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The Jeff Saturday Hiring Is a Crushing Defeat for Many Coaches

Colts owner Jim Irsay is free to run his team as he’d like, and Monday he did just that. But, in an NFL coaching world rife with hiring issues, Irsay also must reckon with what it means to push aside and pass over so many more qualified candidates just to get his guy.

Talk to people in the coaching world who are fighting for a more equitable and diverse system, and the refrain you’ll hear is that this is less about skin color than it is about résumés.

Stacking up a lifetime of work only to be passed over in favor of Sean McVay’s binder ring repairman can be a maddening experience, which is why some coaches feel so cynical and defeated about the modern hiring process.

And then something like Monday happens. Jeff Saturday, the ESPN analyst and former Colts center who last toed the sidelines for [frantically opens up Google] Hebron Christian Academy in Dacula, Ga., is now the team’s interim head coach after the firing of Frank Reich.

See if you can follow the chain of events in order and notice a handful of coaches with thick and promising résumés get wildly screwed, which might help explain why so many people in the football world are feeling defeated at the moment.

First, on Oct. 24, Jim Irsay makes it clear the team is moving on from Matt Ryan and pivoting to 2021 sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger at quarterback, clearly emphasizing a quarterback problem. On Nov. 1, the team fires Marcus Brady, one of the few offensive coordinators of color in the NFL’s developmental pipeline, announced via “thumbs up” tweet, making it look like Brady was the reason for the quarterback problem. On Nov. 7, Irsay fires Reich and installs Saturday, a move that—just my opinion—was made far easier with Brady, a logical in-house interim head coach option, out of the picture.

Irsay also chose Saturday over two former NFL head coaches—defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and defensive assistant John Fox—as well as special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, considered by some to be a future head coach.

One person familiar with the team’s inner workings had trouble speculating on exactly who would even be able to call plays on offense for the remainder of the season.

Jim Irsay talks to Jeff Saturday during a Colts town hall in 2019

Jim Irsay and Jeff Saturday on stage at a Colts town hall in 2019.

Irsay owns an NFL team and can do with it whatever he wants, as he plainly exhibited on Monday. There is no mistaking who has taken over in the cockpit and decided they suddenly know how to fly an airplane. But from an optics standpoint, he cannot reconcile the reasons he gave for speaking out against Dan Snyder just two weeks ago—that he wanted to leave the league in a better place—and whatever reasoning he’ll have for installing Saturday over a heap of far more qualified candidates. While the two are in completely different buckets in terms of seriousness and scope, the result is still outrage, skepticism, anger and whatever else might come up on my next search of “cynical.”

I understand that we now live in a time where you can be a talking head on basic cable one moment and Secretary of Defense the next. I know that we can now pay $8 a month for a blue checkmark and masquerade as an expert in any field of our own choosing (seriously, follow my page for up-to-the minute advice on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange), but the question is: Why would we want to? Why would anyone interested in the future of the NFL, who is well aware of its current track record on diversity and cronyism and well aware of the absolutely towering bucket of you-know-what that would have smashed into the Texans’ facility if they tried to backdoor the hiring of Josh McCown last year, believe this to be a reasonable course of action?

NFL interim gigs are big deals for coaches. It would have been a huge deal for Brady, who could have bolstered his head-coaching candidacy. It could have been a big deal for Bradley, who would undoubtedly like to have another crack at a head-coaching gig after his tenure in Jacksonville ended. Nine weeks on a daily press conference microphone could have been a great opportunity for Ventrone, who can apparently light a room on fire when he steps inside, but would likely be dismissed as a special teams coach when it came to head-coaching opportunities.

In all the fairness we can muster, Saturday was reportedly a consultant and had a long and successful NFL career. For the lay fan who doesn’t spend their time agonizing over NFL minutiae in Indianapolis, perhaps he is a fine candidate for the job in that he’s familiar and knows his way around a locker room. As Ben Standig of The Athletic points out, Steve Kerr was once an ESPN talking head and former player with no coaching experience (so was Steve Nash). Owners always have their short lists, and Irsay may know something about Saturday we do not.

But very soon, perhaps at this moment, he’s going to have to stand in front of a room full of experienced coaches who have been to and won Super Bowls, and young coaches who work mind-numbing hours away from their families so that they can one day climb the ladder and earn their brass ring the hard way, and tell them to ask “How high?” when he says “jump.”

Maybe we, in the media, are the real cynics, and this won’t be a problem. Coaches are used to falling into the chain of command. Or maybe Saturday and, more importantly, Irsay will have to feel the heat on this for a second. They’ll have to understand what this actually means to other people.

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