While the debate rages on publicly about the extent to which Josh McDaniels wronged the Indianapolis Colts by reaching a deal to be their head coach and then backing out Tuesday night, the Colts don’t have much time to participate. They must quickly move on to more pertinent, forward-facing matters. They must clean up the mess left by the McDaniels fiasco, and the only way for them to do that is to find a coach who will help them recapture the on-field success of their not-too-distant past.
“Things work out for a reason,” General Manager Chris Ballard said when he spoke to reporters Wednesday in Indianapolis. “There’s been a lot of instances in this league, maybe not to this extreme, but just because you’re the first choice doesn’t make you the right choice. It’s about getting the right guy.”
Very little has gone the Colts’ way since they lost in lopsided fashion, 45-7, at New England in the AFC championship on Jan. 18, 2015, the game that spawned the Deflategate saga. To that point, the transition from legendary quarterback Peyton Manning to his seemingly worthy successor, Andrew Luck, had been seamless, and the Luck-led Colts appeared to be advancing toward further glory.
But the Colts haven’t had a winning season since, going 8-8 twice and then 4-12 in 2017. Owner Jim Irsay fired general manager Ryan Grigson after the second straight .500 year and then head coach Chuck Pagano when this season ended. Luck missed the entire 2017 season when his return from shoulder surgery did not progress as expected.
Real-life tragedy was added to the football disappointment when Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson and his Uber driver died early Sunday morning on an Indianapolis interstate when a vehicle driven by an allegedly intoxicated man plowed into them on the shoulder of the road.
Ballard said he spent Sunday focused on the families of Jackson and fellow victim Jeffrey Monroe and didn’t watch the Super Bowl. By Tuesday evening, he was in a meeting related to preparations for the NFL draft, he said, when he stepped out to take a call from McDaniels and learned in their approximately five-minute conversation that McDaniels had decided to remain in New England as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator.
“People make decisions,” Ballard said at Wednesday’s news conference. “People tell people ‘No’ every day. … And that’s his prerogative and that’s his choice. And he chose the path he chose not to be an Indianapolis Colt. That’s okay. We’ll move forward.”
McDaniels had reached an agreement to be the head coach of the Colts, who interviewed him twice and waited until after the Patriots’ Super Bowl to make the hiring official, as required by NFL rules. McDaniels began hiring assistant coaches. The Colts announced the deal and scheduled an introductory news conference for Wednesday. Instead, Ballard had to spend Wednesday explaining why McDaniels won’t be the next coach.
There could be consequences for McDaniels. Some within the league say they cannot see any team but the Patriots considering him as a head coaching candidate for the foreseeable future. High-powered agent Bob LaMonte dropped McDaniels as a client, according to a person familiar with the situation. LaMonte represents many coaches and front office executives, including Ballard and Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who is now scheduled to interview Friday with the Colts.
Others in and around the sport excoriated McDaniels on social media. Agent Blake Baratz wrote on Twitter that McDaniels’s move was “inexcusable.”
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy wrote on Twitter that “there is NO excuse big enough to justify this. It’s one thing to go back on your word to an organization. But having assistant coaches leave jobs to go with you then leave them out to dry is indefensible. For COMFORT??”
Not everyone was so incensed. McDaniels broke no NFL rules; the league does not consider such a deal official until a contract is signed. The Colts knew the risks — or should have known the risks — of waiting for a coach involved in the Super Bowl. They could have hired someone else. Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels said he regarded it merely as part of the business of the league, as when a player who is under contract is released.
“I know I’m in the minority, but I’m fine with what Josh McDaniels did,” Rosenfels wrote on Twitter. “The Colts [organization] has been a mess since Peyton [Manning] left. Patriots as solid as it gets. He changed his mind. Oh well. Change the NFL rules then. This was bound to happen at some point.”
Ballard said he never sought an explanation from McDaniels, wanting to know only if McDaniels was in or out. He wants a coach, he said, who is fully committed to the Colts. He isn’t concerned at this point about the timetables of media observers, fans or social-media commenters, he said.
“There’s a lot of good coaches out there,” Ballard said. “There’s a lot of good assistant coaches out there. Everybody gets in panic mode and just starts hiring. I don’t believe in that. … We will get the right leader for this organization. We will get good assistant coaches. And we’re gonna win.”
Ballard generated headlines when he exited Wednesday’s news conference by pronouncing, in obvious reference to the Patriots: “The rivalry is back on.” In truth, the Colts are a long, long way from challenging the dynastic franchise that has appeared in eight of the last 17 Super Bowls.
Ballard and the Colts have scrapped a list of initial head coaching candidates that included Matt Nagy, now the head coach of the Chicago Bears, and Mike Vrabel, since hired as the Tennessee Titans’ head coach. The Colts are scheduled to interview New Orleans Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell, the former interim coach of the Miami Dolphins, Thursday and then Reich, whose Eagles offense excelled in Sunday’s 41-33 win over the Patriots.
Whichever coach the Colts hire, much will depend on whether Luck’s shoulder will heal properly in time for the 2018 season. Ballard said Wednesday that Luck has not progressed to throwing footballs yet but there has been no indication by doctors that further surgery is required.
“At this point, we feel very strongly that Andrew’s in a good place,” Ballard said. “He doesn’t need surgery. … He’s not picked up a football. But he’s throwing balls, working on arm speed. … I’m very confident, he’s very confident, that he’s gonna come back and prove a lot of people wrong.”
Ballard was given generally high marks around the league, it seemed, for his graceful handling of the snub by McDaniels. That won’t matter much, of course, if Luck doesn’t return to being a franchise quarterback and if the coach hired in the aftermath of the McDaniels debacle doesn’t thrive.
“We’ve got work to do,” Ballard said Wednesday. “I’ve not once hid that. We have work to do. And I want somebody that’s 100 percent committed to partnering with us and getting that work done.”
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