The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jeff Saturday started his NFL audition with a Colts win. Now, reality sets in.

Jeff Saturday walks on the Colts' sideline during Sunday's loss to the Eagles in Indianapolis. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
6 min

INDIANAPOLIS — It has been two games since Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay incurred the wrath of so many by going outside not only his own organization but the entire coaching profession to choose his team’s interim coach. Yet there are no firm conclusions to be drawn about how Jeff Saturday will fare after such an unusual hire, coming in the middle of a disappointing season and with Saturday holding no coaching experience above the high school level.

Saturday’s team followed a victory in Las Vegas with a narrow loss here Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the NFL’s top teams, in the coach’s first home game. Saturday inherited a below-.500 team and has gone, to this point, .500 with it. There have been no major coaching blunders, no glaring deficiencies. But an opportunity for an eye-catching triumph and a 2-0 start slipped away Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“It’s a tough one to swallow,” quarterback Matt Ryan said after the 17-16 defeat to the Eagles. “Make no mistake, they’re a good football team, and they’re playing very well all year. I thought we had a good idea of what we needed to do in order to win. We did a lot of really good things. But we made too many mistakes along the way. And, yeah, that one feels like we let it get away.”

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Even after such a dispiriting loss, pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue expressed strong support for Saturday in the Colts’ locker room.

“The mind-set and the vibe in the locker room is the same,” Ngakoue said. “I love Coach Saturday. He has great energy. He’s genuine. And he’s been in these lockers, and he’s been through adversity just like how we’ve been. So I’m happy and ecstatic to be led by a guy like that.”

That is in sharp contrast to so much of what was said about Saturday, the former all-pro center for the Colts who had been an NFL studio analyst for ESPN, after Irsay appointed him to replace Frank Reich following a 3-5-1 start. Bill Cowher, the retired Super Bowl-winning coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, called the move “a disgrace to the coaching profession” on the CBS studio show. Former Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas said on NFL Network that Irsay hired his “drinking buddy.”

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works closely with the NFL on its minority hiring, announced last week that it had initiated an inquiry with the league into whether this process conformed with the league’s hiring guidelines for interim coaches. Irsay and the NFL have said the league’s minority interviewing requirements do not apply to in-season interim coaching hires, but the Colts must comply with those rules when they hire a full-time head coach.

Saturday acknowledged he had been stunned to receive Irsay’s call but said he was confident in his leadership abilities. Irsay said he had no doubt he had made the right move. The criticism and derision calmed down, at least temporarily, after the 25-20 win over the Raiders.

But the Colts could not quite double down Sunday, squandering leads of 13-3 entering the fourth quarter and 16-10 in the final two minutes. The Eagles moved in front with a seven-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jalen Hurts with 1:20 remaining and held on to improve their league-best record to 9-1.

Saturday called it a “disappointing loss, obviously,” and added: “Just too many mistakes — too many penalties, too many negative plays, missing kicks. You can’t play a team that good and give them that many opportunities. We just left them in the game, and ultimately they made one more play than we did.”

Colts center Ryan Kelly said in the locker room: “It stings. We’ve just got to eliminate penalties and stop shooting ourselves in the foot. … We could all do better at times. It just sucks. We knew we were so close to having a chance to win that game. Games are ultimately lost, not won, in the NFL.”

This, Kelly said, was one of those games that were lost.

“I give them credit,” he said of the Eagles. “They’re a good defense, a good team. But we probably should have won that game.”

Saturday’s most notable moves have been to make Parks Frazier, the assistant quarterbacks coach under Reich who turned 31 on Sunday, his play caller and to reinstall Ryan as the starter. Reich had gone to Sam Ehlinger and had said the youngster would remain the starter for the rest of the season.

And though he wanted a proven player and former league MVP as his quarterback, Saturday showed patience for younger players following Sunday’s defeat when he said of a few inexperienced starters along the offensive line: “We’ve just got to continue to teach them. … You’ve got to grin and bear it with some of that, just because of the age of the players and how little they’ve actually played. Those are just details we’ve got to continue to fine-tune.”

The Colts had an impressive touchdown drive, featuring 49 rushing yards from tailback Jonathan Taylor, on their opening possession against the Eagles. But they didn’t reach the end zone again, merely kicking three field goals. They were competitive, for sure. But their gaffes made them look very much like a 4-6-1 team that is on only the outskirts of the AFC playoff race.

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“It’s not one thing,” Ryan said. “Throughout the course of the year, we’ve all taken our turns. We just have to execute. It’s boring, but we have to execute better than we have. It’s like the devil is in the details. It’s over and over and over and over. … When you’re playing against really good football teams, the margin for error is small. We showed you can go toe-to-toe with them. But you can’t make the mistakes that we made today and expect to win.”

The Colts will have to conduct a full coaching search at season’s end. Saturday said just after being hired that he realized, like virtually everyone else in the league, he was auditioning not only for the Colts but also for other teams.

“I think Jeff has done a great job,” Ryan said. “It’s not an easy situation to come into. Obviously we all love Frank. I was around him for a short amount of time, but I’ve got a lot of respect for Frank. But I think given the circumstances, Jeff’s done a great job coming in here. I also say the rest of the [coaching] staff has stepped up and done a lot of really good things. … Across the board, I think our staff has done well.”