years I never had a quarterback retire on me at age 29 in his prime.’’
That obviously was in reference to Andrew Luck, who walked away from the NFL and the Colts a few weeks prior to the start of the ’19 season.
“Things change,’’ Irsay reiterated. “You never like to make a change, much less during the season. It’s not ideal.
“In Chris and I talking, we saw things collapse and I’ve seen things go from bad to worse and I thought it was time and it was necessary to make the change as of this morning.’’
From a logistics standpoint, Irsay and Ballard talked immediately after the Patriots loss, and again when Ballard returned to town Sunday evening.
Irsay described his subsequent face-to-face meeting with Ballard as “difficult . . . a lot of grinding.’’
“It was spirited like they can be because we’re both passionate about what we do,’’ he said.
It was during the follow-up conversation that Saturday’s name as interim coach was broached. The long-time franchise icon and member of the Ring of Honor has served as a consultant for the past few years and turned down two opportunities to join Reich’s staff since 2019.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Jeff,’’ Ballard said. “It doesn’t take long to figure out that he’s got real leadership to him, real special in that regard. For this eight-game stretch and where we’re at, we thought he was going to be a really good fit for us.’’
No consideration was given to naming anyone from Reich’s staff to the interim position. And that staff includes former head coaches Gus Bradley and John Fox.
“I don’t know what we would have done, if anything, if he wasn’t available and willing,’’ Irsay said. “That’s kind of how it came together.
“If he turns us down, we’re not here today.’’
Irsay broached the idea with Saturday late Sunday, and things were resolved Monday morning.
“It was a 12-hour whirlwind,’’ Saturday said. “Mr. Irsay keeps later hours than I do, so it was a late call.’’
His initial reaction?
“Shocked would be an understatement,’’ he said. “We had the conversation and it escalated quickly.’’
Saturday discussed the opportunity with his wife, Karen, to make sure she was on board with the challenges ahead. His family prayed about it.
Then he talked again with Irsay and Ballard.
“Had real come-to-Jesus conversations,’’ Saturday said.
The end result: an eight-game audition for someone whose only head coaching experience consists of three years at Hebron Christian Academy in Dacula, Ga. Saturday has been an analyst for ESPN.
At the end of the year, Irsay and Ballard will lead an interview process for the full-time head coach. And that list will include Jeff Saturday.
“There is no talk of permanence at this point,’’ Irsay said. “When the season ends we will have an interviewing process and we’ll see where it goes from there.
“Obviously we think he is one of those candidates who should be a very promising candidate to be the long-term head coach.’’
Saturday has yet to meet with his players; that will take place Wednesday morning. He has huddled with his offensive staff and will do so with the defensive coaches Tuesday. One of his first priorities is determining the organizational framework of the offense. Coordinator Marcus Brady was fired last week.
“I’m drinking from a fire hydrant a little bit,’’ Saturday said with a smile, “so we’re trying to meet with everybody, get this done.’’
Saturday’s already made two decisions: Sam Ehlinger will be the starting quarterback and Bernhard Raimann the left tackle Sunday when he coaches his first game against the Raiders in Las Vegas.
Saturday is aware he’s going to have to gain the trust of a locker room that has dealt with the benching of Matt Ryan, the promotion of Ehlinger and the dismissals of Brady and Reich in the past few weeks.
“You’ve got to earn your place here,’’ he said. “Here’s the great part of the NFL, man. We’re all on trial basis, buddy. Only one guy up here is secure, and he’s in the middle, right?’’
During Monday night’s press conference, Irsay was flanked by Saturday and Ballard.
“Make no mistake, you’ve gotta earn it,’’ Saturday said.
Ballard back in 2023
Irsay’s decision to fire Reich led to speculation regarding Ballard’s job security. Prior to the 2021 season, each was given a contract extension through 2026.
So, does Irsay plan on Ballard returning next season?
“Of course, yes I do,’’ he said. “There is no question about that. Honestly, it’s not really even in the consciousness of my mind about that.’’
After firing Reich, Irsay praised him.
“He’s a winning head coach,’’ he said. “If anyone wants to diminish anything that coach did, you’d be wrong because your opinion really doesn’t matter.
“Honest to God, not only is Frank an outstanding character man, he’s a great coach. Are you kidding me? That’s obvious, but it doesn’t always come in the laundry in this league.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51..