How Ryan Grigson Rebuilt – And Then Destroyed – The Indianapolis Colts

The Change

Inheriting a 2-14 team is never easy. Ryan Grigson came on as the General Manager for the Colts in 2012, replacing long time GM Bill Polian. He inherited an aging roster whose cornerstone, Peyton Manning, was coming off serious surgery and was uncertain whether he would be able to play another snap in the NFL. The team needed an infusion of youth; the players that were instrumental in the Colts’ 2007 Super Bowl run were shells of their former selves. Change needed to happen; and boy, did it.

Peyton Manning, fresh off a season (and possibly career) ending neck injury, parted ways with the organization. 28-year-old Joseph Addai, who had 133 all-purpose yards in the Colts’ triumphant Super Bowl XLI victory, was gone, never to play another snap in the NFL. TE Dallas Clark, Manning’s most reliable security blanket for the 9 years prior, was gone. Jeff Saturday, 6x Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer, was gone. All told, Grigson’s first offseason as GM saw the Colts turn over 70% of their roster. Ryan Grigson not only represented a regime change within the organization, but also the end of an era.

A Team of Destiny

Despite their dreadful 2-14 record and the departures of franchise legends, there was still a sense of hope and excitement among the Colts organization and fanbase; his name was Andrew Luck. Regarded as possibly the most talented and NFL-ready QB to come out of college since Peyton Manning, Luck was the sure-fire consensus #1 pick, and it just so happened that a 2-14 record was “good” enough to get that pick.

The Colts had a great 2012 draft not only because of drafting Luck, but also finding good value in the 2nd and 3rd rounds in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen respectively. Their second 3rd round pick was the steal of the draft: WR TY Hilton. TY and Luck instantly hit it off, and quickly became a connection reminiscent to that of Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne years before. In his first 5 NFL seasons, TY would post a total of 5,861 receiving yards, a number that would take future Hall of Famers Harrison and Wayne 6 and 7 years to achieve respectively.

The Colts completely revamped their team in the 2012 draft, and, they weren’t done. In late August, less than a month from the start of the upcoming season, Grigson shipped out a 2013 2nd round pick for Dolphins CB Vontae Davis. Davis would immediately improve an extremely shaky Colts secondary, and prove to be one league’s most consistent corners in the years to come, being constantly ranked top 10 among defensive backs by Pro Football Focus, finishing as high as second in 2015 . The 2012 offseason was a slam dunk for Ryan Grigson and the Colts front office.

This fully reloaded offense with the next great quarterback at the helm took the entire league by storm during the 2012 season, posting an impressive 11-5 record and playoff berth. The team rallied around Head Coach Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with leukemia during the season, was forced to sit out weeks 5-16 for treatment.  The 2-14 team that took the field just a year prior seemed like a distant memory. While they ended up losing in the Wild Card round, spirits were high in Indianapolis. This team was a team of destiny.

Cracks Beneath the Surface

However, there were some glaring problems with the team that hid behind their 11-5 record. According the Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), they were the 24th best team in the league. According to PFR’s site, “The SRS uses a team’s point differential and strength of schedule to assign a rating to each team, with 0.0 considered average”. With an SRS of -4.71, the 2012 Colts were well below average. They were also in the bottom half of the league in both points for and points against, suggesting that their 11-5 record was merely a fluke, perhaps guided by the team’s intangible will to make their ill coach proud.

The next Colts’ offseason saw Grigson do a complete 180 from the one previous, focusing almost exclusively on defense. In free agency, the Colts played small ball, signing mediocre talent to mid-sized contracts. Players such as Erik Walden, Ricky Jean-Francois, Greg Toler, and LaRon Landry joined the Colts in hopes that they would improve a defense that surrendered 24 points a game in 2012. Many thought these players were grossly overpaid for their skill level, which ended up being the case. None of these players would make a significant impact on the Colts defense, and they would all be off the team within a few years. 2013 Free Agency was a swing and a miss for the Colts. But, if 2012 was any indication, Ryan Grigson’s forte is the NFL Draft. All eyes were on him to try to repeat 2012’s incredible draft. With the 24th pick in the draft, the Colts selected Bjoern Werner, a German OLB/DE from Florida St. Many experts had him graded as a mid to high 2nd round pick, so the consensus was that the Colts reached. They passed up other defensive talent such as CB Xavier Rhodes, LB Alec Ogletree, CB Darius Slay, and LB Kiko Alonso. The next two picks for the Colts consisted of offensive linemen to help protect Luck. All-in-all, this draft turned out to be a complete disaster. Werner was one of the biggest busts in the draft, becoming no more than a below average rotational LB for the Colts, and eventually retiring from professional football after being cut from the Jaguars practice squad in 2016. Of the Colts’ 7 2013 draft picks, zero are currently still on the team, and only one is even on an NFL Roster (7th Round RB Kerwynn Williams). The 2013 offseason perfectly showcases of Ryan Grigson’s insane tendency to refuse to go with conventional wisdom. Whether it be overpaying Free Agents or reaching for talent in the draft, Grigson seemed to insist on making risky and unconventional moves during his tenure with the Colts. This trend would continue into the 2013 season, when he decided to make another bold move.

Just two weeks into the new season, the Colts needed a running back. Vick Ballard, who rushed for over 800 rushing yards in 12 starts the previous season as a rookie, went down with a season ending injury. The running back has been a somewhat forgotten position for the Colts ever since Edgerrin James left in 2006, instead relying on the passing game to keep their offense going. Grigson wanted to change that. In one of the most blockbuster deals in recent NFL history, the Colts traded their 2014 1st round pick to the Browns for Trent Richardson, who was drafted just two picks after Andrew Luck in the 2012 NFL draft. In his first NFL season, he started 15 games for the Browns en route to 950 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns. Sounds great, right? Not so much. In 2012, Trent Richardson finished with a DYAR of -51, ranking him 37th among 42 running backs with over 100 carries. According to Football Outsiders, DYAR or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, gives the value of the performance on plays where a RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. Among those ranked above Richardson are Vick Ballard (+10), Ahmad Bradshaw (+230), and Donald Brown (-5), all running backs rostered by the Colts at the time of the trade. Why on earth would Grigson think it was a good move to trade a first round pick for a running back that would be 4th best on the team? Richardson would play for the Colts just two seasons before he was cut, never to see an NFL snap again. This move once again shows Ryan Grigson’s insatiable desire to make “the next big move”, disregarding the facts and statistics that lay before him.

Despite a very shaky 2013 offseason, the Colts once again silenced the doubters and went 11-5, good for a second straight playoff berth. They ended up losing in the divisional round to the Patriots, who would then lose in the AFC Championship to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos. The Colts improved in every category, and ended up with an SRS of 4.04, good for 10th in the league. Now that the team proved that 2012 was no fluke, they were considered Super Bowl contenders by many in the sports media.

Once again, however, there were problems under the surface. Despite very good regular season numbers, the Colts defense fell apart in the playoffs, allowing 44 and 43 points in their two postseason games. Veteran defenders Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea were aging, turning 33 and 30 respectively. Bethea would eventually depart for San Francisco in the offseason, making an already shaky secondary even more suspect. In free agency, the Colts tried to bolster their front seven with the signings of DE Arthur Jones and MLB D’Qwell Jackson. D’Qwell Jackson would end up being a great addition, playing his best season and making his first Pro Bowl in 2014 with the Colts. Arthur Jones, however, failed to make an impact and would only start three games for the Colts in 2014. To shore up the secondary, the Colts signed 33-year-old safety Mike Adams. He would also be a welcome addition, making the Pro Bowl alongside D’Qwell in 2014. With the defense seemingly in good shape, the Colts focused on offense in the draft, Selecting offensive lineman Jack Mewhort and WR Donte Moncrief with their first two picks. These picks would turn out well, as Moncrief provided a steady receiving presence alongside TY Hilton and Reggie Wayne, and Mewhort provided rotational stability along the offensive line. The 2014 offseason would turn out to be one of Grigson’s only positive contributions to the team.

Dynasty in the Making?

In 2014, the Colts once more showed that they were for real, going 11-5 again and making the playoffs. They once again advanced a step further in the postseason, eventually losing once again to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. They improved again, finishing with an SRS of 4.43, which was 9th among all teams. However, their defense regressed significantly, dropping from 9th in 2013 to 19th in 2014. Free agent pickups D’Qwell Jackson and Mike Adams failed to make up for the losses of Antoine Bethea and Robert Mathis (who missed the entire season with injury). Grigson’s heavy focus on offense in the 2013 draft caught up to him, and it was especially apparent in the Colt’s embarrassing 45-7 loss to the Patriots in the AFC championship game that the defensive side of the ball needed help.

In the offseason of 2015, Grigson once again decided to take the small ball approach in free agency, choosing to spread the cap around rather than break the bank on one player. Just like 2014, he put his focus on signing veterans. On offense, WR Andre Johnson (34 years old) and RB Frank Gore (32) joined the squad. While Andre Johnson was pretty much ineffective and only lasted a year in Indy, Frank Gore would turn out to be a steal, and is still starting for the Colts to this day at 34 years old. On defense, the Colts signed OLB Trent Cole (33), DE Kendall Langford (29), and S Dwight Lowery (29). While these players saw significant playing time, none really lived up to the price tag they commanded. With glaring holes on the offensive line, defensive line, and in the secondary, the Colts headed into the 2015 draft. When the Colts’ 29th pick came around, there were tons of options. FS Damarious Randall, DT Malcolm Brown, SS Landon Collins, and ILB Eric Kendricks were among the viable options. Instead, Grigson chose to draft WR Philip Dorsett. Yes, WR Philip Dorsett. Apparently TY Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Andre Johnson, Coby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen weren’t enough weapons for the Colts’ passing attack. This pick received intense criticism among sports media, the Colts fan base, and probably within the Colts’ organization. Dorsett would end up being nothing more than depth for the Colts WRs before he was traded in 2017 for 3rd string QB Jacoby Brissett. Once again, Grigson foolishly strayed from conventional wisdom that said to draft defense and decided to get cute with his first round pick, a move that somehow might eclipse the Trent Richardson trade as his worst move. In the later rounds, however, Grigson redeemed himself a little by drafting DE Henry Anderson and S Clayton Geathers, both of whom are integral parts of the Colts defense today.

The Shoulder

With three straight seasons finishing 11-5, and going deeper into the playoffs each time, expectations for the Colts in 2015 were extremely high. The Super Bowl was the only thing on the team’s mind, until the unthinkable happened: Andrew Luck went down. With the team’s savior and most essential piece down, the Colts showed their true colors. Luck would only start 7 games in the 2015 season, and the Colts would finish 8-8. Once again, their record doesn’t tell the whole story. By the end of the season, the Colts had an SRS of -6.65, making them 27th in the league. They also finished in the bottom third in both points for and points against. It was clear that something needed to change to get this team contending for a Championship like many thought they were before the season.

In the 2016 offseason, when the Colts needed the most help, Grigson had the quietest offseason in his front office career. Despite enormous holes on both sides of the ball, the Colts made no notable moves in free agency outside CB Patrick Robinson, who was brought on to try to bring stability to the second CB spot opposite Vontae Davis. In fact, the team actually got worse during free agency, losing key defensive pieces in MLB Jerrell Freeman and S Dwight Lowery, in addition to TE Coby Fleener. In the draft, the Colts finally addressed a glaring hole in the offensive line, drafting C Ryan Kelly in first round. He remains one of the only constants on a line that is consistently changing and shifting, and was ranked one of the top centers in the league by PFF in his rookie year. Outside the first round, none of the Colts’ picks in 2016 have had much impact thus far.

The Comeback?

With Andrew Luck back at the helm, the Colts were ready for a comeback season; except it never happened. Once again, they finished a mediocre 8-8, and couldn’t make the playoffs despite Luck starting in 15 of the 16 games. Their SRS did improve, however, finishing at 0.37, 18th in the league. As most would expect, their offense was back in form, finishing 8thin points. The defense stayed the same, however, still finishing bottom-10. Within two short years, the Colts’ goals went from winning Super Bowl to just winning the division (one of the worst divisions in football, mind you).

After two straight years of mediocrity and disappointment, Jim Irsay and the Colts finally decided to part ways with Ryan Grigson, much to the excitement of Colts Nation. His refusal to make smart and logically sound decisions ended up costing the Colts dearly. When Grigson’s tenure ended, there remained only one player still rostered by the Colts from their Super Bowl run 10 years prior (kicker Adam Vinatieri).

Let’s summarize Grigson’s tenure as Colts GM:

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Record 11-5 11-5 11-5 8-8 8-8
SRS Rank 24th 10th 9th 27th 18th
DVOA[3] 25th 13th 13th 23rd 23rd
Off. Rank 18th 14th 6th 24th 8th
Def. Rank 21st 9th 19th 25th 22nd
Postseason 0-1 1-1 2-1

These metrics are very telling when evaluating the Colts under Ryan Grigson. In his 5 years as Colts GM, the Colts had very minimal net growth: +6 in SRS Rank, +2 DVOA Rank, +10 Offensive Rank, and -1 in Defensive rank. Having one of the best quarterbacks in the league doesn’t mean much when the front office refuses to build a solid roster around them.  New GM Chris Ballard will try to pick up the pieces of the broken dream that Grigson left destroyed, but it might take a while.

Data & Statistics courtesy of:

https://www.pro-football-reference.com

http://www.walterfootball.com

http://www.footballoutsiders.com

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