A poorly run franchise. Disappointing seasons. A dysfunctional relationship between the head coach and general manager. An offensive line so poorly conceived that Jonotthan Harrison was thrust into a starting role. An erratic owner who didn’t seem capable of righting the ship. A franchise quarterback whose future was threatened by organizational instability.
As recently as two years ago, those descriptions fit the Indianapolis Colts. Now the Colts are widely praised as one of the best run franchises in the NFL and potentially building a championship window.
The turning point was the hiring of general manager Chris Ballard. The job wasn’t easy when Ballard took it over. The Colts had a roster too light in talent because of numerous failures by Ballard’s predecessor Ryan Grigson. On top of the roster problems, the Colts failed because Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano had a relationship so toxic that it had to be put out of its own misery with the firing of the general manager. The job did have one major plus, the presence of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. But Luck’s career had been put into jeopardy by organizational incompetence that went as high up as the owner.
No two situations are ever identical in the NFL, but there are a striking number of similarities between the Colts Ballard inherited and the Jets the next general manager will take over.
If the Jets are wise, they can take notes on the types of attributes they should seek in their next general manager and the power with which they should provide him.
A focus on the offensive line
In the Grigson Era, the Colts offensive line tended to range between the middle of the pack and below average in quality relative to the rest of the league. The line seldom the absolute worst in the league, but a good year meant being around the league median.
That’s great if you want to provide your fans with ammunition to say, “It could be worse,” in online forums, but your team won’t be able to assert its will at the point of attack and consistently take control of games functioning like that. The crew the Colts put on the field was so undistinguished that a young interior lineman named Jonotthan Harrison started 23 games between 2014 and 2016.
Grigson did not show total lack of interest in the offensive line. The Colts did use some relatively early picks on the line, but those were not successful. In his final Draft, Grigson finally wised up and invested his first round pick on the line for the first and only time, center Ryan Kelly. Another first round offensive lineman, Anthony Castanzo, was also on the roster thanks to Grigson’s predecessor, Bill Polian.
Still, what Ballard inherited wasn’t enough to control the trenches and ensure the health of the team’s franchise quarterback. The Colts ultimately paid for Grigson’s failures when Luck missed the entire 2017 season with an injury.
Late in Ballard’s first season he made a shrewd waiver wire pickup in Mark Glowinski who grew into a quality right guard for the Colts in 2018. Still, scrap heap pickups can only be expected to play supporting roles. A general manager cannot expect to build the foundation of a great offensive line exclusively from reclamation projects. Understanding that a middle of the pack offensive line wasn’t the goal, Ballard used two of the first 37 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft to fortify his offensive line by picking Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith.
The Colts allowed the fewest sacks in the league in 2018. A five game sackless streak almost coincided directly with the start of a run where the Colts won nine of their final ten regular season games. That does not seem like a coincidence.
Understanding value in the Draft
Two of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NFL come from the NFL Draft. Teams frequently underrate the value of trading down to stockpile extra picks and acquiring picks for future years.
But teams also fail to properly assess which picks produce the most value.
The third overall pick could prove to be quite valuable for the Jets this year if Quinnen Williams develops into a star. Williams will receive a contract worth approximately $8 million per year. That’s in the ballpark of what the Jets paid Jamison Crowder in free agency. So if Williams hits his ceiling, the Jets will have a star in Williams paid at the price of a role player for four years. That is valuable.
But hitting on second round picks produces an even better bang for the buck.
”To be clear, the player taken with the first pick does have the highest expected performance [the green line] ... but he also has the highest salary [the red line], and in terms of performance per dollar, is less valuable than most players taken in the second round.”
In the second round of the NFL Draft, players have cap hits under $2 million per year over four seasons.
Between 2006 and 2015, an average of six Pro Bowlers were picked in the second round of each NFL Draft. With salaries that low, hitting big in the second round is essentially adding an impact player for free. While the odds aren’t exceptionally high, they aren’t astronomical. Since the odds of hitting it big get lower with each subsequent round, second round picks provide teams with their best chance to add big value for a minimal cap hit. (And you might find help in the form of low paid adequate starters and role players in the second round.)
With this in mind, doesn’t it make sense to try to stockpile as many second round picks as possible to increase the odds of finding these valued gems?
Ballard has done just that. Through trades, the Colts have owned multiple second round picks in the last two years. His 2018 crop of four has already started paying dividends as Smith was part of the team’s successful offensive line overhaul, and Darius Leonard made First Team All Pro as a rookie. It’s a beautiful thing when an understanding of value meshes with top notch talent evaluation.
The Colts have gotten a head start on the NFL by already adding an extra second round pick in 2020. They did so at the low price of dropping from the 26th pick to the 46th pick during the 2019 Draft.
Winning free agency
Every year in March, pundits declare certain teams the “winners” of free agency. These are usually the teams that spent the most money to add the splashiest players.
By December of that year we frequently find out those additions were big mistakes.
Teams overspend for name recognition and past production. Problems arise when these things happen. Skillsets don’t mesh with the new team’s system they way they did with the old team’s system. Players frequently find they don’t fit in with their new teammates the way they did in their former home. Coaches sometimes don’t understand how to properly utilize the talents of players or how to motivate them. And sometimes players get complacent after a big payday, no longer putting in the same effort to prepare.
Even at the time, many of the contracts given out to big names early in free agency feel like overpays. Fans are forced to fall back on statements like, “The market is the market,” and, “With salaries rising this deal won’t look so bad in a few years,” and “This is how free agency works. Everybody overpays,” to try and rationalize their team’s decision-making.
In reality, it’s only the way free agency works for the dumb teams. Instead of overpaying for past production, the smart teams generally avoid the free spending in the early days of free agency. Instead they look for value opportunities and underpay for players whose production will improve in a new home.
These teams look for players who might have been misused in their old home but possess skillsets that will lead to greater production in a new system. They find players whose games can be improved with better coaching. They look for bounceback candidates coming off poor seasons or injuries whom the rest league is undervaluing. They find players who misjudged the market and now will have to settle for lesser contracts after demand for their services lowers.
These are the teams that actually win free agency, even though it isn’t evident in March.
Last year the Colts found a 13 touchdown tight end in Eric Ebron and a 9 sack interior lineman in Denico Autry in free agency. Combined 2018 cap hit: $13.75 million
Finding the right partner
Simply because Pagano lasted longer than Grigson did not mean the Colts guaranteed their head coach a long stay or total control over their operation once the dysfunctional marriage ended.
The head coach was retained for the upcoming season and given a chance to show he could work effectively with Ballard. When it became clear that Pagano’s flaws would stand in the way of a productive partnership, the Colts moved on from their head coach and empowered Ballard to find a partner with whom he would build a more fruitful relationship.
Finding the right partner (Part 2)
Ballard eventually settled on New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels many of the attributes a team would want in a new leader after a long stint as an integral part of one of the league’s most successful and forward thinking franchises.
Because McDaniels’ Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl, the Colts had to wait weeks to make his hiring official. Then their new head coach in waiting got cold feet after the Super Bowl, turning down the job at the last minute.
After such a stinging rebuke, Ballard did not lose his head. He simply moved on and found another leader from another one of the league’s successful and forward thinking franchises. That leader was Frank Reich, the offensive coordinator of the team that had just beaten McDaniels’ Patriots for the Lombardi Trophy. Reich brought cutting edge philosophies in play design and game strategy and displayed the requisite leadership skills to rally the Colts from a 1-5 start to a Playoff berth.
There are no guarantees in the NFL. The Colts might not make good on their potential. Sometimes teams run into bad luck. The quarterback could suffer a freak injury. Players could regress. Moves that seem sound on paper might not pan out.
Teams can only control what they can control. But the unpredictability of the league is perhaps the best reason to control those things by hiring a front office leader with sound processes.
Chris Ballard’s Colts might not be able to guarantee their future, but they are in position to harvest the fruits of those sound processes. It certainly beats hoping to luck one’s way out of incompetent processes and into glory.
In the search for their next general manager, the Jets would be wise to look for a general manager with the talent evaluation skills and vision of Ballard. Then ownership should get out of the way, and let him implement that vision with minimal meddling.