A surprise benching, shocking hire and search for stability: Inside Jim Irsay’s Colts

Colts owner Jim Irsay looks back at the Colts’ season, including the collapse against the Vikings, Frank Reich’s firing and Jeff Saturday’s hiring. (3:50)

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts were on their way to a humiliating 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots on Nov. 6, and as owner Jim Irsay urgently sought answers, he turned to someone who wasn’t at the game, wasn’t on his coaching staff and wasn’t even in position to comment.

Amid one of the Colts’ worst offensive performances in years, Irsay grabbed his phone and dialed up Jeff Saturday.

“He was asking me what was going on,” Saturday later explained.

Saturday wasn’t watching the game, but by the end of that night, the former Colts All-Pro center went from prepping for his appearances as an ESPN television analyst the next day to mulling Irsay’s offer to coach the final eight games of the season.

At that point, Irsay had not discussed the Saturday move with anyone — including GM Chris Ballard. Even Irsay’s eldest daughter, Carlie Irsay-Gordon — a vice chair/owner like her two sisters, and someone who is deeply involved in all areas of the franchise’s operations — was said to be unaware of the plan until after coach Frank Reich was fired the next morning, according to multiple team sources.

Ballard responded with significant pushback to the prospect of hiring someone with no college or pro coaching experience. “This is unprecedented, and we’re putting him into a really tough situation here,” he recalled telling Irsay, to no avail.

Undeterred, Irsay moved forward. But the decision, once made public, did not produce the reaction he seemed to anticipate. Pundits characterized the choice of Saturday as unserious and unfair to better-prepared candidates. Irsay, usually beloved by his team’s fan base, was suddenly on the defensive.

“I’ve never hired a losing coach in my life,” he said on Nov. 8, during Saturday’s introductory news conference. “The last interim coach I hired became a Super Bowl-winning head coach — Bruce Arians.”

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Saturday went on to a 1-7 record, including a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, who overcame a 33-point halftime deficit for the biggest comeback in league history on Dec. 17.

The popular owner known for greeting fans at training camp by handing out autographed $100 bills, a man renowned for giving away Super Bowl tickets via Twitter trivia contests, seemed to be on an island. Irsay had made a major move impacting people throughout the franchise, and he seemingly made it independent of — not in conjunction with — his top advisers.

It was one example of several notable instances in the past year-plus when Irsay has taken the reins. The decisions he has made in the process — from trading quarterback Carson Wentz to firing Reich and hiring Saturday — have yielded limited results, and in some cases, were counterproductive. After finishing 4-12-1, the Colts feel as far from contention as they have in years.

Moving forward, with the Colts in the midst of a coaching search and a pivotal offseason, will Irsay continue to take an active role in football decisions?

Ballard said he had been charged with leading the coaching search, one that has targeted some of the most in-demand candidates in this hiring cycle. It has the look and feel of a traditional coaching search.

“I’ll go into it seriously open-minded,” Irsay told ESPN before the Colts faced the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 26.

The Colts have conducted an initial round of interviews with more than a dozen candidates, each of them virtually. Irsay had only cursory involvement in those, according to a team source, and was not among the six to eight representatives of the organization participating in the videoconferences. Irsay-Gordon and her sister Kalen Jackson did participate.

But Irsay’s involvement is expected to increase during the ongoing second round of interviews, and as the Colts close in on a decision. He long ago stated he considers Saturday a strong candidate, and sure enough, Saturday was among the seven known candidates to receive a follow-up, in-person interview. Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen are the others.

Not only are the Colts in the midst of a coaching search, they also have the fourth overall pick in the upcoming draft, one that could lead to them making a defining decision at quarterback.

With so many critical decisions to come, how Irsay proceeds is likely to have a lasting effect on his legacy.

THERE WAS A well-documented meeting at Colts headquarters late in the evening of Jan. 9, 2022, between Irsay, Ballard and Reich. The Colts had lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars that day, eliminating them from the postseason on the final day of the regular season. It was a gut punch like few the franchise had suffered in recent memory, especially considering the team seemed like a lock to make the playoffs weeks earlier.

But that meeting made it clear the stakes had changed for Reich and Ballard. Their seats were warm, if not outright hot.

It was the moment when Irsay seemed to adopt this more aggressive leadership posture.

Before long, team sources said, Irsay began signaling Wentz had to go. Soon, it was one of the NFL’s worst-kept secrets, complicating efforts by the Colts to trade Wentz because it undermined their leverage (Wentz was ultimately traded to the Washington Commanders in March).

Reich knew his job was on the line in the coming season, according to team sources, and he began wondering aloud to his staff whether dealing Wentz was a mistake, despite the player’s obvious struggles in 2021 (Wentz also struggled this season, playing in eight games because of injury and posting the worst QBR of his career at 33.0). But that decision had been taken out of Reich’s hands.

And it wouldn’t be the last.

When Irsay in October directed Sam Ehlinger to be promoted to No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart behind Matt Ryan, and then two weeks later, insisted Ryan be benched, Reich knew he was as good as fired, according to multiple sources.

“When you’re not able to make quarterback decisions, you kind of know where it’s heading,” a team source said.

In an interview with The Athletic in November, Irsay said it would be wrong to say he “mandated” the move to Ehlinger.

Attempts to reach Irsay for this article were unsuccessful.

What to do at quarterback has been the Colts’ biggest problem dating back to Andrew Luck’s retirement in August 2019.

The Colts have considered an endless number of solutions, including making a run at Tom Brady in 2020, according to multiple sources. Ballard was in regular contact with Brady and his camp at the start of the free agency period that spring. Conversations were more advanced than previously known. Just how willing Brady was to join the Colts remains unclear, as does Irsay’s level of motivation to sign a player who was his team’s archnemesis during Brady’s days with the Patriots.

The Colts ultimately signed Philip Rivers, who led them to the playoffs. After Rivers retired the next offseason, the Colts endured failed experiments with Wentz and Ryan.

“The quarterback position in this league, I think, is another one that’s too bent on convention,” Irsay said after Saturday, in one of his first moves, reinstated Ryan as the starter. “In the future, I think you’re going to see teams that need two quarterbacks, not just one.”‘

Thinking out of the box wasn’t confined to Irsay’s vision for quarterbacks.

“I asked [late Steelers owner] Dan Rooney once, ‘Why do you hire coaches so young?'” Irsay recently told ESPN. “‘[Mike] Tomlin, [Bill] Cowher. Why?’ He said, ‘Jim, they don’t have as much stuff to unlearn. They’re not encumbered by these things that they’ve learned and gotten comfortable with. They’re able to be more free in the direction they want to go.'”

Saturday has always carried a great deal of influence within the organization. He was among the people who called Irsay with positive reviews of Ballard before Irsay hired Ballard as GM in 2017. Saturday’s endorsement played at least a small role in helping to nudge Irsay in Ballard’s direction, according to a team source.

But Saturday’s more recent involvement has been more extensive.

In 2021, he took on a part-time role as a Colts consultant, having regular dialogue with offensive line coach Chris Strausser and with Reich, according to multiple sources. One source indicated the idea was originally broached by Reich.

As for the ongoing coaching search, this is what is known for certain: Irsay will make his thoughts known and will make the final call.

IRSAY’S GREATEST MOMENT as an owner came on Feb. 4, 2007, a rainy night when he hoisted a Lombardi Trophy following Super Bowl XLI in Miami.

But it’s been years since the Colts have won anything meaningful, their last AFC South title coming in 2014. Yet, every year Irsay gives in to the same impulses, talking about the idea of winning additional Super Bowls (yes, plural), even while the team is trying to find a viable path at quarterback.

In August, after a single preseason game, Irsay made more proclamations.

“Now’s the time to create another era,” he said, having previously referenced the Peyton Manning-led era that produced the team’s last title. “It’s been created in Pittsburgh. It’s been created in Green Bay. It’s been created in Denver. It’s about greatness with the horseshoe and continuing to show that eras don’t last forever, but great organizations do. And it’s up to us to go get that next world championship and create this new era.”

In that same interview, Irsay himself admitted that his repeated statements about his disappointment in the Colts’ winless streak in season openers were creating undue pressure on the team, so much so that his own employees implored him to stop talking about it.

While assessing his team’s poor season recently, Ballard said, “Here’s what we didn’t do a very good job of: We didn’t manage expectations very well at all.”

Is it possible the owner’s stated expectations had something to do with the team’s tendency to make moves that kept it in the mix but didn’t necessarily address its long-term needs? The yearly quarterback carousel — from Jacoby Brissett to Rivers to Wentz to Ryan in four seasons — has produced no postseason victories and could be viewed as an example of the Colts convincing themselves they were closer to a championship than they actually were.

“Three years ago, they said we were a quarterback away,” one prominent Colts player said. “I’ve been hearing that for three years now.”

Irsay has never been afraid to speak his mind, something he demonstrated in October with his sharp criticism of fellow owner Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders. Irsay was the first owner to publicly state the NFL should consider removing the controversial longtime Washington owner, a statement he made while the league awaited a report into the Commanders’ alleged workplace misconduct and financial improprieties.

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the National Football League that we look at this squarely in the eyes and deal with it,” Irsay said, before pulling back a bit on those statements last month.

Irsay has also been outspoken about his personal demons, acknowledging his history of addiction and spinning it into a positive with the team’s “Kick the Stigma” initiative that has awarded more than $4 million in funding for Indiana projects and programs in the mental-health space.

His transparency and availability have always made him unique among his peer group of billionaire owners. He’s as likely to strum a guitar with the Jim Irsay Band (yes, he has a band) as he is to speak out on the direction of the NFL, all of which has endeared him to fans.

In so many ways, the current generation of Colts ownership is different from the last.

Irsay has always strived to run his team in a manner different from his mercurial father, Bob. Whereas Jim Irsay has had a history of displaying great patience, Bob Irsay once fired coach Howard Schnellenberger in the first month of the 1974 season. The elder Irsay delivered the news to the team in the locker room in the immediate aftermath of a game, telling his players before bothering to break the news to their suddenly former coach.

Jim Irsay, conversely, showed great restraint in dealing with the interpersonal conflicts between former coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson that spanned multiple seasons — a dispute that led the team to employ a therapist to try to resolve the issues in the relationship.

The son had a front-row seat for all of his father’s impulsive moves, and he has generally governed himself in a much different way. That’s partly why Irsay has pushed back on characterizations of the Saturday hire.

“I mean, to think that Jeff was hired because he is some alumni buddy,” Irsay said, “that’s the farthest thing from the truth.”

At the same time, the Colts — who haven’t won a playoff game since 2018 — seem stuck in a rut, consistently falling short of expectations. And that is wearing on the 63-year-old Irsay, making it more difficult for him to stand pat.

In a message addressed to fans two weeks ago, Irsay wrote, “I share your frustration. I can’t stand losing, and I hate letting down our fans, and we had too much of both last year. But please know this — no one is more unsatisfied than I am. No one has higher expectations than I do.”

How far is Irsay willing to go to ensure those expectations are met? Over the past year, that’s a question that has become much more difficult to answer.