By Lew Freedman | The Tribune
By signing general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich to contract extensions through 2026, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay announced during the preseason he has the right leadership team in place for the foreseeable future.
Irsay put his money where his faith is, letting the rest of the National Football League know these are his guys and he expects them to lead the team to success and a Super Bowl.
It is a strong statement and what seems to be a prudent decision. Ballard has been GM since 2017, and Reich has been coach since 2018. They have made wise personnel moves, and when thrown off-balance, they appear to handle challenges with aplomb and savvy and without excuses.
They weathered the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck in 2019, which no one could have seen coming.
Reich’s personal relationship with Chargers star quarterback Philip Rivers paid dividends when he played the final season of his pro career with the Colts in 2020 and led the team to an 11-5 regular-season record and a playoff appearance.
Then when Rivers retired, Ballard and Reich reacted swiftly, maneuvering to obtain Carson Wentz as the heir apparent.
Wentz departed the Philadelphia Eagles with recriminations trailing out of town, but on paper, his arrival in Indiana provoked optimism and kudos for the managers for seemingly filling a gaping hole at high speed.
The promise is there. Wentz was part of a Super Bowl team and has thrown for more than 4,000 yards. He also got injured inopportunely with Philadelphia during that championship season. Even though the Colts do not open the regular season until Sept. 12 against Seattle, he has already been shelved twice.
Wentz hurt a foot and was sidelined. He rebounded quickly, and the next thing you know, he was back in street clothes because of the coronavirus. His was a close contact benching, but he has been cleared from that threat, too, despite remaining unvaccinated.
Wentz represents an extension of the Ballard-Reich plan, carried to the front lines on the field. He has the potential for elite performance, and Irsay is convinced the Colts do, as well, because of the work environment created.
Irsay called Ballard and Reich “as great a general manager-head coach combination as there is in the NFL. I truly believe this football team is on the doorstep of great things, and that’s because of the culture both have cultivated in their time with the Horseshoe.”
The Colts finished the exhibition season 3-0. The roster’s biggest threat thus far has come from the virus.
The pandemic is not over. Mask debates continue. Vaccination programs continue. People continue to get sick and die. COVID-19 is still an enemy. The NFL has sought an 85% vaccination rate per team. The Colts were running below that.
While teams are not permitted to cut players for refusing vaccines, the league instituted policy stating teams will forfeit games if they do not have enough players. Unvaccinated players risk being fined if they break league protocols.
Last week, Ballard confronted the COVID issue.
“No matter what happens, don’t flinch,” he said of his and the team’s attitude. “There’s going to be problems. There’s going to be problems in every season. There’s going to be injuries. There’s going to be breakthrough cases. There’s going to be COVID. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen to every team. You move forward. I don’t sit here and worry about the negative. We know the protocols, we know what we need to handle, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Ballard seems well-grounded in reality.
“Those guys that have chosen to not be vaccinated. They’ve got to follow the protocols to a T, to a T because there are consequences with not being vaccinated,” he said. “Do I think everybody should be vaccinated? Absolutely, I do. I am for the vaccine. Frank (Reich) is for the vaccine.
“Is it 100% perfect? No, no it’s not, but it’s a good thing. It’s a really good thing. It can help you from ending up in the hospital in a critical situation, and it helps stop some of the spread, and those are positive things. But for the guys who have chosen to not get vaccinated, they understand that they are still part of this team. It’s their decision, but they are still a part of our team, and they have to take care of the team.”
One wonders how vaccinated guys will feel if the Colts either have to forfeit a game or lose one that costing them the playoffs due to virus exposure among the unvaccinated.