INDIANAPOLIS – The owner seethed and the general manager did some deep soul-searching, and what must be a transformational offseason soon followed.
Consider that the natural byproduct of a 2021 season that held so much optimism with two weeks remaining only to incredibly go off the rails. From having a 97% chance of reaching the postseason – all it took was closing the season with a victory against either the Las Vegas Raiders in Lucas Oil Stadium or on the road against the NFL’s worst team, the Jacksonville Jaguars – to staring into the abyss.
“Pissed,’’ general manager Chris Ballard said during his autopsy of the season. “Don’t like to lose. It’s not fun. It’s not acceptable, and we won’t accept it.
“You have to accept who you are. We’re a 9-8 football team. I put that team together, and that falls on my shoulder. We won’t overreact. I’ve got to let the poison get out – and it’s not out yet – and then we’ll make a thorough evaluation of everything we’re doing.’’
The owner was incensed.
“What’s so damned frustrating is we had such a good football team,’’ Jim Irsay said. “I know what happened, and I saw it happening, and I couldn’t stop it. The ghost had already gotten into the machine.
“I’m certain of the direction we’re going, and there needs to be changes. We didn’t have the right stuff, and there’s reasons for that.’’
He then caught everyone’s attention with his “all chips in’’ phrase. Irsay was mad as hell, and things were going to change.
As weeks and months provided separation from the 26-11 humiliating finish in Jacksonville, the dominoes of change began to fall.
Here’s our top-5 offseason moves designed to turn the page on 2021 and embark on a return to the playoffs.
1. CARSON WENTZ TRADE
One and done: Remember when Carson Wentz was viewed as the possible long-term answer to the Colts’ quarterback dilemma? It was Feb. 18, 2021 and a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles delivered the 2nd overall pick in the 2016 draft to the roster.
Thirteen months later, the Colts dumped Wentz on the Washington Commanders. It mattered not one bit he had 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in ’21, or ranked 13th in the league with a 94.6 passer rating. Over the final eight games, he averaged 170.6 yards per game and 6.3 yards per attempt. The passing game lost its reliability despite the presence of league-leading rusher Jonathan Taylor.
But Wentz’s steady statistical fade was just part of the decision to reboot at the most influential position. Irsay saw a lack of leadership by Wentz, and that was complicated by questionable decision-making and an apparent trust factor among some of his teammates. And it would be wrong to casually dismiss Wentz’s decision to remain unvaccinated.
Irsay was done with Wentz long before the Jacksonville loss, and his voice was the only one that mattered.
“The worst thing you can do is have a mistake and try to keep living with it going forward,’’ he said. “Don’t try to extend the problem.’’
Ballard could justify the trade that brought Wentz to Indy.
“I still don’t think it was a bad decision,’’ he said. “It just didn’t work out, and some times that happens.
“But continuing to force that decision down your throat just to prove yourself right, it’s just not how we operate.’’
2. MATT RYAN TRADE
The next in line: From Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan. That’s the starting quarterback rotation as Frank Reich heads into his fifth season.
Ryan joined the list on March 21 when Ballard finalized a trade with the Atlanta Falcons. It’s worth noting Ryan wasn’t available when the Colts jettisoned Wentz. The only quarterbacks on the roster were 2021 6th-round pick Sam Ehlinger and James Morgan. Neither had thrown a pass in a regular-season game.
Had Ryan not become available – the Falcons’ courtship of Deshaun Watson essentially ended Ryan’s career in Atlanta – the Colts might have turned to Jameis Winston, Mitchell Trubisky or Marcus Mariota.
“We’re all tired,’’ Ballard said of the team’s latest reboot at quarterback. “I felt like I was Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick.
“You just keep chasing. You’re on this hamster wheel.’’
The expectation is Ryan will provide some semblance of stability at the position. He just turned 37, is entering his 15th season, and the Colts inherited the final two years of his contract that will pay him roughly $54 million.
Irsay compared Ryan’s presence to that of Rivers, with a distinction.
“We knew Philip was going to be a one-year sort of thing,’’ he said. “We view this as very possibly a three-year thing. Who knows? It’s hard to put a number on it.
“We think Matt’s got some real time left in him, and he has some things to prove. The franchise has some things to prove. Together I think it’s a great match.’’
Ryan appeared in complete control during offseason work. He threw with decisiveness and precision and frequently talked with his wideouts, tight ends and running backs to clear up any issues.
After 14 seasons and 222 starts in Atlanta – he’s missed just three games – Ryan ranks 8th in NFL history with 59,735 yards and 9th with 367 touchdowns and a 65.5% completion rate. He was MVP in 2016 and took the Falcons to the Super Bowl that season.
But over the past four seasons, the Ryan-led Falcons were 25-39. Is that a reflection his ability to perform at a high level is waning, or a byproduct of the supporting cast he had in Atlanta? In the last four seasons, the Falcons’ defense ranked 28th, 20th, 29th and 26th while their running game was 27th, 30th, 27th and 31st.
3. GUS BRADLEY
New voice for defense: This is another one of those domino moves. The Colts put their defense in the hands of Gus Bradley on Feb. 7, shortly after Matt Eberflus, their coordinator since 2018, was named head coach of the Chicago Bears. Without the move to Chicago, Eberflus almost certainly returns, albeit with changes to his staff.
Bradley brings a long NFL resume to Indy that began as linebackers coach with Tampa Bay in 2006 and includes a four-year stint as Jacksonville’s head coach (2013-16). He’s been defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks (2009-12), Los Angeles Chargers (2017-2020) and Las Vegas Raiders (2021) and might be best known for building Seattle’s Legion of Boom.
Bradley brings his Hawk-3 – or Cover-3 – to town. So much is based on a six-pronged approach.
“It’s stop the run, eliminate explosives, affect the quarterback, win on third down, own the red zone, it’s all about the ball,’’ he said.
Bradley inherited Pro Bowlers at all three levels – tackle DeForest Buckner, linebacker Darius Leonard and cornerback Kenny Moore II – and then Ballard added pass-rush end Yannick Ngakoue, who’ll play the LEO position, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
The Colts’ defense under Eberflus wasn’t broken. It ranked 16th overall, 7th in fewest points allowed and 2nd in takeaways (33) last season, but too often had trouble generating a consistent pass rush and getting off the field in critical situations.
It’s up to Bradley to take the defense to another level.
4. YANNICK NGAKOUE TRADE
Pass-rush help: Ballard’s 2021 postmortem in mid-January addressed a glaring defensive deficiency.
“We’ve got to be able to rush the passer better,’’ he said. “It’s a passing league. You have to be able to affect the passer.’’
Two months later, he acquired Yannick Ngakoue in a trade with the Raiders. The cost: starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.
Ya-Sin was coming off his best season and created a void that would be addressed; more on that later. But the opportunity to land a proven edge rusher was too enticing to pass up. Adding to Ngakoue’s appeal was his familiarity with playing the LEO position in Bradley’s scheme. They were together in Las Vegas and Jacksonville.
“The LEO position is super, super special to be able to take a part of,’’ Ngakoue said. “That guy has to be the guy that can run sideline to sideline, a guy that can get to the quarterback, a guy that can stuff the edge, a guy that can hammer blockers.’’
Ngakoue, who turned 27 in March, needs to be the pass-rush presence that’s been missing. He’s generated 55.5 sacks in six seasons and 95 games, and has had at least 8 in each of his six seasons. He produced 10 sacks and 23 quarterback hits for the Raiders last season.
After posting 40 sacks in 2021 and 41 in ’21, the Colts’ pass rush dipped to 33 last season. Ngakoue’s addition should boost a front four that returns Buckner, Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo.
5. STEPHON GILMORE SIGNING
Boost at corner: One of Ballard’s busier offseasons included adding high-profile help for the back end of Bradley’s defense.
Welcome to Indy, Stephon Gilmore. The veteran cornerback came to town with a two-year, $23 million contract.
He brought with him serious credentials – 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, two-time first-team All-Pro, five Pro Bowls, one world championship with the New England Patriots – and should be an ideal fit in Bradley’s pressure defense.
“My skillset, I think I can play anything they want me to play,’’ Gilmore said. “Making plays, limiting top receivers to a short gain, that’s what I do. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.’’
In 10 seasons, Gilmore has compiled 27 interceptions, 116 passes defensed and eight tackles for loss. He had two interceptions in eight games with Carolina last season after an October trade from New England and completing his rehab from a torn quadriceps.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.