NFL execs baffled by Colts’ Saturday hiring of Jeff: ‘Crazy,’ ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

NFL execs baffled by Colts’ Saturday hiring of Jeff: ‘Crazy,’ ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

The Colts left people around NFL in a state of confusion.

“It’s hard to understand what’s going on there,” wondered the executive director of the opposing team.

That was the consensus of several executives who were surveyed The Athletic and provided anonymity for this story so they can speak freely afterward The Colts fired head coach Frank Reich and replaced him on an interim basis with former center Jeff Sabot, who has no NFL or college coaching experience and worked as an ESPN analyst.

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Furthermore, Colts owner Jim Irsay opted for Saturday over some qualified candidates already employed. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and senior defensive assistant John Fox have a combined 20 seasons of NFL coaching experience. It is common for teams to promote a veteran head coach in this type of instance, as Panthers last month with Steve Wilks following the firing of Matt Rhule.

Alternatively, the Colts could take a test drive with special teams coordinator Ray Ventrone, who is considered a coach on the rise. Or if they were more interested in going the sentimental route by hiring someone from the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl championship, wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne and assistant linebackers coach Cato June are also on staff. How do Ventrone, Wayne and June now see their future in the organization?

Delving further down the rabbit hole, if the NFLPA’s leadership experience was tempting — Saturday was a key member credited with his role in negotiations during the 2011 lockout — Colts offensive line assistant coach Kevin Mawae was PA president from 2008 to in 2012.

Some of those credentials are obviously more important than others. But throw them all together, and that’s a recipe for why other teams are so shocked by Saturday’s unconventional hiring. The rest of the staff had similar qualifications to Saturday — all with more coaching experience.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the executive said. “I’ll never see anything like it again.”

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What it all came down to, of course, was Irsay’s strong bond with Subota. And every owner has the right to make those decisions. But those decisions, especially unconventional ones, always send some kind of message, intentional or otherwise.

How will others on staff feel about being passed over? How will the players react?

The Colts, after all, are 3-5-1 and still only 2.5 games back Titans in AFC Jug and Chargers for the final wildcard spot. While the Colts haven’t consistently played like a team that has shown they are capable of a second half, the 2021 Raiders have been proof that a midseason coaching change and a different leadership voice can sometimes be enough to get a team moving.

Irsay believes Saturday can provide that spark.

“Because he’s better,” Irsay said Monday night when asked why the colts went with saturday through the team’s own assistants with previous experience. “He is the best man for the job and there is no doubt about it. I’ve been around it for a long time. The last coach I hired as an interim coach was Bruce Arians. He was a real coach. So (Saturday), he was the best guy. Consequently. There is no mystery behind it.”

“I’m glad (Saturday) has no NFL experience,” Irsay said. “I’m glad he didn’t learn the fear that exists in this league, because it’s hard for all our coaches. They are afraid. They go to analytics and it becomes difficult. I mean, he doesn’t have all that. He does not have that fear and there was no other candidate. We were lucky that he was available. He has tons of experience.”

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It’s fair to wonder now, though, in the coming months, as the Colts look to hire their next head coach, how will potential candidates view the stability of the position? If Saturday is a hand-picked replacement by ownership, the next round of interviewees will be alerted that something like this could happen again, says a former NFL head coach. Those with previous coaching experience tend to be more selective about their next job opportunities, knowing it will likely be their last, and that could be a factor now.

Two opposing team executives and one assistant coach used the same word to describe Monday’s events: “Crazy.”

The confusion wasn’t necessarily rooted in the defense of Reich, who is respected by his peers but understandably came under fire after his third straight loss — 26-3, non-competitive strike in New England. It was a turning point for a team that had high aspirations this season before opening with a 20-20 draw against Texans and a 24-0 loss Jaguars. Frustration grew almost every week as the team fell short, especially on offense.

Now, rival executives, including several general managers, are wondering about the future of GM Chris Ballard.

“They’ve been bloated at the QB position since he got there,” a league executive said.

While that point has merit, Ballard — and Reich — also faced misfortune at the game’s most important position. Ballard arrived in 2017 and franchise quarterback Andrew Luck missed the entire 2017 season with shoulder surgery. Luck returned in 2018 and made his fourth Pro Bowl while leading the Colts to the playoffs, but surprisingly retired during the 2019 preseason.

Ballard signed Philip Rivers in 2020, believing the veteran would play for multiple years, but retired after one season despite leading the Colts to the postseason. The Colts then traded for Carson Wentz in 2021 and Matt Ryan in 2022, and neither quarterback made it. Ryan was benched last month.

Ballard drafted only two quarterbacks in six years – Jacob Eason in the fourth round of 2020 i Sam Ehlinger sixth-round pick in 2021. Eason has been with the team for 17 months, while Ehlinger endured a few tough games in his audition for future consideration.

The Colts are in a precarious position. Irsay could have promoted Bradley or Fox as a last-ditch effort to save the season, but he chose to address the optics of Saturday’s eight-game effort.

It was a confusing decision because it happened on a Monday afternoon. And if it doesn’t work out and the season is truly lost, this will only be the beginning of the decline.

(Photo: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)

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