After months of rumors about potential changes to the Colts front office they finally made the decision to part ways with GM Ryan Grigson but, for the moment, retain head coach Chuck Pagano. The move comes after back to back seasons in which the Colts finished 8-8 following a surprise appearance in the 2014 AFC Championship game in which they were routed by the Patriots. During that time the Colts had fallen behind the QB-less Texans in the pecking order of the AFC South and this year looked less promising than the Titans which may have also helped the move come along. Some have said that this could be the most attractive job in the game, so lets look at the Colts, Grigson’s job with them, and where their roster lies today.
When Grigson took over the Colts in 2012 he had a unique opportunity. The team was exposed badly in 2011 as completely non-competitive without Peyton Manning at the helm, falling from a perennial 10+ win team to a 2 win team in the blink of an eye. Grigson would benefit from that season as his taking over as general manager coincided with the opportunity to draft Andrew Luck, generally regarded as the best QB of the last 20 years, with the first overall pick to replace the 36 year old Manning.
Grigson essentially took a do-over on the roster, slashing the roster from 2012-13, including Manning, and going into 2012 with nearly $40 million of dead money. Still he was able to fill many of the holes with young players that he felt meshed better with his vision of the team, making trades and also using some veteran leftovers to fill in the gaps until their contracts expired or they could be cut. He won executive of the year honors when the Colts finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.
Playing in the AFC South was probably a blessing and a curse for the Colts GM. It was, by far, the easiest division in the NFL. The Jaguars and Titans were perennial doormats and the Texans began their own identity crisis in the end of the Matt Schaub era. After that big season the stakes grew higher and with a cakewalk each year to the division crown the pressure would only intensify. Rather than continuing with what was likely intended to be a full rebuild like the Raiders were doing in Oakland, they moved into a supplemental position trying to fill voids with decent free agents around their young draft picks.
In 2013 the Colts became one of the more aggressive teams targeting non-premier talent and I would argue looking like one of the first destinations an agent should call in an attempt to bump prices for the mid level free agents. Names included Gosder Cherius, LaRon Landry, Ricky Jean-Francois, Greg Toler, Donald Thomas, and Erik Walden. Many never worked out for the team.
The boldest move came in September when the Colts decided to trade away a 1st round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Richardson, a highly regarded college running back from the 2012 draft that looked like an NFL bust after just one season. He was slow, didn’t have great vision, and seemed to initiate contact rather than find ways to avoid it. It’s a trap many teams fall into when they love a college player and throw out the negatives at the professional level and blame it on coaching and poor fits, but rarely does that trap include a 1st round pick.
You could probably trace the start of Grigson’s downfall to that year. Their first round pick, Bjoern Werner, in 2013 was already a flop and now in 2014 they would have no first rounder. Their free agent class did little and their decision to fast track their development in just Luck’s second year was probably a mistake. They also traded away Jerry Hughes for peanuts and he became a star in Buffalo. Still they made it further in the playoffs and kind of continued down the mid level free agent path with D’qwell Jackson and an ill fated signing of Arthur Jones.
If there was a rift that occurred between GM and head coach it likely began after that 2014 season. At that point the team was living off the 2012 draft which produced Luck, TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen on offense and the trade for Davis that summer. The two years after just were not productive enough. The veterans weren’t working out and the young players were not developing. Plus, the standout players from 2012, as well as left tackle Anthony Castonzo, were all going to be up for new contracts shortly and that was going to possibly limit their abilities in the future for free agency. The way they approached this potential problem was definitely out of the norm.
It’s very rare in the NFL to see a team with a young QB make the decision to get old, but the Colts did just that. Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Trent Cole, Kendall Langford were the hauls of the offseason. They were moves to basically fix the Richardson, Werner, and Moncrief decisions with players closer to the end of their careers rather than the prime of it. Traditionally you supplement your core in free agency with players in their prime negotiating their 2nd contract not players on their 3rd or 4th deals. In many ways what they did in 2013 was more reasonably suited for 2015 whereas their actual approach in 2015 was something more suited for an older team with a tight salary cap on their last legs just trying to make a desperation play to extend that window one more season.
Every year during Grigson’s tenure, IIRC, the Colts had cap space but never tried to go for a home run, mainly just looking to hit doubles with the large number of mid tier signings. Perhaps they were setting money aside for their young players but when people look back at the free agent decisions its fair to wonder what if the team turned a Johnson, Cole, Langford set of contracts into one potentially dominant player or just a group of younger ones? The fact that most of the doubles were strikeouts only make the question seem more valid.
Grigson made a bizarre statement about his defense earlier this season saying that it was hard to put together a good defense because of all the money they spent to re-sign Luck, a contract he negotiated just a few months earlier. While it is true that the Colts did make Luck the highest paid player in the NFL, his contract was not that far removed from the contracts of other players. Its not the kind of contract that should break a team the way that an Adrian Peterson or Ndamukong Suh contract would where there is a massive gap between the highest paid and top 5 players at the position. He makes a bit more than Drew Brees and Joe Flacco and by this time next year could rank as low as 6th on the payscale. They also could have extended him earlier to make the contract more cap friendly but chose not to do so. Maybe he didn’t want to throw his coach under the bus for not making the most of the pieces they signed on defense, but it was a terrible argument to make for their performance on the field.
There was also a point to be made that Grigson was abandoning the defense in an effort to surround Luck with talented players. From 2012 to 2016 the Colts drafted 10 offensive players in the first three rounds to just 4 defensive players. Maybe the expectation was that the coaching staff should be able to coach up later round defensive picks or use the mish mosh of talent they were targeting in free agency on the defense, but the team was never content with their offensive pieces. Once you make the decision to have a top paid QB, WR, TE, LT, and so on… you have to start to invest resources elsewhere. They continued to draft linemen and receivers. Any way you slice it the roster grew worse not better and that continued this season with both sides perhaps thinking they were being undermined by the others decision making.
It’s hard to look at the state of the team and call this a very desirable job. It’s not a bad job, but I don’t think you can objectively call it a great one. The big positives on the team are Luck, who is one of the better QB’s in the NFL and specifically in the AFC, reasonable cap room, about $50 million which ranks 10th, and the ability to create cap space by cutting players, which ranks around 14th.
But the big negative is that this is a team that has been headed in the wrong direction for some time. The average age of their offensive and defensive players who played in more than 45% of the snaps will be about 28.4, 4th oldest in the NFL, next year. A good group of those players will be free agents but there is very little in the pipeline to replace them. So any incoming GM is likely going to be in a position to have to replace “old” with “slightly less old” which just starts the cycle over.
In terms of young contributors there are few. Just 8 homegrown players still on rookie deals are seeing action in over 45% of the Colts snaps. That ranks 21st in the league. Six of those are on offense with just two on defense. They have the 4th most undrafteds on their roster but none of them have broken through to gain significant playtime.
If the lack of elevation of young players is on the coach that’s all well and good, except it looks like the same coaching staff will be in place coaching up the new young talent that is coming into the team. If the coaching is the problem than the new GM is going to be in the same position as the old one. Thats not an ideal pairing.
The Colts are not a major overhaul like 49ers, Bears, Jets, or a multitude of other teams in the NFL, but it probably will take some time to really get a long term plan in place. Given that this may not be the most patient ownership group in the NFL, you may be saddled with a head coach, and some of your best talent within two years will be nearing 30 Im not sure if a GM will necessarily be able to do what’s best for the long haul if they take the job.
I think there are a good deal of similarities between the Colts current situation and the Falcons run over the last few years. The Falcons turned a bad situation around years ago with the drafting of Matt Ryan, similar to the Colts drafting of Luck. They were also very aggressive with trades (the Julio Jones deal) and some free agent signings and they fast tracked into the playoffs. They also made some of the same mistakes after their run to the conference championship signing a few older players and overvalued mid tier guys to fill gaps and they probably held onto a head coach for too long.
They struggled for three years after that appearance, winning just 18 games in a three year period before launching to the Super Bowl this year. I’m not sure if they have the pieces in place for a long term run but their turnaround was more about drafting well for two years and then supplementing those picks this year in free agency. That’s probably the Colts best way to move forward as well, but Im not sure if they will accept that path.
My guess is the Colts look at this as the boom or bust phase where the team will be aggressive at the top of free agency to fix the defense, likely targeting an expensive cornerback and pass rusher and upgrading up the middle with more moderate cost players. One of the benefits of the lack of young talent on a team is that a GM can get away with that and not really worry as much about the consequences because there are no notable players to re-sign in the next two or three years. That said bad contracts stick out no matter what and if the team doesn’t improve you will likely have problems down the line if ownership can’t accept a true rebuilding phase around Luck.
I think the Colts probably missed their window where that type of approach to free agency may have worked best but you can never discount it. Still their turnaround is going to have to be sparked by drafting well and finding contributors in those first few rounds of the draft. Given that they have made the move so late on a GM I don’t know how well that can work this year since its likely going to be the same scouts and staff in the draft room who haven’t produced the last few years. If the drafting continues to go poorly there really isn’t much of a safety net in Indy the way I see the roster. At that point the whole team is going to be old and old in the NFL is not a winning formula.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.