Andrew Luck has looked like a different quarterback this season, but the real culprit of the 0-2 Colts is the broken relationship between head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson
It's not really a problem that the Colts have started 0–2 in 2015—they started 0–2 last year and rebounded to an 11–5 record and an AFC South title. They've finished with that same mark in every one of Andrew Luck's three seasons, which says a lot about Luck's talent. It is a problem that Luck hasn't shown much of that talent this season. Through embarrassing losses to the Bills and Jets, the consensus next superstar quarterback has looked completely lost, completing 47 of 86 passes for 493 yards, three touchdowns and a league-leading five interceptions. Four of those picks have come against blitz packages, which says something about Luck, and possibly quite a bit more about Luck's subpar offensive line. It certainly says something about general manager Ryan Grigson, who has been the main man in charge of assembling this roster since he was hired in 2012.
According to Pro Football Focus, Luck has been pressured on 40.4% of his dropbacks through two games, up a tick from last season's 36.2%. Indy's defense has allowed 47 points to two offenses that won't generally set the world on fire, and the team's minus-26 point differential is the NFL's second-worst through two games (Chicago stands at minus-33). That's the main issue: Indy's formerly high-flying offense has put just 21 points on the board.
How does head coach Chuck Pagano feel about it? Not good. The normally genial Pagano set his phasers to stun in his press conference after his team's 20–7 Monday night loss to the Jets.
“Can’t penalize yourself. Can’t turn the damn ball over,” Pagano said. “In the National Football League it’s very hard to win games. And even more so with five turnovers, 11 penalties, 0-for-5 on third down in the first half.”
Pagano was throwing bombs at his quarterback, and he didn't want to hear anything about the line as part of that problem. While he did say that Luck needed better protection, he also asserted that the leaky protection has “been the case for three years now, has it not? He should be more than comfortable dealing with what he’s dealing with. He’s got to take care of the football. Make great decisions, take care of the football. It’s not hard. It’s not trigonometry.”
Many see Pagano's comments about the line as a jab at Grigson, which would play into recent reports that the two men aren't getting along well at all. Earlier this month, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports wrote that there was heavy friction between the front office and the coaching staff. Pagano was reportedly “insulted” by the one-year contract extension offered by team owner Jim Irsay, and he's never had any say in personnel or coaching staff—in fact, Pagano wanted to hire Rob Chudzinski to run his offense after Bruce Arians left to become Arizona's head coach, but was overruled by Grigson, who hired Pep Hamilton instead. And with the capricious Irsay apparently insisting that the Colts are in win-now mode, it's easy to see how this has all fallen apart.
Luck is certainly a smart guy, and if he wants an easy precedent to what his NFL team is going through right now, he needs to look no further than what his Stanford head coach, Jim Harbaugh, dealt with last year in San Francisco. Like the Colts reportedly are now, the 2014 49ers were a team built from the top down, without the young glue players at key positions it takes to contend over the long haul. Those 49ers were in a “Super Bowl or Bust” mode, which generally happens when either the owner or general manager doubles down on questionable personnel decisions. And there have certainly been enough of those throughout Grigson's tenure. His first draft was an unqualified success, with Luck as the first overall pick and difference-makers T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen in later rounds. But the 2013 draft has produced very little of value—first-round pick Bjoern Werner has struggled to become anything approaching an impact pass-rusher. The 2014 trade of a first-round pick to the Browns for running back Trent Richardson will have to go down as one of the worst transactions in recent NFL history, and outside of third-round receiver Donte Moncrief, there's not much else to talk about there. Grigson's best trade came in 2012, when he acquired top-flight cornerback Vontae Davis from the Dolphins for a second-round pick.
Davis has been tremendous in the Colts' defense, but this has been a three-headed team from a talent perspective through the Luck era, with Luck, Hilton and Davis as the primary players. Grigson has been unable to establish much young depth at any position, and that's how teams fall apart quickly. The recent Band-Aid signings of veteran running back Frank Gore and receiver Andre Johnson have not yet paid dividends.
If the Colts continue their downhill slide, it's important to point to the schism between Pagano and Grigson as the primary issue. NFL team staffs must work in concert, or there is no chance of sustainable success. Grigson replaced Bill Polian in Indy, and Polian always had a well-placed relationship with his coaches—even at the end of his Colts tenure, when he had a few failed drafts of his own.
“I don't have any idea what the issues are, or if there are issues there. I wouldn't know what to say to them,” Polian told me, when I asked him what he'd say to any general manager and coach who were at odds. “But you do have to work together, and that's just... you do. It's communication, and it's having systems in place that allow you to communicate on the same page. You need a common language, and a common objective point of view. Its critically important. If you can't do that, you simply can't get it done in the long run. Both communication and the process are critical to it.
“You have to have a shared vision. Tony [Dungy] was once asked what our working relationship was like, and I'm paraphrasing here, but he said that when you think the same way about the game, it's relatively easy. And that's true. It was true of Marv Levy in Buffalo—I'm a creature of him, not the other way around. And with Dom [Capers] in Carolina, it was equally true. If you don't have that symbiotic relationship between the coach and the general manager, I'm not sure you can get it done in the long run.”
No team can. Certainly not these Colts.