On Monday, January 30th, 2017, Chris Ballard was officially introduced to the Indianapolis media as the new General Manager of the Indianapolis Colts. This comes after a search that was widely regarded as a vetting of the cream of the crop in terms of GM candidates with Ballard, Scott Fitterer (Seahawks), Trent Kirchner (Seahawks), George Paton (Vikings-then considered the favorite for the 49ers GM spot), Jimmy Raye III (Colts), and Eliot Wolf (Packers) interviewing.
In just over a week, all six candidates were interviewed and Ballard was called in for a second interview. Apparently the only thing talked about in that second interview was where to sign.
Ballard takes over a team in dire need of a defense, an offense headlined by Andrew Luck, and a lame duck coach whose status is rumored to be “re-evaluated” at the end of the 2017 season. First impressions?
Very green. As all GMs are at some point in their careers.
There’s no question he was the top candidate for the job. A steady stream of praise poured in from around the NFL after the Colts made the announcement on Twitter. Ballard spent 12 years with the Chicago Bears as an area scout and then director of pro scouting in his final season before moving on to Kansas City.
In 2013 he was brought onto the Chiefs’ staff as the director of player personnel and then promoted to director of football operations for his most recent two seasons. Along the way, Ballard earned credit for helping the Chiefs turn a 2-14 team into the number two seed in the playoffs this season and helped draft (most notably) TE Travis Kelce and CB Marcus Peters.
And he didn’t even have Andrew Luck leading his offense.
But even Ballard acknowledges that there’ll be a bit of a learning curve as he approaches his new role—a role many have been touting him for for a while now: “I’m probably not completely ready to be a GM,” Ballard confessed when asked how one knows when they’re ready for a job like this.
“I wasn’t ready to coach Al Harris, who played in the National Football League for 14 years when I coached the secondary. I played receiver in college, the coach put me in, but I figured it out. I wasn’t ready to be an area scout, but I figured it out. I wasn’t ready to be a director of pro personnel, I figured it out. I wasn’t ready to be a director of player personnel, I figured it out. I have enough good people around me that they’re going to help guide be along the way. One of my real strengths is, when I make a mistake, I own it. It’s on me. I don’t ever put the blame off and I’ll never put the blame off.”
Here’s the thing about that statement, it’s truly humble. He knows that Jim Irsay and this franchise are taking a chance on him and he approaches it not with bravado (that a certain prior GM has been accused of), but with youthful enthusiasm.
“Wow, I’m jacked,” he joked to open his press conference. “I haven’t slept in three nights. After the interview I came in and my mind just wouldn’t turn off.”
Well, that’s a good thing since he’ll have to jump right in with the current Colts staff to work on draft/offseason preparations. For now, Ballard is looking at working with the staff that is in place. Making any personnel changes to this staff to bring in his own guys now would be the equivalent of mid-season coaching changes.
The benefit of bringing on a GM like Ballard is that he was already working on draft prep in his previous job and the next few weeks will be spent merely becoming more familiar with the current players and merging his notes with the notes of the in place Colts scouting staff. The next few weeks will decide the direction of the team.
Two key phrases to keep in mind from Ballard on that direction:
-“Defense wins championships.”
An oldie, but a goodie. It’s easy to scoff at the cliché, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Ballard is coming from helping build the Bears defense under Lovie Smith that went to the Super Bowl and the current Chiefs defense that is pretty darn good itself. He knows an offense that can score is already in place. Next.
-“You can’t buy a locker room and you have to be very careful when you enter into free agency. But we’re going to try to acquire as many young players that we can to have a competitive roster.”
That music you just hears was the choir of anti-Ryan Grigson-ers singing out. Could it be that the Colts have a GM that won’t spend a ton of money on high priced, over the hill Free Agents? Sounds like it.
Speaking of Free Agency, Ballard will have to get right into self evaluation as some key Colts will be unrestricted free agents this summer. Most notably (according to Spotrac): OLBs Erik Walden, Trent Cole, and Akeem Ayers, TE Jack Doyle, RBs Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman, S Mike Adams, CB/S Darius Butler, and G Hugh Thornton.
It’s not the worst free agency class to have to work with, none will require huge, cap-eating contracts, and Ballard already has intimate knowledge of all of the Unrestricted Free Agents from his work for the Chiefs, so he should have plenty of room to work if he wants to. The Colts currently sit as the team with the 9th most cap space available to them.
Ballard has a lot of work ahead of him, but he’s not being handed a complete rebuild as most GMs are when they’re handed a team. Despite coming onto the team, he said he doesn’t feel behind at all and repeatedly said that they have time and will “get rolling.”
However, the biggest takeaway from Ballard and his introductory press conference: He’s likable. Of course his prowess as a talent evaluator comes first and Irsay went as far as to say he’s “the best candidate for general manager that has come about so far in the 21st century.” (Yes. Direct quote.) But his relationship with Chuck Pagano is also “essential” (as Ballard himself put it).
“Me and Chuck will make decisions together for the best interest of the Indianapolis Colts,” Ballard asserted, also citing how the Chiefs’ Andy Reid and John Dorsey are “tied at the hip”. That’s a pretty stark change from the rumors and counseling sessions that surrounded Grigson and Pagano. Hopefully a new mind and new mindset will help return the Colts to the playoffs.
“We’re going to make that guy earn his way to be an Indianapolis Colt,” Ballard said of the players they’ll look at for the draft. “He’s going to earn his way.”
Now that sounds a lot better than just saying he’s looking for “Horseshoe guys”.
As a final note, don’t expect this revamp to happen quickly. The Colts could very well rebound almost immediately in terms of wins and losses, but that’s just because Andrew Luck still exists as a human on this planet. All of these thoughts on his drafting, searching for young players, and being cautious in free agency is to say that his history shows he looks for long term pieces, not quick fixes.
So, be mindful when judging Ballard’s early moves: The Colts have a chance for the playoffs every year simply because of Luck. But, for better or worse, the fruits of the new GM’s labor may not truly be seen for another 2 or 3 or 4 years. It’s too soon to tell if it will be worth the wait, but everything he’s shown so far says that he deserves that time.
Some thoughts from around the Twitterverse: