Why Colts owner Jim Irsay says Frank Reich, Chris Ballard are ‘outstanding’ – despite mistakes

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Four years into the partnership of Chris Ballard and Frank Reich, the Colts are something of a Rorschach test.

Under Ballard and Reich, Indianapolis has compiled a 37-28 overall record and two playoff appearances despite annual change at the quarterback position, but the Colts also have one playoff win in their time together, haven’t won the AFC South since 2014 and are coming off of the devastating collapse of a team that seemed destined for the playoffs.

The man whose opinion matters most, team owner Jim Irsay, hasn’t lost any of the faith he’s put in the two men he’s entrusted to lead his franchise.

“I think they’re both outstanding at what they do,” Irsay said. “The maturation process, the things that they’ve learned from the beginning when they started, trust me, it’s really remarkable. You just can’t find any weaknesses in terms of intelligence, hard work, character and all those sorts of things.”.

Irsay badly wants to win, and win big.

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The Colts owner also deeply values patience, continuity and evaluating the underlying reasons behind the record, and he says he’s constantly evaluating Ballard and Reich, holding them to a standard that’s not based solely on his own opinion.

Irsay puts a lot of weight on what the rest of the NFL thinks about the men leading his team.

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“They both have hugely respected reputations in the league,” Irsay said.

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That doesn’t mean he believes the two men have been perfect.

There have been mistakes, most notably the blockbuster trade they swung for Carson Wentz last offseason. None of the three men have said they regret the move they made to get Wentz at the time, but the way the move panned out — a missed playoff berth, a single season in Indianapolis, a decision to move away from Wentz at quarterback regardless of compensation or replacement — made it a major mistake at the game’s most important position.

Irsay says he knew there would be some mistakes along the way. Ballard and Reich are in their positions for the first time, and Irsay says he knew he had to let them make a few mistakes along the way to grow.

“Everyone has their kryptonite,” Irsay said. “There’s always some honing in you’ve got to do, talk about, ‘You need a little more of this.'”.

Andrew Luck retirement fallout

He also knows their jobs got much harder the moment Andrew Luck retired on the eve of the 2019 season.

“I don’t think people understand that Andrew pulling away … I’d like to see how any other franchise could possibly survive a generational talent, at 29 years old, someone they’re depending on for the next 10 years, who walks away in the middle of the preseason,” Irsay said. “To me, they’ve done an outstanding job.”.

Finding another franchise quarterback is the question Ballard and Reich haven’t been able to answer yet. In the two seasons they’ve failed to make the playoffs together, an inadequate passing game — first with Jacoby Brissett thrown into the breach again, then last year with the Colts trying to take Carson Wentz to another level — ended up dragging down teams that otherwise played like contenders for long stretches.

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Reich’s taken responsibility for the move to get Wentz.

Ballard takes responsibility for not giving Reich the sort of continuity he needs at the position in the wake of Luck’s retirement.

“I think we have a really good head coach in Frank, who’s had to navigate some pretty tough situations at the quarterback position, and he’s been tremendous,” Ballard said. “I think we’re 11th in wins since he got here, and four starting quarterbacks. That’s pretty good, man. I think he’s really special.”.

The pairing work well together, valuing continuity, consensus and respect for each other’s role.

But as much as Irsay respects and values his head coach and general manager, he hasn’t been afraid to challenge them, famously in a meeting the same night of the Jacksonville debacle that ended their 2021 season prematurely, but also at other points along the way.

Irsay brought in the entire coaching and scouting staffs the week after the Colts lost in Tennessee the first time for a “Come to Jesus” meeting, intent on getting his team’s attention.

“It was about Tennessee kicking our ass, because all they do is kick our ass,” Irsay said. “You have to know where your nemesis lies, and it’s just completely unacceptable the way they’ve dominated the division over us.”.

Under the leadership of Reich and Ballard, the Colts won four of their first five head-to-head matchups against Tennessee, including a win-and-in finale in Nashville at the end of the 2018 season.

But Mike Vrabel has bounced back with three straight wins and two consecutive division titles, and with Houston and Jacksonville both in rebuilding mode, the Titans are the team in the Colts’ way right now.

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“We have to prove that we can beat them, and beat them when it most matters,” Irsay said. “We haven’t. … It’s a sticking point with me, because we always talk about our division. We can talk about the opener, and of course, the opener means a lot. … But this is a bigger deal about Tennessee.”.

Overtaking Tennessee might be even more important after an offseason that has seen teams across the AFC load up with stars in a Cold War-style arms race that makes the wild card race look like a brawl for the foreseeable future.

Irsay did not mention that aspect of the playoff positioning at the NFL owner’s meetings this week. For him, it’s about taking down the team in the way.

“If you have someone that’s dominant in your division, you’re in big trouble,” Irsay said. “I think that’s an important point, this year and next year, going forward.”.

Irsay was embarrassed by the way the 2021 season ended.

Moving from Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan

But the moves that have been made since then have given him hope. Indianapolis decided to replace Carson Wentz at quarterback, got more in return than almost anybody thought they could, then used some of the assets preserved by trading Wentz to Washington to get Falcons legend Matt Ryan, a quarterback Irsay believes is a perfect fit for Indianapolis, somebody who can pause the carousel the Colts have been riding for a little while.

“I really feel strongly that Matt is what the franchise needs,” Irsay said. “I really think we have an opportunity, and he’s young enough, to win a world championship with him. We feel like we have that capability.”.

And he feels like he already had the right men in place at head coach and general manager.

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