The biggest question Colts chief operating officer Pete Ward had about Chris Ballard two years ago had nothing to do with his ability to manage people or pick players or put a team together. It was simpler than that: Will he even talk to us?
Former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy told Ward at the outset of his GM search, “You need to talk to this guy out of Kansas City. He’s really impressive, and he’s going to be a GM, it’s inevitable.” Dungy wasn’t the only one to believe that about Ballard, but all the big expectations came with a caveat. Ballard had said no to team after team that tried to pry him away from the Chiefs.
“Chris was coveted,” Ward says now.
So it’d be silly for the Colts to act now like they tripped into a gold mine, or as if they had a cheat code to finding a team builder. They thought highly of Ballard, just as lots of others thought highly of Ballard. Circumstances gave the Colts an edge with him: the location (mid-sized Midwestern city), the quarterback (Andrew Luck) and owner Jim Irsay’s approach (loyal, dedicated to the football side). And that was really it.
That said, even the Colts probably didn’t foresee what Ballard has achieved in Indy.
The Colts are 9-6, winners of eight of their last nine and have, if you take 46-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri out of the equation, the youngest roster in the NFL. They have a 29-year-old franchise quarterback, two bumper crops of draft picks with time left on their rookie deals, three picks in the first two rounds of April’s draft, and $100 million in cap space coming in 2019.
“Chris and I were just talking about that yesterday—the most fun time in the NFL is when you’re on the rise, and you’re kind of off the radar to start with and you make that happen,” Ward said. “Because thereafter, people have high expectations of you. Right now, we’re 9-6. I’m guessing next year a lot of our fans will be disappointed if we’re 9-6. And it’s such a tough league, it’s impossible to speculate about the future.
“But I can speak for our owner and everyone in the organization—we’re really excited about the direction we’re headed.”
The Colts believed they hit a home run with their GM hire, and now it’s looking more like a grand slam. Their situation isn’t all about Ballard, of course. He inherited talented pieces, Luck most of all. But he hired the coach, put together a robust scouting staff, and nailed it in drafting athletes such as Malik Hooker (who’s still getting healthy), Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard.
So as I put together my 11th annual Future GMs list, I thought it’d be interesting to look at what’s shaping up as a big success story—and get Ward to explain what really stood out about Ballard, from his hire to this week’s big de facto playoff game against the division-rival Titans. My hope, in taking readers through the process, is to give an idea of what makes a good GM in 2018.
What To Look For
It didn’t take long into the interview for Ballard’s attention to detail and depth of knowledge of the league to jump out at Ward and Irsay. Nor was it difficult to see the level to which he developed a plan. It was exactly what the Colts were looking for.
“To begin with, he knew our roster,” Ward says. “It was almost like he worked here. He knew the players as well as he would have if he’d worked here. He was able to review our roster with us right then and there. He knew coaches around the league, he was able to tell us his ideal candidates, because there were going to be some staff changes. And of course he’d have to collaborate, because Chuck Pagano was at the time our head coach, and we’re talking about assistant coaches now.
“And he was able to tell us the plan, how he wanted build our team.”
What He Had To Know
Ballard spent 12 years in the scouting department with the Bears before joining the Chiefs as director of player personnel in 2013. Two years later he was promoted to director of football operations in K.C., before the Colts hired him as GM in January 2017. What scouts will tell you is that when they become GMs, there’s shock from the increased volume of responsibility that crosses their desk—ranging from getting the grass cut to negotiating a street free agent’s signing bonus within a couple hours. Ballard, because he’d waited, and watched John Dorsey in K.C., had a better idea of what went into the GM job than most candidates.
That’s important, because a good grasp of the myriad responsibilities can allow a new GM to hit the ground running.
“What we learned is how big he is on collaboration,” Ward said. “And not just with the coaching staff, but with everyone in the organization. In today’s NFL, organizations are so big, with marketing and sales and coaching and personnel, and Chris emphasized how important it is to collaborate with everybody because it is a team effort. Success is a team effort. So that impressed us.”
For example, Ward says, “You know how quickly the scenery is changing in pro sports. Your digital department is so important now, in terms of creating fans and a following. And a lot of times, what your marketing people want to do conflicts with what your football people want to do. Chris understood from the start that you’ve got to make some compromises. And you have to be realistic.”
In other words, sometimes you have to, say, help the team make money. And if you invest in the people hired to do that, they’ll invest back in you.
What He Promised
Ward mentioned Ballard’s connections, and that helped across the board. It was part of being able to pivot from Josh McDaniels to Frank Reich in an impossible situation last winter. It was vital in helping stock Reich’s coaching staff with so many quality assistants off market. It’s what has led to the hires of strong scouting directors like Ed Dodds and Rex Hogan. And it’s a big piece of the depth of everyone’s work since.
Forget the quarterback and the first-round picks. Early indications are that Ballard has hit on five second-round picks—Quincy Wilson, Leonard, Braden Smith, Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis—thus far, while unearthing mid-level free-agent finds Denico Autry and Eric Ebron. That’s evaluation, of course. But it’s also getting information on players, and having qualified people around you to vet those decisions.
“Every one of his second-round picks in the first two years, and he’s had five of them, are making an impact for us. That’s pretty remarkable, I think,” Ward said. “Free agents, they haven’t necessarily been sexy acquisitions to the media or some of our fan base, because they weren’t big names, but guys like Denico Auty and Eric Ebron are making huge impacts. And you can really go down the line.”
What Expectations Were Set
This part is a credit to Irsay and Ward—the Colts were 5-17 through the first 22 games under Ballard, and the last of those losses was to a rebuilding Jets team. In some places, that sort of mark might incite panic. Maybe it would have in Indy, too, if Ballard wasn’t so honest with others in the organization on how he saw the roster.
“He told us it wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Ward said. “And he gave us how many years he expected it to take to make us a contender again. I’ll let Chris speak to that, rather than talking for him. But he was big on being patient and doing things the right way, bringing in the right people, and not trying to take shortcuts with big-name free agents, unless it was the right fit.
“He kind of reminded us of Bill Polian in the way he thought abstractly about things, and not in the way that fans or the media might think of the way to build a team.”
It’s safe to say, the Colts’ acceptance of Ballard’s real talk on the state of their team is paying big-time dividends now.
THE 2019 LIST
Easy, right? OK, it’s actually not. But the Colts’ road map isn’t all that complicated. Having a generational quarterback in his prime get healthy is huge, of course. But so too is having a detailed-oriented leader with a well-developed plan, who understands the job and people, and knows how to put teams together—on the field, on coaching staff, in a scouting department.
Ballard has been that person for the Colts. Who might it be for your team? This year’s future GM list (in alphabetical order):
Kevin Abrams, assistant GM, Giants: Abrams stepped up as Dave Gettleman has battled health issues, and he’s a capable administrator who could eventually succeed Gettleman. There’s also been scuttlebutt that Tom Coughlin may try to lure Abrams to Jacksonville.
Mike Borgonzi, director of football operations, Chiefs: Borgonzi is now in the position Ballard once held and works hand-in-hand with GM Brett Veach, with whom he shared a title two years ago working under John Dorsey. Borgonzi could very easily have been named GM in Kansas City, and will eventually get his shot to be one.
Nick Caserio, VP of player personnel, Patriots: The question with Caserio has never been whether he could get a job, but whether he’d ever leave Foxboro. Could a team like Miami, which got Caserio to interview in 2016, take another swing? Another benefit of hiring Caserio could be “character coach” Jack Easterby coming with him.
Ryan Cowden, director of player personnel, Titans: Cowden played a part in building a Super Bowl team in Carolina and became one of GM Jon Robinson’s first hires in Nashville. The Titans have posted three consecutive winning seasons since, and have one of the better bases of young talent in football.
Ed Dodds, assistant GM, Colts: Dodds was quietly considered Seahawks GM John Schneider’s secret weapon for years. And it took someone with Ballard’s institutional knowledge to come in and poach him. Word’s out now. Dodds is not only a top evaluator for the Colts but also helps Ballard run trades.
Joe Douglas, VP of player personnel, Eagles: Douglas is another one who was under the radar and enormously respected in the scouting community for years. Because there’s rarely movement in Baltimore, he served as the Ravens’ national scout for years before bouncing to Chicago for a year, then becoming Howie Roseman’s scouting chief in Philly. He’s right there with George Paton (see below) at the top of a lot of lists.
Scott Fitterer/Trent Kirchner, co-directors of player personnel, Seahawks: Seattle’s rebound is great news for both Fitterer and Kirchner, who have different strengths but have been entrusted with a lot of responsibility (Fitterer on the college side, Kirchner on the pro side) by Schneider.
Joe Hortiz, director of college scouting, Ravens: He and Douglas worked in tandem for years, and the Eagles looked at trying to lure Hortiz north before hiring Douglas in 2016. Baltimore has reshaped its defense the last couple years, and Hortiz’s work alongside Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta has been a part of it.
Jeff Ireland, assistant GM, Saints: Remember him? The ex-Dolphins GM has absolutely crushed it under Mickey Loomis. New Orleans’ last three draft classes, and the 2017 group in particular, have a chance to shape the franchise for years to come. Ireland, who works the college side hard, has fingerprints all over that.
Will McClay, assistant director of player personnel, Cowboys: This is more a matter of “if” than “when”—as in, “if McClay would show a willingness to leave Dallas, he probably wouldn’t have to worry much about when offers would come.” McClay has coached, scouted and worked in analytics, and has an understanding of how to work side-by-side with ownership.
George Paton, assistant GM, Vikings: Paton’s now become sort of what Ballard was a couple years ago—a highly respected long-time No. 2 who’s been patient. Which means it’ll take the right team to pry him from Minnesota. Somehow, the Vikings have combined one of the league’s most talented rosters with a very healthy cap situation over the last few years, and Paton’s been in the thick of all of it.
Matt Russell, director of player personnel, Broncos: Russell worked for Bill Belichick in New Englan and Andy Reid in Philly, and you won’t often see John Elway at a game without Russell by his side. Those who’ve worked with Russell see him as an elite evaluator, and his experience as a player is a bonus, too. What should help him: Denver bounced back from a drafting slump in a big way with a bumper crop of rookies this year.
Eliot Wolf, assistant GM, Browns: Wolf is still in his 30s, has interviewed for a number of jobs and is now getting his first experience outside of Green Bay. Given his bloodlines, the fact that he’s got a Super Bowl under his belt with the Packers, and the apparent trajectory of the John Dorsey-built Browns, it’s not difficult to envision Wolf’s shot coming soon.
MORE SECOND CHANCERS: Martin Mayhew, 49ers; Reggie McKenzie, free agent; Scott Pioli, Falcons; Chris Polian, Jaguars; Jerry Reese, free agent.
IF ONLY THEY WERE WINNING: Brian Heimerdinger, Jets; Terry McDonough, Cardinals; Adam Peters, 49ers; Duke Tobin, Bengals.
FUTURES: Ian Cunningham, Eagles; Dwayne Joseph, Eagles; Terry Fontenot, Saints; Quentin Harris, Cardinals; Alonzo Highsmith, Browns; Rex Hogan, Colts; Brad Holmes, Rams; Brandon Hunt, Steelers; Champ Kelly, Bears; James Liipfert, Texans; Dan Morgan, Bills; Kyle O’Brien, Lions; Monti Ossenfort, Patriots; Jon Salge, Titans; Joe Schoen, Bills; Zach Truty, Jets; Andy Weidl, Eagles; Dave Ziegler, Patriots.
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