There’s a narrative many places on the internet (I won’t say where), that would have you believe that Bill Polian was a horrible general manager and an even worse human being. Well, I am not of this particular persuasion. I think Bill Polian was an all-time great executive, as evidenced by his 6 Executive of the Year honors, and a great team builder. I also believe that he was in no small part responsible for putting together a team that set an NFL record for most wins in a decade. He drafted Hall of Fame players and hired a Hall of Fame coach. His prickly demeanor and paranoid need for organizational secrecy aside, we owe him a lot as Colts’ fans.
What I also believe is that Bill Polian put the Colts in a tough situation when he chose to promote his own progeny, and a man with clear lack of top level executive experience, Chris Polian, to assume general manager duties of a billion dollar business, a move that smacked heavily of nepotism and left many Colts fans fuming after several failed draft classes and an abysmal 2-14 season in which the young GM seemed wholly incapable of addressing a deficient roster that was exposed when Peyton Manning was lost to injury.
The fanbase, to put it mildly, was not amused. Jim Irsay, who I believe is smarter and more business savvy than many give him credit for, understood the need for a fresh start and decided that, along with the rest of the coaching staff and most of the players, it was time for change in Indianapolis.
Enter Ryan Grigson. Indiana native, Purdue alum, former NFL player, scout, and eventually head of player personnel in Philadelphia. A young, unproven, but clearly smart and talented individual who’d been promoted quickly everywhere he went and who managed, through a conventional job interview process rather than knowing the right people, to convince Jim Irsay he was the man for the job.
Grigson’s hire was met by many in Indianapolis with a heavy dose of cautious skepticism. It’s one thing to say you can do it, it’s another to actually do it. Well, 8 games into the 2012 NFL regular season and what Ryan Grigson has accomplished here in Indianapolis has been pretty remarkable. In his first year as GM he has seen a team that struggled to win even one game last season march out to a 5-3 record at the halfway mark. Here’s my top 5 reasons why Ryan Grigson deserves executive of the year consideration at the midway point of the season:
5. Head coaching hire – This may sound obvious now, but 6 months ago nobody really knew who Chuck Pagano was. Pagano cut his teeth in coaching by manning a variety of assistant jobs at various colleges around the country, spending more than a decade in the collegiate ranks before finally getting a shot in the NFL as the defensive backs coach for the Cleveland Browns in 2001. His big break came in 2008 when he was hired by John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens. In 2011, with the departure of Greg Mattison, Pagano was promoted to defensive coordinator, taking a Ravens team that ranked 10th in total defense in 2010 to 3rd in 2011, his squad surrendering only 16 points per game (also 3rd). Baltimore was a dropped TD and a missed FG away from playing for a Super Bowl title in 2011 with Pagano at the helm of their vaunted defense.
Even with a season of success as a coordinator, many questioned the hire. It was a common hope that the Colts would make a major splash in the coaching market, perhaps taking a run at a proven Super Bowl winner like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. Fans were understandably weary of another unproven commodity after suffering through the tenure of Jim Caldwell, a man known more for his robotic press conferences, deadpan sideline demeanor, and bizarre use of timeouts in the worst situations, than for any success he may have had on the field (the handling of the Colts 14-0 season in 2009 confuses me to this day).
Fans need not have worried however. Pagano has proven himself both a charismatic leader and a sound football mind. While his battle with leukemia has garnered the headlines, it’s been his quiet courage and never-give-up attitude that have this young team playing inspired football and on the brink of a historic turnaround and unprecedented early success. Pagano may have had his dream job put on hold for at least one more season, but he’s left little doubt that he was, and is, the right man for the job, Grigson saw it and now we do too.
4. Aggressiveness in free agency – As has been well documented on this site and elsewhere, the Indianapolis Colts were a hot mess in 2011. The defense was an embarrassment, the offense was somehow worse, and the special teams, both return game and coverage, were a national laughing stock. The off season saw a massive purge of talent as some of the best recognized and most revered Colts players of years past were shown the door. A complete overhaul was required and, in this “show me” league, it had to happen fast.
Grigson proved himself a deft negotiator and talented pitch man, acquiring the services of quality football players like Winston Justice and Cory Redding, while maintaining the Colts bottom line. It was a real boost to morale when Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis both agreed to return to the Colts in 2012, a somewhat surprising move at the time, but, in hindsight, a critical one on both counts. Grigson navigated a minefield of fan backlash at every turn, critics and bloggers just waiting for the young GM to make a mistake. His acquisitions haven’t all been perfect, but given the circumstances, pretty damn close.
3. Trades – Bill Polian was a believer in building through the draft, and perhaps rightfully so (it worked all right for him), but he was also a major source of fan frustration in that he was philosophically opposed to improvements through free agency and trading. Not so with Grigson. Already in 2012 Grigson has pulled off multiple trades, even swinging one in the draft to move up and acquire T. Y. Hilton in the 3rd round.
Most of Grigson’s moves have been of the garden variety, but he did make some noise in late August when it was revealed by owner Jim Irsay that a “blockbuster” trade was in the works. This turned out to be rising star cornerback, and 2010 1st round pick, Vontae Davis from the Miami Dolphins, the Colts giving up a 2013 2nd round pick and conditional 6th in the deal. While the jury is still out on Davis (he has been battling injuries most of the season but has done an admirable job while healthy), it’s commendable that Grigson shows a willingness to move the needle when necessary, putting a premium on players who are proven contributors rather than hording picks in the hopes of hitting it big on draft day (something too many GMs assume themselves capable but so few ever seem to adequately achieve). It’s clear that when he said he wanted to win this season it wasn’t just lip service, and his efforts are paying off with wins.
2. Fighting the cap – As good a job as Grigson has done rebuilding this roster with rookies and other teams’ cast offs, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the most startling truth of all, he’s done it with $40 million dollars in dead cap space, and that doesn’t even include the nearly $19 million cap hit that Dwight Freeney represents (some might say he’s been dead this season as well, rim shot). That’s nearly $60 million, of a $120 million dollar cap, tied up in players we no longer employ, and Dwight Freeney. That is bonkers. Grigson has put together a competitive, and some would even say playoff contending, roster with half the NFL salary cap to work with, now there’s a movie idea, Money Ball II: Grigson’s Triumph (the title needs work).
1. The draft class – Already the 2012 draft class represents a home run the likes of which we have not seen here in Indianapolis in quite some time, if perhaps ever. Certainly we must take into consideration the undeniable fact that these rookies have been asked to do more than any other rookie draft class probably in NFL history (5 of the 7 picks have started already this season, Josh Chapman likely making it 6 for 7 when he returns), their contributions being perhaps inflated as a result, but what this group of young men have managed to do this season is remarkable. Let’s do a quick run-down (relatively speaking):
Andrew Luck (1st overall): What really needs to be said? He’s been a stud of epic proportions, on pace to break nearly every rookie passing record in NFL history, and doing it with other rookies as his primary targets. The argument could be made that this pick was really by default, but still, it wasn’t a sure thing, had the Colts kept Manning this pick probably never happens. Give Irsay credit for this move, but I’ll splash some of that glory on Grigson as well (weird visual I know), there’s plenty to go around.
Coby Fleener (34th overall): This pick took some criticism when it happened, and is still getting some to this day. Many questioned why we would go heavy on the offense when our defense was such a wreck, well the answer seems obvious: offense wins games in the modern NFL, just ask any of the best teams of the last decade, very few did it with defense first. Fleener has been seen by some as a disappointment this season, though for the life of me I don’t understand why. Rookie TEs have a steep learning curve, when you’re used to torching college linebackers for sport it’s going to take some time to adjust to defenders that are just as fast as you are. Lest we forget, it took Dallas Clark 5 years, yes 5, to surpass 50 receptions and 500 yards, Fleener is on pace to do that in his rookie campaign (or he would be if he wasn’t injured).
Dwayne Allen (64th overall): Taking back-to-back TEs was a ballsy move by Grigson, and he heard about it from fans and critics alike, but taking the John Mackey Award winning tight end Dwayne Allen in the 3rd round might have been the steal of the draft. Allen has been incredibly productive both as a blocker and as a pass catcher (he too is on pace for ~50 receptions and ~500 yards). He’s also been a reliable red zone target, his 2 TDs are tied for second with another rookie, T. Y. Hilton, and behind only Reggie Wayne (3). Allen is quickly becoming my newest favorite Colt, not only for his tenacious on field play, but also for his precocious charisma and candor off the field, a rare commodity in a young athlete. He’ll be a team leader sooner rather than later.
T. Y. Hilton (92nd overall): Trading back up into the 3rd round to get Hilton seemed like a stretch, nobody really knew who he was (at least nobody I knew). Now, having seen the kid play, I couldn’t be happier. Sure he’s had some drops (5 to be exact), but he’s a rookie wide receiver, and has two 100 yard games already on his resume in only 7 trips to the plate (missed week 1 with an injury). He’s also shown a propensity for the big play, both his TDs coming on passes of 30+ yards. On pace to eclipse 50 receptions and 700 yards (those would match Wayne’s totals from his second season), Hilton has already proven himself a critical piece in this new look offense, as his routes and timing with Luck improve, look out.
Josh Chapman (136th overall): Ask resident Colts Authority mad man, Greg Cowan, and he’ll tell you that Chapman is already a 5 time All-Pro. The kid played his senior year with torn ligaments in his knee and still anchored one of the best defenses in all of college football. His moniker, “The Boss,” tells you all you need to know about this late round steal. After reading the recent piece about him in the Indy Star (if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read it) I couldn’t be more excited to see The Boss suit up in a Colts uniform. Josh is the kind of hard working character guy we all love, his selflessness to put off surgery and play injured cost him a lot of money but helped win his team a national championship; had he not been injured who knows how high in the draft he might have gone (Grigson himself postulated 2nd round).
Vick Ballard (170th overall): Ballard distinguished himself quickly, coaches and casual observers alike were singing his praises as early as rookie OTAs back in May. Well he’s only improved since. When Donald Brown went down with an injury, the Colts turned to Ballard, not 2nd year player Delone Carter, to be the starting running back. Vick responded by posting solid games against stout run defenses. In the past 3 games he has averaged nearly 70 yards per game and 4.1 yards per attempt. Not bad for a guy taken in the 5th round, running behind a makeshift offensive line. If nothing else his diving corkscrew to win the game in overtime versus the Tennessee Titans will be one of the plays of the year, and an all-time great Colts moment.
I’ve exceeded my 2,000 word limit, hopefully nobody out there is self-flagellating (unless you’re into that sort of thing, then have at it). Please feel free to leave angry remarks or hurtful criticism in the reader opinion section below, however, if you have something nice to say I’d prefer you keep it to yourself. As always, thanks for reading.