Mailbag: McAfee, Ballard, and Stealing Signals


Hello, Colts fans. It’s been an interesting last few weeks for the team. We’ve had Chuck Pagano at a hastily arranged, weird press conference the day after the season that ended with Pagano getting aggravated and a certain reporter becoming one of my all-time favorites as a result. We’ve had – depending upon if you want to believe it  – Jim Irsay going strangely quiet for what seemed like months while also apparently attempting to lure Peyton Manning (yay!) and Jon Gruden (nay!) into the organization. We’ve had Ryan Grigson shown the door (Thank God) in favor of Chris Ballard, and D’Qwell Jackson shown a pink slip (Thank God). A lot more has happened than what many of us would’ve predicted when the team’s season ended.

For some reason, though, several of you wanted to talk about some punter instead.

Let’s do it…

Q: I’m still feeling depressed by McAfee’s retirement. Any tips for beating these blues? – Amy Louise via Facebook

Everyone handles these things differently, but whenever I’m down music is usually my go to fix. I’ll fire up the iTunes and look around my library until something jumps out at me. It usually doesn’t take long before I’m good again. If this method doesn’t work, we can always hold one of those vigils at Pat’s house like they did outside momma’s hospital room in “The Waterboy.” Maybe that will convince him to keep playing.

Q: Special teams have been special with Pat McAfee. Who is out there to replace his impeccable punts? – Steve via Twitter

Q: FA or draft to replace the Boomstick? – Kimberly via Facebook

Q: Is there a good kicker out there to replace him (McAfee)? – Marta via Facebook

I hate that these questions are so similar. It’s certainly not the fault of those who take the time to respond to our requests for questions. I just like to give everyone their own piece of the spotlight (?), and similar questions make me feel like I’m not.

I’d forgotten all about it until McAfee’s surprise retirement, but get this: His replacement may already be on the roster. His name is Devon Bell, and the team quietly signed him on January 6th. I’ll steal from his official team bio to share a few things. Bell played his college ball for Mississippi State, where he handled all aspects of the kicking game – field goals, punts, kickoffs – at various times. He’s 6’2″ and about 200 pounds. He went undrafted, but was signed by the Lions in June of 2016. He stayed with the Lions throughout the preseason before getting cut on August 29th. From what I can tell, Bell attempted no kicks of any kind for the Lions, which means he was in camp to take practice reps in order to keep the legs of kicker Matt Prater and punter Sam Martin fresh. No doubt the Colts signed him for this same purpose, but with McAfee now gone Bell may get a legitimate shot to replace him.

If you’re interested in watching, I found this:

I can’t believe I just posted a video of a punter/kickoff specialist.

No matter what, there’s little doubt Bell will have plenty of competition. With all of the holes to fill on the roster I’d be surprised if the team spends a draft choice on a kicker, though it’s possible they could spend a very late round pick on one. There will be plenty of undrafted guys available, plus some veteran free agents as well. We’ll see.

I’m always amused when I see various experts say things like “kickers aren’t players.” This type of thinking is absurd. No, these guys aren’t out there taking a beating like every down players are – which they will freely admit – but to say they don’t matter is just insane. Think of the Colts’ defenses the last couple of years. 2016’s was statistically the worst in team history (Baltimore or Indy). Now imagine if they didn’t have a punter who got good hang time and could pin a team deep. Then imagine if they didn’t have a kickoff specialist who could consistently get touchbacks. Yikes. Pat McAfee was not just a player, he was a weapon. He leaves behind some big cleats to fill.

Q: True or false, Patty Mac is retiring to focus on his swimming career? – Stan via Facebook

That’s a big false right there. $0.05 of free advice for everyone: Whether you run into him in public or on social media, your best bet is to steer clear of any swimming jokes with McAfee. If I had a dollar for each time I’ve seen him eviscerate someone with a swimming joke who thought they were funny and original I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d definitely be able to buy something nice and expensive. Pat screwed up. More importantly, he owned it and grew from it.

That said, part of me is really disappointed the Summer Olympics were last year rather than this. In thinking about his new gig, I can totally see Pat doing a skit with Lilly King or critiquing Katie Ledecky’s swim form by comparing it to his own. I can’t even begin to think what he would’ve come up with about Ryan Lochte. Alas, none of this will happen.

Last week, our talking heads here at CA got together and shared a few thoughts about Pat. Enjoy.

I still believe he’ll be back playing with balls in the NFL at some point.

Q: How do you feel about Ballard? Do you agree that they should keep Pagano or should Ballard sign his own coach? – Nick via Facebook

I was super excited when they hired Ballard. There were some very talented candidates who interviewed to replace Grigson, and Ballard beat them all. Initially when he was hired there were two things that made me think this was a good move by Irsay: 1) The word around the NFL was unanimous about this being a good hire. This is not a shot at Ryan Grigson, but I don’t recall anything like that when he was hired. 2) Chiefs fans were coming out and saying what a big loss this was for their franchise. As someone who doesn’t work in the NFL, in some ways hearing the fans speak so well of Ballard means more to me than anything his peers have said.

To give you an idea of how excited I was about this hire, I rearranged my work schedule to make sure I could watch his first press conference. When he started speaking my first thought was “wait, did they get this guy from the hills of eastern Kentucky?” He has a bit of an accent. Once I got past that, he endured himself to me pretty quickly. For one, he flat out said “I will make mistakes.” You have to love that. Two, he spoke of using analytic stats. It’s 2017. Analytics matter. A lot. People who don’t believe in analytics end up saying ridiculous things like “Blake Bortles is a good QB.” Three, he spoke of building through the draft rather than free agency. I didn’t go back and listen to the presser again, but he said something along the lines of “trying to build through free agency doesn’t work.” Whether intentional or not, this was a shot fired at Ryan Grigson. Four, he has a kid named Cash. Need I say more? By the time Ballard was finished that day, he had my tired old bones ready to suit up and get out there. This leads me to what I didn’t really like…

After the presser was over and I came down from my Ballard high, I realized he speaks like a management version of Chuck Pagano. No matter what one thinks of Pagano as a coach, no one can argue his brilliance as a speaker. There were a few instances where Ballard struck me as a bit too much like Pagano. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see why Irsay fell in love with him. Does it matter? Only time will tell.

Ballard has played, coached, scouted, and worked in player personnel, but this is his first GM job. There were rumors floating around that he wanted the job, but also wanted his own guy as head coach. Despite his credentials, his lack of GM experience meant he had little to no leverage when it came to negotiating with Irsay (remember, there were several talented candidates who also wanted this job). I asked several members of the Indy media to press Ballard on whether Pagano being retained was his call or Irsay’s, and was disappointed when none of them did. I was disappointed when Ballard called Pagano “a great football coach.” Maybe Ballard is just a really smart guy who was giving a head coach he was given no option on keeping a public vote of confidence. I’m thinking Pagano has been given a one year reprieve. We’re probably not going to find out until 2018.

I do love this hire, but I stress, beg, and plead for patience from fans. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will the Colts be rebuilt in a day.

Q: Can you address the recent rumors Terrell Owens wants to play for Indianapolis. And while we’re at it, the Tweets from Ocho Cinco about getting in on the action. – Matt via Facebook

Alright Matt, have you been in the tomato plants again? This is insane. We just had a punter retire to do comedy. The last thing we’d need are these two clowns.

I will take this moment to speak about Owens missing out on the Hall of Fame again. Statistically, you can’t deny him the honor. The problem he faces is this: When you spend your entire career with “me first” in mind, the voters are going to remember it. When you seemingly intentionally create drama, the voters will remember. Hall of Fame QB Dan Fouts was on a radio show recently and mentioned one of the things he spearheaded for the voting process this year was a poll among guys who are in the Hall about who the next inductees should be. According to the poll of guys who would be his peers, Owens wasn’t deemed ready.

I’ll also say this: The Hall’s process is archaic. It’s 2017. No more of this closed door stuff. The NFL voters needs to do like MLB has done and make ballots public.

Q: What are the chances of Colts getting (Melvin) Ingram and (Eric) Berry? Thoughts on Tim Williams? – Marcus W. via Twitter

Good questions. Ballard is still an unknown to us, so any answers here are even more guesswork than usual. I just can’t say with any certainty how aggressive he’s going to be. He’s definitely inspired new confidence in Colts fans. Were Grigson still on the job I’m not sure anyone could’ve asked about Eric Berry with a straight face.

Ingram, 27, has spent his entire career with the Chargers. He’s technically an OLB, but his versatility has lead the Chargers to move him around so much he’s basically played everywhere except popcorn vendor. Pro Football Focus ranked him 47th in their recent list of the top 101 NFL players. They also rated him as the 7th best pass rusher. The last two seasons he’s averaged 63 tackles, 9 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. There’s no question the Colts are in dire need of pass rushers, but Ingram brings so much more than that. In fact, what I like best about him is his ability to play the pass. Having a LB who can defend the pass is such a foreign concept to us Colts fans right now it’s hard to believe these guys really exist. Ingram will have a lot of suitors, and someone is going to have to overpay to get him. Aside from QB, a pass rusher is probably the one other spot you overpay for. On paper he’s a good fit for the Colts, and remember, Chris Ballard is very familiar with him from the AFC West. We’ll find out really quickly how highly Ballard thinks of him, and I think the Colts will at least kick the tires. There’s the possibility he never hits the open market due to the franchise tag, but from what I could find the Chargers haven’t used the tag since 2011. I’ll be happy if the Colts land him.

Berry, 28, is the type of big play talent that makes me foam at the mouth (sorry for this visual). He came in at 57 on PFF’s top 101 player list, and was rated 5th best Safety. As much as I’d love to see him in Colts blue, this is something I just don’t see happening. I can’t see the Chiefs letting him hit free agency. I would be really surprised if he doesn’t receive the franchise tag even though he said last week he “definitely” would not play under it in 2017. The Chiefs have done a pretty good job of retaining free agents they’ve really wanted to keep, and I expect they will get Berry signed to a long term deal. You never know, though. Berry could be serious about not playing under the tag, and we could end up with another Josh Norman situation. If that happens, expect a price tag around $14-15 million a year. Again, Ballard’s familiarity with him could be a wildcard.

Speaking of free agency, I’ll say something about Ryan Grigson for hopefully the last time: He made a lot of moves that didn’t pan out, but one thing he did do a pretty good job of was managing the salary cap. His ability to do so is the main reason why the team has so much cap space now. Thanks Ryan.

One final note on the franchise tag: February 15th marks the beginning of the two week period teams have to tag a player. Most of the teams who plan to use it will probably do so quickly, so we’ll learn more about Berry’s situation soon.

Now, Tim Williams. If you’re unfamiliar with him, Williams is a 6’3″ 240-ish pound (roughly the size of Erik Walden) defensive end from the University of Alabama whose speed and quickness make him one of the top rated pass rushers in this year’s draft. Not only does he fill a need for the Colts, it’s likely he’ll be available when they pick. So, what’s the problem? I’m glad you asked. Williams hasn’t been an every down player at Alabama, which has to be some kind of first for a guy some consider a top 10 pick. Some may write this off as just a byproduct of playing for a program with tons of talent on defense, but it appears to go beyond that. How far beyond that?

This is what Charlie Campbell of Walter Football wrote about him:

In the scouting community Williams is a consensus first-round talent, however team sources believe that Williams could easily slip to the second day of the draft. The reason for that is many failed drug tests, and some team sources have said that Williams substance abuse issues are very serious in the realm of Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory.

Gregory was one of the top physical talents for the 2015 NFL Draft, but he fell to the second round because of drug problems and repeated failed tests. Sources say that Williams’ issues with marijuana are comparable to Gregory. Three different team contacts all said Williams problems were similar in their severity to Gregory. In late September, Williams had an arrest for carrying a pistol without a permit. Alabama suspended him for the first half of the game against Kentucky as a result, but he was fortunate to avoid other suspensions, as sources say he failed many drug tests. That leads teams to have concerns that he will land repeated suspensions in the NFL like Gregory.

Is this true? I have no idea, but I’m also not sure it really matters. What I mean is, once something like this gets out, it doesn’t go away easily. Fortunately for Williams, the draft isn’t until April, so he has plenty of time to “repair his image.” Every year in the draft a projected high pick slips for one reason or another. In last year’s draft it was Laremy Tunsil from Ole Miss. Just minutes before the draft, Tunsil’s Twitter account sent out a picture of him smoking weed. The fallout was immediate. ESPN jumped right on the story, and Tunsil – a possible top 5 pick – fell to the 13th spot. You might be thinking falling from top 5 to 13th isn’t bad, but this cost Tunsil about $3 million over the life of his rookie contract. As it turns out, Tunsil was the victim of internet blackmail by his stepfather. To his credit, he went on ESPN and fessed up. Not only did he admit it was him in the picture – if you didn’t see it, the subject was smoking while wearing a gas mask, so identity was not clear – he also said he took money from someone connected with Ole Miss football. For some reason, ESPN let that part go. Also to his credit, Tunsil played really well as a rookie and was a model citizen.

Let’s swing this back to Chris Ballard before I move on: When he was with the Chiefs, they drafted Marcus Peters, Tyreek Hill, and KeiVarae Russell. Each of these guys had issues off the field. Again, Ballard is still an unknown to us – nor was he the final decision maker in KC – but this kind of thing could indicate he may be willing to take a chance on a guy like Williams.

Q: Cutting Jackson: Sign of faith in E. Jackson/Morrison getting ’17 chances or of a solid FA/draft target for Ballard? – JR via Twitter

First things first: Cutting D’Qwell Jackson was a statement to everyone on the roster. A necessary statement. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say if the other guy is still GM, D’Qwell’s also still a Colt this upcoming season. Robert Mathis brought up a good point in his last show with Query & Schultz: “The moment you walk in that door, they’re trying to replace you.” He’s right, and this is something that applies to everyone on the current roster not named Luck, Hilton, or Vinatieri.

There are just so many unknowns right now. We don’t know Ballard yet. Though he’s stated his intention to build through the draft, they do have a lot of cap space to chase a free agent ILB like a Malcolm Smith (Raiders), or a Sean Spence (Titans), or a Zach Brown (Bills). Are they going to spend it or try to stow away some for 2018? We don’t know. This year’s draft also will offer some possibilities. Depending upon who you read, Alabama’s Reuben Foster could be there for the Colts not only when they pick in the 1st round but perhaps the 2nd. Same for Wisconsin’s TJ Watt (Yes, JJ’s brother), although many believe his skill set will make him an OLB/Edge guy in the NFL.

There’s a legitimate possibility that the Colts’ starting LB core could be this:

OLB/Edge: Melvin Ingram

ILB: Edwin Jackson

ILB: Reuben Foster

OLB: TJ Watt

I am not saying it WILL happen, but as of this moment it appears guys like Ingram, Foster, and Watt have a real possibility of being there for the Colts. The key phrase is “as of this moment.” When it comes to the college guys, the combine and pro day performances can change everything. Who knows, Foster or Watt could wow the scouts and the next thing you know they’re off the board by the time the Colts pick. We’ll have to wait.

Some of you may be asking “what about Erik Walden?” If you can land Ingram, you let Walden walk without giving it a second thought.

What I don’t want to see is both Jackson and Morrison as the starters at ILB. I’m a Jackson fan. He’s faster, and while not great, is better at pass coverage than Morrison. If Morrison can get there he’ll probably bring you down, but his lack of speed makes him a liability more often than not. Maybe more experience will help him play the angles better so he arrives to the ball quicker, but right now give me Jackson instead.

Another thing to consider is this: Ballard’s also publicly expressed his desire to get bigger and tougher on both the offensive and defensive lines. There just so happens to be a big, tough guy Ballard’s very familiar with who’s set to be a free agent: Chiefs NT Dontari Poe. Poe is a game wrecker, and will be a game changer if the Colts land him. As with Melvin Ingram, Poe will have no shortage of suitors, but Ballard could be the wildcard. I think Kendall Langford probably has another good season in him. It took him longer than what we’d have liked, but by the end of the season Henry Anderson finally looked recovered from his torn ACL. He was quick, like the Henry of 2015.

So, your front seven could be this next season:

DE: Kendall Langford

NT: Dontari Poe

DE: Henry Anderson

OLB/Edge: Melvin Ingram

ILB: Edwin Jackson

ILB: Reuben Foster

OLB: TJ Watt

Again, that’s “COULD.” In 100 point font. But this scenario could play out.

Let’s move on before everyone dies of happiness or something.

Q: What are your thoughts on Deion Sanders accusing the Colts of stealing signals? – Jodi via text

In case you missed it, last week Pro Football Talk ran this response from Sanders after his NFL Network colleague LaDainian Tomlinson mentioned on air that the Patriots’ Super Bowl legacy would have an asterisk next to it due to the whole “Spygate” stuff:

“Those same critics, did they say anything about the wins that the Indianapolis Colts had? You want to talk about that too? Because they were getting everybody’s signals,” Sanders said. “Come on, you don’t walk up to the line and look over here and the man on the sideline giving you the defense that they’ve stolen the plays of. We all knew. L.T. knew. Everybody in the NFL knew. We just didn’t let the fans know. That was real and that was happening in Indy.”

Sanders didn’t name names, but it’s safe to assume he was talking about the Dungy – Manning era Colts – you know, the teams he couldn’t beat.

PFT followed up on this story by contacting Tony Dungy for a response. Coach did not disappoint. Rather than highlight specific comments, I’ll share this PFT tweet. You can listen to Tony speak or just read his comments. Either way, do it. He shares some good stories.

Dungy is absolutely spot on here. Did the Colts steal signals? Of course, and we don’t need him saying so to know this. Is everyone on every play from scrimmage trying to steal signals? Absolutely. Is everyone trying to steal signals on every pitch of an MLB game? Bet your life on it. The difference is doing so legally rather than illegally. Watching substitutions or hand signals? Legal. Filming hand signals? Illegal. You can’t put it any clearer.

Way back in the intro of this article, I mentioned Jon Gruden. Not only did Gruden win a Super Bowl with Dungy’s players, he did it against his old team…who never changed their signals. Rich Gannon of the Raiders was the league’s MVP that season. He threw 10 interceptions in 618 pass attempts during the regular season, a minuscule 1.6% INT rate. He threw 5 in that Super Bowl. Coincidence? Nope. They knew every play he called.

Deion Sanders? Get over it, son.


Mark your calendars: The NFL Combine will be Feb 28 – Mar 6th. From Mar 7 to 3:59 PM Eastern Mar 9th, teams have exclusive negotiating rights with their players who will be unrestricted free agents. At 4 PM Eastern on Mar 9th, the new league year – and free agency – begins. The NFL draft will be April 27-29th.

See you soon Colts fans.







































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