If you’re going to build a team in the NFL, you’d better do it fast. General managers typically have more job stability than head coaches, but not by much, and that balance of power is shifting as coaches become more involved in personnel decisions. Over half of the league’s teams have changed GMs in the past five offseasons. Some came with peaceful transitions, like Eric DeCosta’s replacement of Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore; some have come with a bit more volatility. Looking at you, Houston.
Colts GM Chris Ballard is one of those newer general managers, but he isn’t going fast—he’s going slow. After succeeding Ryan Grigson in 2017 and inheriting a bare roster, Ballard told owner Jim Irsay, the media, and anyone else who would listen: the Colts’ rebuild was going to take time. And it has. Ballard has endured significant setbacks in his four-year tenure, including the shocking retirement of star QB Andrew Luck in 2019 and the 11th-hour cold feet of head coach candidate Josh McDaniels in 2018. And yet the Colts have methodically rebuilt their roster, made the playoffs in 2020, and have designs on a deeper postseason run in 2021. Despite his cautious nature, Ballard raised the bar on the team’s expectations in 2021, acknowledging that while the Colts’ Super Bowl window wasn’t yet fully open, in his mind it “might be cracking” just a bit.
Yet while other NFL franchises regularly turn over every stone possible to find a franchise quarterback, Ballard was content to build the rest of the roster and rely on stopgap QB options since Luck’s sudden retirement; Irsay was happy to let him. When asked whether the Colts would seek a quarterback in the 2021 draft, Ballard said: “Look, taking [a rookie quarterback] will get y’all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t play well, I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building.” Ballard knew better than most the king’s ransom required to trade up for a quarterback—he fleeced the New York Jets in 2018, picking up three second-round picks to move back three spots so the Jets could draft Sam Darnold—and he had yet to find a situation where he felt comfortable paying that kind of price.
But rookies don’t just cost a lot of draft picks; there’s also no guarantee they’ll be successful (as the Jets found out with Darnold). As Ballard said in the same homily on healthy team building: “The difference between just taking one and taking the right one is the key in our minds.” Ballard hasn’t stayed put and drafted dart throws at quarterback; he has avoided the position altogether in the draft, leaning instead on free agency and the trade market.
Even there, Ballard has taken calculated steps, skipping out on the highest-profile targets to find edges elsewhere on the market. When Tom Brady became a free agent in 2020, the Colts elected to pursue Philip Rivers on a one-year deal, citing Rivers’s familiarity with head coach Frank Reich as a key factor. When Matt Stafford was available on the trade market this past offseason, the Colts passed on the steep package of picks Detroit was demanding in favor of a riskier but cheaper option: beleaguered Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Once again, the Colts prioritized familiarity and cohesion—Reich coordinated Wentz’s MVP-caliber season in 2017—while retaining flexibility and capital, as Wentz cost only two draft picks and his deal contains no guaranteed money after 2022.
The Wentz trade has been Ballard’s biggest swing in five offseasons in Indianapolis. It reflected the reality that the Colts’ winning window was finally opening. It wasn’t really the move at quarterback—one that would potentially run Ballard out of town, should he get it wrong—but it certainly was the biggest move at quarterback to date. And if he were to get it right, the Colts had everything they needed to step into the throng of AFC contenders.
And suddenly, they don’t. So it goes in the tumultuous National Football League, where teams plan and the football gods laugh. Wentz underwent surgery on Monday to repair a broken bone in his foot with a recovery timeline of anywhere from five to 12 weeks. Wentz could be back for Week 1 of the regular season; he could also miss half of the season. In a cruel twist of fate, star guard Quenton Nelson underwent the same procedure on Tuesday, with the same broad recovery time. Both face extended absences as the Colts open the season with a brutal schedule: They play the Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Ravens, and 49ers in the first eight weeks. Current reports indicate the Colts won’t yet dip their toe into the veteran trade market to find Wentz’s replacement, despite Nick Foles’s public pleas, as Reich has placed second-year gunslinger Jacob Eason “in the driver’s seat” for the starting job. Foles makes sense for the same reasons Wentz did; Eason’s got a live arm; other potential trade targets might include Raiders QB Marcus Mariota and Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew, who each have shown enough juice as runners and passers to start a few games. But no matter who fills Wentz’s shoes to start the 2021 season, it’s tough to imagine Indianapolis escaping that staunch opening schedule unscathed.
Ballard’s patience as a team builder is laudable, his acumen as a drafter unparalleled, and his misfortune so absurd, it almost requires one to suspend disbelief. The razor-thin margins between good luck and bad is often the difference between Super Bowl winners and curious afterthoughts, and Ballard has caught the wrong roll of the dice more than a few times. But it’s worth remembering why the Rams were willing to send multiple first-rounders for Stafford, a career ironman with just as much arm talent as Wentz; why the 49ers traded up for Trey Lance and the Bears traded up for Justin Fields. If you can’t get the quarterback position right, sure, you can make it through December—but you really can’t make it through January and into February. The Rams experienced it with Jared Goff, the Niners with Jimmy Garoppolo, and the Bears with Mitchell Trubisky. They could reach the playoffs—they could even get pretty far!—but they couldn’t get over the hump. Everyone knows that an elite quarterback is the ticket to the Super Bowl, and because everyone knows it, the aggressive spending necessary to get that quarterback increases every year.
This is where Ballard’s caution becomes a hindrance. Consider the young nucleus of players he’s assembled in Indianapolis, courtesy of high-caliber drafting. The Colts’ foundational 2018 draft class, which delivered Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard, right tackle Braden Smith, and running back Nyheim Hines, has now reached the end of their rookie deals. Smith is no longer the surprise stud right tackle selected in the second round; now he’s a top-10 tackle in yearly contract value after his four-year, $72 million extension. The Colts are still negotiating with Leonard, but Fred Warner’s five-year, $95 million contract with the 49ers will likely put Leonard’s price tag above $19 million per season. And as Leonard becomes the highest-paid linebacker in the league, so will Nelson become the highest-paid guard a little later down the road. His fifth-year option of $13.8 million would be the sixth-largest cap hit for an interior offensive lineman in 2022 if he and the Colts don’t reach an extension before then. By the time he signs a new deal—whether in 2022 or 2023—he’s almost certain to be making north of $16 million per year.
If all three keep playing at the high levels they established during their rookie contracts, this will be only a small problem. The Colts’ cap is healthy in large part because Ballard has been able to field so many rookie starters, given his drafting success. They have the money to pay these guys and stay active in free agency without pushing money into future years—something only few teams can claim, given the unexpected adjustments to the 2021 salary cap caused by the pandemic.
But team building is never that neat. Nelson will now have to return from injury after never missing a game through the first three years of his career—and foot injuries are notoriously nagging. Smith has the right side locked down, but the retirement of franchise left tackle Anthony Castonzo forced the Colts to bring in Eric Fisher, who tore his Achilles in January and is unlikely to start Week 1. Top wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, top cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and starting tight end Jack Doyle are now all on the wrong side of 30. Your general manager may be willing to wait on his starting quarterback, but that doesn’t make Father Time any kinder to the rest of the roster.
All of which makes the pursuit of an elite quarterback more pressing. With every year that their roster gets older, injuries accrue, and contracts expire, it becomes harder to keep the window open with the same nucleus. Ballard can’t keep reloading the cupboards at the same clip as he did in 2018, and recent draft misses in Rock Ya-Sin, Ben Banogu, Kemoko Turay, and Parris Campbell put increased pressure on even younger players like Michael Pittman Jr. and Kwity Paye to fill key roles. Sure, free agents could fill those spots, but Ballard’s frugality in free agency limits the Colts’ options. Despite having oodles of cap space in a buyer’s market, Indianapolis re-signed Hilton and Rhodes, and let Justin Houston walk to the Ravens.
Wentz’s injury presents a worrisome trap for Ballard’s team-building philosophy. A healthy year of Wentz would have provided enough information to conclude whether he is capable of being a franchise quarterback or whether the Colts needed to return to the market. Now, a quarterback who has long struggled with availability and chemistry has to rehab from another injury, and is missing critical time with his new receivers. Will the Colts have enough data on Wentz after 10 games in 2021 to define their next move as a franchise? Or will they talk themselves into affording him another year to come back at 100 percent and settle in with his new team?
Yet again, quarterback remains a position with short-term hope and long-term uncertainty in Indianapolis; and yet again, the clock turns over at its immutable pace, stealing the cheapest and most productive years from the Colts’ young nucleus and whittling away at Irsay’s patience. Wentz’s arc calls back to Luck’s struggles with nagging injuries both in terms of the physical limitations on his game and the mental strain of repeated and prolonged rehabilitation cycles. How much patience can Irsay and Ballard afford to have with another talented quarterback who struggles to stay healthy? Patience may be virtuous in a league full of rash and hasty actors, but Ballard cannot outwait the passage of time in the NFL—an acronym that stands for “Not for Long” as much as it stands for “National Football League.”