INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. –The vision for what could be – what should be – was right there in front of Chris Ballard’s eyes.
It was Nov. 18 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Ballard’s current concoction was in the locker room at halftime of its AFC South meeting with the Tennessee Titans, and the present was unfolding quite nicely. His Indianapolis Colts were up 24-3 and headed to a 38-10 victory.
But that’s not what captured Ballard’s attention. It was Reggie Wayne being added to the Colts’ Ring of Honor, and everything – everyone – that involved.
Ballard described it as a “really cool moment.’’
“When I looked down and they had taken over the field,’’ he said Monday. “Pretty much taken over the 50-yard line, spilling out into the field.
“I looked up and there’s Jeff Saturday, there’s Reggie Wayne, there’s Peyton Manning, there’s Edgerrin James, there’s Marlin Jackson, there’s Gary Brackett, all the great players.’’
The talent level was undeniable. But Ballard looked deeper. He saw what helped make those previous Colts teams so special.
“I looked at them and said, ‘You know what’s consistent with those guys? They’re good dudes,’’’ he said. “They’re good guys. They’re good teammates. They connected. They all had relationships with each other.’’
That, Ballard realized, must be one of the bridges taking his current Colts into a future that, ideally, matches or exceeds the Colts of the 2000s. Being one of three teams in NFL history to reach the playoffs following a 1-5 start and winning a first-round playoff game before last Saturday’s drubbing at the hands of Kansas City is only the beginning.
The Wayne/Manning/James/etc. Colts showed the way.
“That’s what we want to be,’’ Ballard said. “I want to look up 15 years from now and we’ve got 10-12 players (on the field) and somebody going in the Ring of Honor, and they’ve still got these connecting relationships because of the struggle.
“They went through the struggle and had great success because of it.’’
That was the overriding theme as Ballard offered a State of the Colts Monday afternoon.
“What are you willing to struggle for,’’ he asked. “That defines us. Defines me. Defines you. And they ultimately it’s what brings the locker room together.’’
Ballard met with the media less than 48 hours after the Kansas City Chiefs ended what had been a magical journey with a dominant victory in the AFC divisional round. A team that had overcome enormous odds – that 1-5 start, remember? – regrouped and won 10 of 11 games, including a wild-card decision at Houston.
Ballard’s near-50-minute discussion touched on numerous topics: the success of his second draft class and whether the rookies exceeded expectations; whether he might be more active on the NFL’s upcoming free-agent market; the successful return of his franchise quarterback; the possibility of trading his backup quarterback; his assessment of first-time head coach Frank Reich; the possibility of re-signing the NFL’s all-time scoring leader; how the team might respond to increased expectations in 2019.
His attention, though, always seemed sharpest when he talked about Reich, his players and the makeup of the locker room, and the chemistry and character they all shared.
Ballard was asked if there was a moment from the season that will stick with him.
“I can think of two,’’ he said.
The first occurred in week 4 against Houston in Lucas Oil Stadium. Reich’s decision to go for it on fourth down in overtime led to the Texans’ escaping with a 37-34 victory.
“The overtime, the fourth-down decision, especially when Frank stood up in front of the team and owned it, ‘It’s on me. I believe in you,’’’ Ballard said. “And then our owner coming in at that point and making sure everybody understood we stick together. That’s what we do.’’
The other indelible moment came Saturday evening at Arrowhead Stadium, following the 31-13 loss that brought everything to a sudden halt.
“Just the carrying for one another within the locker room,’’ Ballard said. “That’s a special thing when you see grown men teary-eyed, me included, because they care about one another.
“That’s a really cool thing.’’
Here’s a look at some of the topics Ballard touched upon:
- Re-signing Adam Vinatieri, who’ll become an unrestricted free agent in March. “We texted last night. We’re going to visit (Tuesday). Do I think he can still kick in the league and be a really good kicker? Absolutely I do.’’
- In Indy? “We’ll see. I’ll just say this. I don’t know if I’ve been around a special teams player that has as much impact as Adam does in the locker room, from a positive standpoint.’’
- Is he receptive to trading backup QB Jacoby Brissett?: “I like to sleep at night (laughs). I had a long visit with him yesterday. He is a special, special teammate. This is what I told Jacoby: ‘I’m not giving you away. I won’t do it.’ I had chances last year and I didn’t do it, and I won’t do it again. It would have to be right for the organization and for him. It would take somebody doing something that would blow me away, and it has to be the right thing for the kid, too. I’m not just sending him anywhere.’’
- When did he first realize Andrew Luck had made it all the way back?: “It was the Houston game (week 4). I knew it was going to take some time. He hadn’t played. He had to play the game again. He was in a new offense, new players. He had to play the game.
“I felt like the second half of the Houston game there was some ‘wow’ moments with Andrew. You saw flashes of it before that, but . . . that second half when he brought us back, that’s when I thought you really saw him come back.’’
- When did he believe Frank Reich was the real deal?: “During the interview, I told y’all. About 30 minutes into it, I’m thinking, ‘What a moron. I mean, Chris, what an idiot. How did you not (interview him originally)?’ I mean, he was that good in the interview . . . it was special.
“It was the Houston game. It was the overtime, the go-for-it moment. I’ll never forget, sitting up in the box, I said, ‘Well, one thing about Frank (is) he’s got conviction. He’s going to rip it.’ Then he’s in the press conference with all of you, and he owns it. ‘This is what I stand for, it’s what we’re going to do.’ I knew from that point on, he had the locker room, he had them.’’
- Might the Colts be active in free agency?: “We’re going to explore every avenue to acquire players. I guess I disagree with everyone who says we are not aggressive in free agency. We put a value on a player. When it gets out of our reach, I just think we are comfortable enough to sleep at night saying that we are going to find an answer. Sometimes it might not be the household name that everybody wants us to sign and that’s OK, I get it. But we are going to find an answer.’’
- Is Indy a franchise attractive to free agents?: “Do I think we’re an attractive place? Absolutely I do. Do I think the health of Andrew, the success of the team and the presence of Frank Reich, do I think those are all going to be encouraging factors to be a more possible attractive destination? Absolutely I do.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.