INDIANAPOLIS — The text message to Indianapolis Colts assistant general manager Ed Dodds on that February night in 2018 wasn’t long. The phone call with general manager Chris Ballard was just as short.
“We have to get a new head coach,” Dodds said. “That’s exactly how he said it.”
“Nothing,” Dodds responded. “We knew we couldn’t sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. That wouldn’t get us anywhere.”
To Ballard, the embarrassment the Colts faced with Josh McDaniels’ about-face, when he returned to the New England Patriots after agreeing to become the Colts’ head coach, was just another minefield to navigate in his quest to rebuild the organization.
The unbeaten Chiefs are next on the schedule for the Colts, and Ballard will head to Kansas City this weekend, the city where he spent four successful seasons as a front-office executive before getting his shot to run a team in Indianapolis at age 47.
The 32 months he has been on the job have been eventful.
Going 4-12 with Andrew Luck injured in 2017. Firing Chuck Pagano as head coach. Hiring McDaniels, then losing McDaniels. Hiring Frank Reich. A 1-5 start to the 2018 season. Luck shocking the entire NFL by retiring two weeks before the start of this regular season. Working out six kickers while the league’s all-time leading scorer, Adam Vinatieri, struggled.
Through it all, Ballard didn’t panic, didn’t flinch and didn’t deviate from his plans or expectations, even if Dodds has wanted to say “we need to do something” to his boss at times.
That’s Chris Ballard.
“He’s definitely patient,” Dodds said. “He’s really good at staying put. I think all the great GMs are. You don’t overreact. You don’t panic. Chris always says, ‘As a leader, you can’t flinch with the people under you. You can’t throw a fit or something like that. You can’t get emotional in front of your guys.'”
Has Ballard been perfect? Of course not. But it’s impossible to be perfect in his role. He has been the ultimate penny-pincher when it comes to salary-cap space. He has sprinkled in some veteran free agents while making the draft his primary focus.
The Colts are 2-2 in the post-Luck era, coming off a poor performance in their loss to Oakland. Getting to the playoffs for the second straight season won’t be easy, and Ballard’s desire to continue a youth movement will be tested.
But Ballard won’t flinch. He can handle the short-term lumps along the way, knowing that it’s about the big picture and the future of the organization. Only 10 players remain from the roster Ballard inherited.
“I’ve been around a lot of GMs in my career,” Vinatieri said. “He understands the game, understands the process of how to build a team, and I think when he got here, there were things that needed to change and [a need to] rebuild some things, shake up the locker room a little bit. He’s always stayed really true to his beliefs, and it’s easy to follow him because we all know everything he’s done has put us in a good position and continued to get better and better.”
Ballard seeks transparency and does not believe in mixed messages. That’s why he sent a text message to his staff after their 1-5 start last season, telling them that everything was going to be OK and that he supported them. The Colts won nine of their final 10 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Nobody expected what transpired in the last week of August, when Luck told Ballard, head coach Frank Reich and owner Jim Irsay that he was going to retire after seven seasons in the league.
Ballard, less than 48 hours after Luck’s impromptu news conference, didn’t “sugarcoat” things about Luck’s retirement. He told his players that they were going to celebrate the time they had while Luck was with the franchise, but at the same time, they were going to move forward without looking back.
“We all go through something, and no job is easy,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “Chris is really handling what comes with the territory. There is no telling what could happen day by day in this business. Kudos to him for keeping a level head, really rolling with the punches and having faith in us.
“No matter what comes his way, he can lean back on our locker room. That’s been the biggest part. He pays attention to the locker room and leans on us and knows we have his back. You have to respect it because you can only honor a man off his word. As long as he keeps his word and continues to support the locker room he helped make, you can only hope to play for people like that.”
The season is only four weeks old, and there will be more obstacles along the way. Ballard might stew behind the scenes in his office, but he won’t show it publicly.
“Every time he talks, it’s the same consistent message,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “When you don’t panic and you don’t see the head guy panicking, it keeps the whole room calm. He does a great job of that.”