How One Retirement Changed a Franchise and the Newcomers Who Could Save It.

The story of a retirement that shocked a city and an organization into years of turmoil and an opportunity to rectify the mistakes that followed.

Photo by ESPN
Photo by ESPN

The summer of 2019 in Indianapolis began relatively quietly. There was little action in the political world. The economy wasn’t showing any signs of crashing. Even the sports world in Indianapolis, one that is propelled by its loyal football and basketball fans, was being held at bay until the beginning of the 2019 football season. Everything was running its course.

The Indianapolis Colts were an establishment to be feared by the rest of the league. Andrew Luck was entering his eighth season in the league and had put up a near hall of fame resumé. The team had numerous deep playoff runs with Luck. Including a conference championship loss to the arguably greatest player of all time, Tom Brady. And a loss in the divisional round of 2018 against a baby phenom in Patrick Mahomes. After Luck missed the previous season with a shoulder injury, the die-hard fans of the city had plenty to cherish about the future of their football club.

On August 24, 2019, The Colts played a preseason game against the Chicago Bears. There was nothing particular about this game that drew people to the television. The outcome of the game had no impact on either team. The game was coming to its merciful end as one phone began to vibrate, and then another, and another. The once-quiet city of Indianapolis immediately became the loudest city in the Midwest, reigning down boos in Lucas Oil Stadium.

 Andrew Luck, the savior of Indianapolis Colts football, retired only two weeks before the start of the regular season.

 It’s impossible to predict the chain reaction that can be set off by suddenly losing your elite franchise quarterback with no succession plan in place. Chris Ballard, the general manager of the Colts entering his second year as GM at the time of his retirement, was thrust into one of the most difficult jobs in American sports. Find the face of the franchise.

When Andrew Luck was drafted by then-General Manager of the Colts Ryan Grigson in 2012, things were much simpler for the fanbase to consume. Luck was seen as one of the best prospects ever seen coming out of college and was going to be taken first overall no matter what in the 2012 NFL Draft. Conveniently, The Colts owned that draft pick.

The 2011 football season saw a bevy of action-filled moments and woefully chilling stories, not among those, the Colts. The Colts finished 2-14 while the future hall-of-fame quarterback Peyton Manning was recovering from neck surgery and was slated to find a new home in free agency. The Colts saw a glimpse of below-average quarterback play that season and unanimously agreed that the feeling sucked. One benefiting factor gave the city a glimmer of hope, and it came from Stanford, California of all places.

“The main reason why pundits, analysts and evaluators liken Luck to Manning is the intelligence,” A scout said, “Both quarterbacks are play-callers who have a fabulous understanding of defenses. Luck is the most advanced quarterback mentally to enter the NFL since Manning and the Stanford product may be ahead of where Manning was coming out of Tennessee.”

Because Luck was seen as a near-replica of Peyton Manning, Colts fans rejoiced when Indy won the lottery of being the worst team in football in 2011.

Since the day Luck retired, luck ran out in Indy. Chris Ballard inevitably caved to the public pressure that owner Jim Irsay created for Colts fans. Ballard attempted to band-aid the position with aging quarterback Philip Rivers in 2020. While Rivers is seen in many eyes as an all-time great, and his stats back that up, his age began to show late in the season, and Indy fell to Buffalo in the wild-card round.

Against the wishes of many fans, Ballard continued to band-aid the most important position in football. He traded a first round pick for Carson Wentz in 2021 after Rivers retired. They went on to miss the playoffs. He then traded away Wentz after one season and then traded for aged 37 Matt Ryan in March of 2022.

Matt Ryan drew comparisons to Peyton Manning. His leadership ability and overall adult attitude that he brought with him to Indianapolis rubbed off on ownership and birthed promising expectations for the 2022 NFL season. Many pundits predicted the Colts to win their division, something they hadn’t done since 2014, when Andrew Luck was their signal caller.

Unfortunately, those expectations were not realized, and the Colts struggled again. After starting the season 3-5-1, including a fifth consecutive loss to their division rival Tennessee Titans, head coach Frank Reich was fired.

When the news broke about the firing of former head coach Frank Reich, the local media began its quest to figure out who the interim head coach be. All signs were pointing to then special teams head coach Bubba Ventrone. A passionate leader who is a film guru. However, continuing the trend of shocking events, Jim Irsay hired ESPN analyst and former Colt Jeff Saturday for the job. Jeff Saturday had no experience leading up to the job offer but still accepted. Following the hiring, the press conference that introduced him as the interim of the Colts was a public embarrassment. Irsay pushed back on serious criticism of the hire and belittled loyal fans, including daring them to doubt the team.

The Colts finished the season 4-12-1.

All of the quarterback controversies that led us to this crossroads in the franchise started because of a preseason game, where Indianapolis unwillingly became the laughingstock of the league.

The Colts have been picking up the pieces and sorting them out since their merciful end to the season in December. They hired a new young and promising head coach in Shane Steichen after several weeks of grueling interviews. 

With the fourth pick in the upcoming NFL draft on April 27, The Colts will almost assuredly take a quarterback. Zak Keefer of The Athletic sums up Head Coach Steichen’s pursuit of a new and young quarterback eloquently.

“He’s looking for the “it” factor, and a coach knows when he sees it.”      

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