Nearly forty years ago Jim Irsay’s father Robert packed up the office equipment of the Baltimore Colts, brought in a few Mayflower moving vans and moved a storied franchise in the dead of night to a city more than 1000 miles away with no major professional franchise save for a former ABA basketball team, minimal football history, but was about to complete construction on a domed, football-exclusive, state-of-the art stadium that was eager to get an anchor tenant. Out of that reality, coupled with protracted and futile negoitations with the city of Baltimore, the Indianapolis Colts were born, and the hearts of everyone from Johnny Unitas to Barry Levinson were broken forever.
Somehow, what Jim did yesterday in hiring Jeff Saturday as interim head coach was seen by many as even worse.
The firing of head coach Frank Reich, who had a theoretically mediocre 3-5-1 record at the halfway point of the 2022 season, but had clearly lost control of a team that was playing far worse, most notably a 26-3 embarassment at the hands of an even more mediocre New England Patriots team on Sunday, was not unexpected. The hiring of Saturday, a former star center in the Peyton Manning era who has most recently been an ESPN analyst, was downright shocking. Of course, in today’s opinionated world, that gave license to heavily snark-filled reports like this from Sports Illustrated’s Nick Selbe:
The move took the entire football world by surprise, Saturday included. He said he was “shocked” when he received the call, and that the whole conversation with Irsay lasted about 12 hours. If anybody tuned in to Monday evening’s press conference hoping for clarity surrounding one of the most bizarre NFL decisions in recent memory, they didn’t get what they came for.
What they did hear, though, was a seemingly non-stop flow of some truly incredible answers, ranging from Michael Jordan comparisons to stray shots at analytics for no perceptible reason. Here’s a look at some of the best of the bunch from a press conference that could have doubled as performance art.
1. “We were fortunate he was available.” –Jim Irsay
Available to do what? Speak on the phone? Saturday has been with ESPN for nearly a decade and left his high school coaching job in 2020. It’s safe to say that he wasn’t on anybody’s coaching radar prior to Irsay’s call.
2. “It wasn’t offered to anyone else. I don’t know what Chris (Ballard) and I would have done if he wasn’t available.” –Jim Irsay
Again, it’s the urgency here that makes this so remarkable. How could Irsay possibly believe that Saturday had to be the guy, and that he had to act fast before somebody else beat the Colts to the punch? And given that his first choice was to turn over control of his football team to someone who’s never coached meaningful games before, I sort of believe him when he says he doesn’t know what Plan B would have been had Saturday not said yes.
3. “Why am I a candidate for this?” –Jeff Saturday
Perhaps the most honest, relatable moment of the entire endeavor. Whether or not any of us have ever been NFL coaches before, we’ve all dealt with fits of imposter syndrome. Saturday is clearly not oblivious to his lack of qualifications for this job, but was adequately swayed after speaking to his new boss. I can hear fans and media members nodding enthusiastically in agreement upon hearing Indy’s new coach say these words.
4. “Y’all been kicking the s— out of me for not drafting wideouts and now we’re underperforming on the offensive line.” –Chris Ballard
Irsay was asked if he believes Ballard would be back next year, to which he replied, “Of course I do.” So Ballard was perhaps speaking with the confidence of a man who’s just been publicly informed of his job security when he voluntarily held up two examples of roster construction shortcomings of his 3-5-1 team. Clearly, this is not an organization that does things the conventional way.
5. “[Saturday] doesn’t have that fear. We were very fortunate he was available. He has tons of experience. He knows this game inside and out.” –Jim Irsay
Irsay punctuated this thought by lobbing a dig at other coaches who he perceived to lean on analytics when faced with daunting in-game situations. Credit Irsay for giving everybody who’s ever interviewed for a job they were unqualified for a go-to answer for why they should be considered for an out-of-their-league position.
Well, yes, it’s pretty bizarre. But hardly unprecedented for owners to gamble on trying out someone with playing and media experience for a leadership role. Jerry Buss made Magic Johnson a coach. Hal Steinbrenner made Aaron Boone a manager. The San Diego Padres once made their announcer, Jerry Coleman, a manager as well. Some worked out better than others, to be sure. But to say Saturday, who has spent many a Sunday with access to watching games in detail with camera angles and fellow analysts who give far more information and perspective than stalking a sideline can ever offer, has zero capacity to call plays is, IMO, disingenuous and protective of a culture that somehow believes pro football 2022 should be treated like IBM 1972–pay your dues, work hard, get a promotion.
It’s Jim Irsay’s team. It’s his money. Right now, his team sucks. But in a division like the AFC South, where his team currently sits just two games behind a division-leading Tennessee Titans team that has allowed more points than it has scored, the possibility of the playoffs is actually not that impossible. And for those who malign Irsay as merely an entitled second generation buffoon making gut decisions, consider Saturday’s first game will be against the Raiders in Las Vegas, Owned by another second generation trustafarian, another team that relocated from its roots to be an anchor tenant in a state-of-the-art stadium in a city with minimal pro sports legacy, and who selected as head coach someone who had a track record of some success, particularly as an assistant in New England. Wanna guess which team will have the better record going into that game?
The more sobering hues and cries are coming from those who are bemoaning that, as an interim hire, Irsay was able to circumvent the Rooney Rule and did not therefore interview qualified candidates of color. Several current Colts’ assistants fall into that category. Here’s the thing. The track record of this team should be enough to give pause to whether they are indeed deserving of that IBM ’72-like promotion. And lest anyone then conclude Irsay must be some sort of racist, FULL STOP. He would be the same owner that hired Tony Dungy as head coach, and indeed won a Super Bowl with him in 2007. At the time, Dungy was the first of his race to accomplish that.
All Jeff Saturday has at this point is perhaps nine games to make the Colts competitive, find some level of talent in the likes of quarterback Sam Ehlinger, and pray star running back Jonathan Taylor can be healthy and productive. If he can do that, he should be able to actually have a decent resume of his own when the full-time job does become available. Rooney Rule or not. Many pundits believe Sam Drucker (look it up) might be a better NFL quarterback than Sam Ehlinger ever will be. But that’s now Saturday’s problem, not yours.
And if somehow he does pull this off–and, again, I like his chances in Las Vegas Sunday–then maybe we can finally give some credence to someone who has the balls to try something different, and not lampoon and lambaste him for doing so.
At least there’s no moving vans in sight this time.