When I think about the Colts, I can’t help but think just how many times they’ve overlapped or crossed paths with the Bears over the last few years. I asked Chris Blystone over at Stampede Blue to give the Colts perspective on these moves and he has come through with great answers. Get ready for a good one on Sunday as the Colts make their way to Soldier Field.
Windy City Gridiron: The Bears and Colts are tied together by more than just Super Bowl XLI. When the Bears hired General Manager Ryan Pace in 2015, the front runner candidate was Chris Ballard, current Colts GM. The Colts hired Ballard in 2017 to replace the oft-maligned Ryan Grigson. What’s Ballard’s team building philosophy since he took over and are the Colts headed in the right direction?
Stampede Blue: The hiring of Chris Ballard as the Colts GM is, in my own opinion, the most significantly positive thing to happen to the Indianapolis Colts since the drafting of Peyton Manning. That might seem a bit crazy for a team that has gone 23-27 in the three years since Ballard’s hiring. I think there are reasons to believe it is the truth, however.
Ballard has brought a vision to the organization that hasn’t existed in the time I’ve been a Colts fan. He has brought a kind of culture and unity to the team that is inspiring from a fan perspective, and with the hiring of Frank Reich, is in lockstep in terms of how they operate the organization. Despite being without Andrew Luck for 2 of his first 3 years in the job, the team hasn’t deviated from their planned pathway.
They’ve spent carefully, brought in players intentionally, and unearthed talented unknowns like Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore while adding known quantities to the team like Justin Houston and now DeForest Buckner. He believes in building through the trenches, and took a team that perennially had offensive line problems and transformed that line into one of the best in the league, essentially overnight.
While all successful Colts teams I’ve watched in my lifetime have been heavily reliant on the quarterback position, Chris Ballard has steadily built a team that doesn’t need the quarterback to carry them. There are still some areas that could use improvement, but this is a team on the rise, and Ballard’s steady leadership is why.
WCG: One of the first big Ballard decisions came in 2018, when he fired Chuck Pagano, current Bears Defensive Coordinator, and hired Frank Reich. The rumors at the time had the Colts in pursuit of Matt Nagy, who ultimately chose Chicago, and then a deal with Josh McDaniels, who got cold feet and stayed in New England. Reich, fresh off a Super Bowl with the Eagles, became a “consolation” prize. What’s been Reich’s philosophy so far in his tenure and was he ultimately the right hire for the Colts?
SB: Frank Reich is a perfect fit with the Colts organization as they are now. He is a leader of men, and does a good job of integrating old school ideas with new school thinking. “Run the damn ball” has been the mantra of this team since last year, and is not likely to change any time soon. However, Frank will also make changes to the game plan as needed to best match up with opponents. He doesn’t subscribe to the “impose our will” style of coaching that Pagano did, which is a nice change. For example, Reich embraces analytics, and has frequently shown that he’ll go for it when the numbers say it makes sense. The Colts have gone for it on 5 4th downs this season already.
His unorthodox coaching style helped the offensive line along early as well, because when Reich took over, he changed how they hold their protection meetings. He meets with essentially the whole offense to discuss protections as a unit, something most offensive players admitted was new to them. As the head coach and the guy calling the plays on offense, he makes sure everyone is on the same page with their protections, and that impact was immediate.
A shortfall for Reich so far this season has been in scheming up solid red zone opportunities. He has been very good in prior years with making that work, so that may be as a result of the disjointed off-season, but one of Reich’s best qualities is putting defenders in no-win situations that isolate talented offensive players and let them make plays.
WCG: In the 2018 draft, the Colts were connected to Bears Roquan Smith throughout the process but ultimately chose standout Guard Quenton Nelson from Notre Dame, a prospect the Bears were connected to that off-season. The Colts then got their inside linebacker in the second round with Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard while the Bears addressed the interior offensive line with James Daniels. How have Ballard’s drafts gone other than those noteworthy selections? What’s been his overall philosophy?
SB: Overwhelmingly Ballard has been a build through the trenches guy. He’s invested heavily in both lines, and believes strongly in sticking to their board. His 2018 draft has been his flashiest, because in addition to drafting Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard, he picked up starting right tackle Braden Smith as well as running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, both of whom get used in rotation.
On the whole, there remain a lot of questions about Ballard’s draft picks. Other players from that class like defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis have flashed real potential but have been hampered by injury, while some have washed out and aren’t major factors.
Ballard’s first pick as a GM was safety Malik Hooker. The Colts passed on his 5th year option this off-season, and Hooker tore his Achilles and is out for the season. That miss hurt, and it is an underwhelming early draft class, although it also includes starting running back Marlon Mack (also out with a torn Achilles) and starting MIKE linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.
His 2019 class is underrated, with cornerback Rock Ya-Sin taking over as the top corner this season and safety Khari Willis starting as well. Even linebacker Bobby Okereke has seen his snaps steadily climbing, and as a run stopping presence, is a name you’ll likely see on the field Sunday. Wide Receiver Parris Campbell also looked solid from that class, but suffered an MCL injury that has sidelined him.
The jury is obviously still out on many, but Ballard has provided good, if not great upgrades at multiple positions through the draft, as well as filling out depth. With the selection of two All-Pros to top it off, it is really tough to complain.
WCG: The Bears and Colts both waded into the veteran QB market this off-season, with the Colts acquiring longtime Chargers trigger-man Philip Rivers in free agency. Rivers played under Reich in San Diego for two years when Reich served as Offensive Coordinator. Has that connection between Reich and Rivers allowed the veteran QB to hit the ground running and how does Rivers fit with the offensive personnel around him?
SB: Absolutely. In a year where some level of familiarity has been immensely helpful, Rivers has come in and seemed to have full command of the offense from the word go. He’s built a great rapport with the receivers, and his fit with Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni is perfect. They all know one another well and have been able to scheme things up accordingly. Rivers has taken a lot of grief for being careless with the football, but apart from a rocky week one performance where he threw some questionable passes, he has looked great. In fact, if veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton had not uncharacteristically dropped 3 passes early in the season, I think it would be likely that the word on Rivers would be very different at this point.
WCG: The Bears and Colts only play in the regular season once every four years with the modern schedule. When these teams next meet up, will the Ballard-Reich regime still be around? Will the Colts be perennial playoff contenders or are they taking a shot now at the expense of a rebuild in the near future?
SB: Based on what we’ve seen over the past three years, I think that’s very likely. Teams that have a cohesive vision for what they want to be and that have the kind of openness and understanding among their staff seem to flourish, and this team has built a strong core of young players that have the mentality this front office wants.
The biggest question they’ll face is in terms of the future at quarterback. That’s no small feat, as Chicago fans will know well. Whether Chris Ballard can deliver a future franchise passer may be the defining note of his career, because without a franchise talent at quarterback, it is really tough to win a championship, no matter how good the rest of your roster is.
They are in a position with Rivers to think in terms of winning now, but the future remains far more uncertain.
Thanks again to Chris and Stampede Blue for all the great information!