Why Chris Ballard, Frank Reich share culpability for Colts’ horrendous start

Forget “all chips in.”

Forget the quarterback they scapegoated to Washington, convinced the problems would follow him out east. (They were wrong.) Forget the swings they took in the offseason, sure they’d do the trick. (Wrong, again). Forget the belief in the building that the beginning of this year was going to be different, that it had to be, because they’d learned from the “scar” that was last season’s epic collapse and they were going to be better for it.

Forget the hype. Forget the chatter. Forget what we thought about the Indianapolis Colts, and consider what we know about the Indianapolis Colts, 0-1-1 after another humiliating defeat in Jacksonville, 24-0, this team’s eighth straight road loss to the lowly Jaguars, which seems utterly unthinkable for every NFL team save for one.

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Right now, the Colts are a poorly constructed and poorly coached football team, with an aging quarterback and a bad left tackle, a one-man receiving corps, an overpaid and underachieving offensive line and a lifeless defense that’s grossly lacking an identity while at its best. player is sidelined.

Two games in, the Colts — a popular pick to win the AFC South — have played like one of the worst teams in football, outschemed and largely outplayed in consecutive weeks by a pair of opponents, the Texans and Jaguars, that most figure will finish at or near the bottom of the league.

Consider: The Colts have entered the fourth quarter of those two games trailing by a combined score of 44-3.

Consider: The Jaguars have won just 15 home games since 2018. Five of those wins have come against the Colts.

Consider: Indianapolis has been shut out just three times since 2003, a span of 306 regular-season games. All three shutouts have come against Jacksonville, the fourth-worst team in the league over that stretch.

The Colts’ flaws have been attacked and exposed. This team has not been prepared. It hasn’t finished.

At times, it hasn’t even competed.


Frank Reich looks on against the Jaguars during the fourth quarter Sunday. (Douglas DeFelice/USA Today)

“We got our ass beat,” fumed center Ryan Kelly.

“I’m saying from top to bottom,” added defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, “everybody has got to look themselves in the mirror and figure it out.”

For all the talk of preparation, of the sense of urgency permeating the building last week, the Colts looked like a team that hadn’t touched a football in seven days. They looked like they didn’t have a clue what they were doing.

They looked… a lot like they did in January when they lost to this same team on this same field in this same, embarrassing fashion. Coach Frank Reich came to call that afternoon “a scar,” something he wouldn’t remove even if he could. He wanted those lessons to stay with him, to make himself and his team better. He opened his first team meeting in the spring with those words.

Sunday showed us nothing’s changed.

With plenty to play for — the embarrassing losing streak in Jacksonville, a divisional road game — the Colts looked uninspired Sunday, even unmotivated.

Reich disagreed after the loss.

“One of the things I said to the guys in there, and it doesn’t make anybody feel any better, but I think I’ve been around long enough to know that as pathetic as that was today, where that is and where we need to be, the distance is not that far,” the coach said. “It’s not that far because we’ve got the guys, the players and coaches to do it.

“I know that doesn’t play in the outside world, and I’m fine with that. We’ll take our medicine. I’ll take my medicine, and we’ll just keep doing what we do.”

It starts with Reich, certainly, but doesn’t end there. The Colts’ fifth-year head coach put his team through two physical practices Wednesday and Thursday — Reich actually said the Colts’ intensity was at “an all-time high” — then did something he’s never done: cut Friday’s practice. The Colts staged just a walk-through, the hope being the extra rest would help them prepare for the Florida heat.

Nope.

Didn’t work.

There must be a correlation, then, because their performance Sunday felt like an all-time low.

“We’ll get better and pick ourselves up off the mat,” Reich vowed. “It’s early in the season. Obviously, a very poor showing in every way. We’ve got to learn from it and move on.”

This was as abysmal an offensive performance the Colts have had under Reich. Just nine first downs. Two-for-10 on third down. Three interceptions from quarterback Matt Ryan. It was ugly, all of it, and everyone has their hands dirty.

The play calling’s been poor, the execution worse. The Colts have one of the most dynamic weapons in the league in their backfield in Jonathan Taylor, and two weeks in, it hasn’t seemed to matter.

Don’t anticipate any moves from owner Jim Irsay, who was surely irate after Sunday’s game, but don’t think Reich’s seat isn’t getting warmer. The anger Irsay carried with him into the offseason after January’s unthinkable collapse has not left his mind. If the Colts keep playing like this, Irsay will have to make a decision at the end of the season. (In his 25 years as team owner, he’s never fired a coach midseason.)

Don’t absolve the general manager, either. Chris Ballard’s decisions in the spring and summer have cost his team in a big way. “We like our group,” Ballard offered just two weeks ago, pressed on the Colts’ thin receiving core behind Michael Pittman Jr. We witnessed Sunday what this team looks like without its star: among the worst receiving corps in the league.

“We need to add some more weapons,” Ballard said in the spring, before he chose not to add more weapons in free agency, instead drafting a wideout in the second round (Alec Pierce) who dropped a critical touchdown last Sunday in Houston then missed the game in Jacksonville with a concussion.

The receiver issue was dissected and debated all spring. Colts brass was asked about it, repeatedly, and each time leaned on a familiar refrain: They liked what they had. They were willing to roll the dice. That they chose not to bring back TY Hilton for an 11th season, figuring the young guns behind Pittman would take a step forward, looks like an egregious oversight.

“I’m hoping that there’s one guy in that group that nobody is thinking is going to be a guy and they become a legit guy,” Reich said in April.

Save Pittman, they don’t have any legit guys. Not yet. And when your quarterback’s 37 years old and your tight end group is a liability and your left tackle can’t hold up against speed on the edge, well, you’re 0-1-1 with the meat of your schedule still on deck.

Speaking of the offensive line, that unit is no longer elite and has not been in two solid years. A group that became the backbone of this team in 2018 and remained stellar through 2020 has regressed considerably. Ballard’s line is eating up $42.2 million of the team’s salary cap space this season — most in the league — while allowing seven sacks and 18 hits on Ryan in just two games.

The Colts figured Matt Pryor would be enough at left tackle. He hasn’t been.

On defense, Ballard traded for a pass rusher, Yannick Ngakoue, who’s making $13 million this season and has no sacks in two games. In fact, the Colts didn’t sniff Jags QB Trevor Lawrence on Sunday, affording him enough time in the pocket to carve them up for a second straight game.

Lawrence’s last two outings versus the Colts: 48-for-62 (77 percent), 458 yards, four touchdowns, no picks and a 116.6 rating.

His career rating against every other team: 71.2.

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Save a late-game rally in Houston, coordinator Gus Bradley’s defensive unit has been extremely underwhelming. And Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert are still on the schedule.

Nothing the Colts say this week matters. No tarmac videos from owner Irsay, in front of his private plane, will make a difference. The decisions they’ve made over the past several months have cost them dearly, and there are issues on this roster that can’t be fixed midseason.

This is the bed they’ve made themselves, and they’re going to have to lie in it for four long months.

“I’ve got my ass kicked before, I know that much,” Ryan said. “It’s all about how you respond. You get up off the floor. It happens in this league.”

It’s been happening to the Colts a lot lately, and they’ve yet to get off the floor. Bad as they’ve been, it’s just two games, but the concerns are warranted. The Colts had eight long months to learn from all that went wrong and correct it. They crumbled at the end of last season, losing two straight with a playoff berth on the line, then vowed it wouldn’t — it couldn’t — happen again.

The problem with that?

They opened this year looking like the exact same team.

(Top photo: Douglas DeFelice / USA Today)

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