- Indianapolis Colts’ owner Jim Irsay has wasted no time in addressing the team’s late season implosion.
- The Colts failed to make the playoffs due to back to back losses at home against Las Vegas and at Jacksonville.
- Irsay met with coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard immediately upon their return from Jacksonville on Sunday night.
For most of the 2021 NFL season it looked like the Indianapolis Colts were all but certain to make the playoffs. The Colts stumbled out of the gate, starting 0-3 but quickly found their footing winning 7 of their next 10. On Christmas Day, the Colts stood at 9-6 needing only to win one of their next two games to clinch a playoff spot. The schedule also worked in their favor with a home game against the Las Vegas Raiders followed by a road game against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
Unfortunately, the Colts failed to make the playoffs for the fifth time in the past seven seasons after losing both games. They held a 4 point lead against Las Vegas heading into the fourth quarter at home on January 4 only to lose 23-20 on a Daniel Carlson 33 yard field goal with no time remaining. A tough loss against a playoff bound Raiders team is one thing, their season ending domination at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars quite another. The Colts were humiliated by the worst team in the league, falling behind 26-3 en route to a 26-11 defeat as -14 point road favorites. Jacksonville controlled the game statistically but settled for four field goals to go along with two Trevor Lawrence touchdown passes. The game was nowhere near as close as the final score would suggest.
As you’d expect, Colts’ owners Jim Irsay wasn’t happy at all with his team’s late season collapse. He dragged head coach Frank Reich and GM Chris Ballard into his office for a sit-down immediately upon their return from Jacksonville on Sunday night. He felt a clear sense of urgency after the Colts became the first team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to face a ‘win and you’re in the playoffs’ situation in the final game of the season only to lose to an opponent with the worst record in the league. Head coach Reich was at home chilling out after the trip from Jacksonville when he was summoned into Irsay’s office:
“When we got back, he wanted to meet with Chris and I. So, we came back over here to the building last night and met with Mr. Irsay for a couple of hours just reflecting on the game, on the season.’’
That must have been a pleasant drive from home to Irsay’s office, no doubt contemplating whether or not he’d still be employeed on the drive home. As it turns out, Irsay is retaining both Reich and Ballard–but he’s not happy and wants changes. Here’s the owner’s account of the unusual Sunday night meeting:
“I don’t like meetings after games. Almost never do them after road games because everyone’s tired. You get home and everyone’s tired and disappointed.”
“But it was important that we talked, and we had a thorough conversation so we could realize what direction we need to start charting the course for the next year.’’
“It’s clear that we did not have the right stuff. We were not able to perform at the level we were certainly capable of performing to.”
“Look, I thought it was important that we meet immediately because of the gravity of what transpired – us being left out of the playoffs and losing in games when we were 8½- point favorites (against the Raiders) and 15-point favorites on the road (against the Jaguars).”
“That’s unacceptable. In Jacksonville, we weren’t even competitive.’’
Obviously, the lines in both of the games Irsay mentions were heavily ‘shaded’ toward Indianapolis due to the ‘win and you’re in’ situation and resulting public perception. His point is well taken, however, and he clearly articulated to his coach and GM that change is necessary:
“One thing that’s clear is changes need to be made. And they will be made. We also realize we have to do it cautiously and with a thorough evaluation and full discussion in a calm environment.”
“It’s not an emotional thing at all. It’s about evaluating the whole program and clearly changes need to be made.’’
From the outset, Irsay made clear that he wants Reich and Ballard to be the catalysts of change, not the scapegoats for failure:
“As an owner, I can say I have the utmost faith in Frank and Chris. Those two guys are excellent and I hope one day they can follow the path of Bill Polian and Tony Dungy, who I hired and became Hall of Famers.”
Smart move by Irsay–and not just because both men are under contract through the 2026 season meaning that he’d be on the hook for a lot of money if he did send them packing. By removing any concern over the future of his coach and GM they can relax a bit and deliberately work to fix the problem. That’s more likely to yield results than desperate actions by Reich and/or Ballard hoping to make progress before the owner lowers the boom. More context about the nature and tone of the Sunday meeting from Irsay suggests this was not lost on him:
“The comment was ‘They are viewed as the most dangerous team going into the playoffs. Nobody wants to play them.’ You heard that. But now you don’t have to face them.’’
“I thought it was very important for Chris and Frank and I to meet. We talked about the future because timing and other things are important. We had a calm and thorough discussion, but based on the whole season.”
“It was very calm. It’s like, ‘Hey, Jacksonville’s tough. We’re all hurting from it. But we’re professionals.’ We had to put that aside and say calmly – very calmly and with intelligence and prudence and temperament – ‘How do we look at things and how do we evaluate things?’
“It’s not about being angry or whatever, and all of those things are there. It’s about evaluating the whole program.’’
This evaluation is still in progress but Reich did offer this assessment:
“We got to be better in the passing game. I would say that anyways, but I just think it was definitely below our standards, and there’s multiple reasons for that. We have to take ownership of that as coaches and players.”
That’s what you would expect a coach who was a heady quarterback during his playing career but in this case that part of the problem is valid and clearly apparent. Starting quarterback Carson Wentz was erratic all season and largely ineffective in the second half. His refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccination and two trips into the league’s health and safety protocol as a result is a bad look in this situation even if it *didn’t* directly lead to the team’s downfall. A lot of interdependent factors to consider as the offseason progresses but the Colts might very well have a chance to upgrade their starting quarterback.
Irsay’s next move was to reassure a seething Colts fan base. More on that in a subsequent article.