Why Colts' surprising turnaround didn't surprise anybody in Kansas City

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One evening earlier this season, Eric Bieniemy was sitting in his office at the Kansas City Chiefs‘ practice facility when his eyebrows furrowed with a degree of wonder.

Try as he might, the Chiefs’ 49-year-old offensive coordinator could not take his eyes off the blur in blue and white who kept popping up on his screen, over and over again for the Indianapolis Colts.

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“And I’m like, who is this guy making all these plays?” Bieniemy recently recalled to Yahoo Sports with a laugh.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the guy making all those plays was inside linebacker Darius Leonard, who was in the midst of a killer rookie season in which he racked up 163 total tackles on the way to being named a first-team All-Pro. He was the Colts’ second-round pick in 2018.

Their first-round pick, left guard Quenton Nelson, somehow had a rookie season that matched Leonard’s, as he went on to become an All-Pro selection as well, giving the once talent-devoid Colts the first rookie duo to achieve that feat since the Chicago Bears struck gold with future Hall of Famers Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in 1965.

Leonard and Nelson have established themselves as centerpieces on one of the league’s most surprising teams, one that rallied from a 1-5 start to win 10 of their next 11 contests and are now a win away from their first appearance in the AFC championship game since 2015. The fact the Colts are already back to relevance is a surprise to many, considering they were widely considered to be a one-man band, a group that managed to go 8-8 in 2016 only because of star quarterback Andrew Luck.

But when the Colts fired general manager Ryan Grigson after that season and hired Chris Ballard away from the Chiefs — the team his Colts will face in the divisional round Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium — his former co-workers in Kansas City didn’t think it would take Ballard long to put the Colts on the fast track to respectability, largely due to his considerable football savvy and coach-like work ethic, both of which helped him win allies during his four-year stint in Kansas City, first as the director of player personnel and later as the director of football operations.

“I’m not [surprised],” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Ballard. “He’s very well-organized and he knows what he wants. He’s got the energy to go get it – the energy and the eye to see it and go get it. That’s important in that position.”

And while the amount of talent that Indianapolis has added in only two seasons is impressive — of their 22 projected starters for Saturday’s game, only five are Grigson holdovers — the systematic way Ballard has gone about fast-tracking his team’s rebuild on both sides of the ball, making good personnel additions and hiring innovative-but-overlooked Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich as head coach, is perhaps the best proof of Reid’s assessment.

“Chris is a football guy — he’s all ball,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who worked with Ballard from 2013-2016 and insists he doesn’t use those words lightly. “He’s coached before, so he knows what he’s watching on film, and he knows what’s being asked of guys and what’s gonna be needed.”

General manager Chris Ballard deserves arguably the most credit for the Colts’ turnaround, and the Chiefs know it. (AP)
General manager Chris Ballard deserves arguably the most credit for the Colts’ turnaround, and the Chiefs know it. (AP)

Fixing the defense

When Ballard took over the Colts in January 2017, he inherited a defense in need of a talent infusion. Statistically, the Colts ranked 19th in sacks, 22nd in points and 30th in yards allowed, and they also had an aging edge rush that struggled to affect the passer as the Colts ranked 29th in 2016 in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).

Ballard quickly went to work, first adding free agents like edge rushers Jabaal Sheard, John Simon and Barkevious Mingo, then down linemen like nose tackle Margus Hunt in free agency. As it stands, 20 of the 22 defensive players on the Colts’ projected two-deep for Saturday were brought in following Ballard’s hire, a group that has collectively bought in to new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ philosophy as they’ve improved to the 10th-best unit in the league in terms of DVOA.

And when popping on the tape recently, Bieniemy also noticed something else (aside from the brilliance of Leonard, the blur in blue and white).

“The attitude and the effort,” Bieniemy explained. “Those guys play hard, but more importantly, they play for each other and they play as one.”

The tape checks out. The Colts’ Tampa 2 defense is fast and physical and they play to the whistle, an attitude that reflects the leadership of Eberflus, Reich and of course, Ballard.

“I think they’ve done a great job of building it and obviously making sure the coaching staff could paint a picture of what type of player and personnel they wanted in the building,” Bieniemy said. “That marriage goes hand in hand.”

Bieniemy says that’s something Ballard understood even in Kansas City, where he and Ballard regularly had deep football conversations. Ballard was even the one Bieniemy helped sell on Spencer Ware, a sixth-round pick in 2013 with some minor off-field issues who was released by Seattle but snatched up by the Chiefs. Ware became a contributor in 2015 and has been one ever since, but Bieniemy knew long before that Ballard had what it took to be a general manager.

“Oh yeah, we knew,” Bieniemy said. “Some people, they just have that it factor. First of all, he’s a great person, and obviously, he has a skill set for evaluating talent and evaluating people, that’s why he’s in the situation he’s in. And he’s passionate, he works from sun up to sun down — he keeps coaching hours — and he’s very invested in what he does.”

And nowhere was Ballard more invested than successfully overhauling an offense that needed to do a better job of maximizing Luck, the franchise’s jewel.

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy knows that he and Patrick Mahomes have their work cut out for them in the divisional round against the Colts. (AP)
Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy knows that he and Patrick Mahomes have their work cut out for them in the divisional round against the Colts. (AP)

Re-tooling the offense

Way back in August, Ballard stood in the back of an end zone during an indoor practice, expressing excitement about the potential of his offense and showering others with praise. After a 4-12 season in his first year at the helm, few were expecting the Colts to do much in 2018, despite the return of Luck, who missed all of 2017 with a shoulder injury.

Nearly six months later, Ballard’s words during that summer practice read like the proclamations of a prophet. Ballard spoke glowingly about the way the ball was exploding out of the 29-year-old Luck’s hand — shades of his old Pro Bowl self — but Ballard was more pumped about his new head coach, Frank Reich, and the development of a young-but-versatile offensive line led by the 22-year-old Nelson, the Colts’ first-round pick in April.

“When you bring in a guy like Nelson, in terms of his toughness, his work ethic and his performance … I think it sends a message to the locker room that this is what we’re gonna stand for,” Ballard told Yahoo Sports during training camp.

And now, following the Colts’ 10-6 regular season in which Luck was sacked a league-low 18 times, even coaches on other teams can see it, too.

“The young kid from Notre Dame, the rookie, I mean he’s a really, really good player,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton told Yahoo Sports this week. “He’s an outstanding player … I think he’s brought a little bit of attitude to their whole team, particularly their O-line.”

The only holdovers from the starting O-line are left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly, who are really good players in their own right. The starting left guard (Nelson), right guard (Mark Glowinski) and right tackle (Braden Smith) were all drafted or signed by Ballard, though a few contributors (tackles Le’Raven Clark and Joe Haeg) were holdovers, too.

Together, they’ve teamed up to form a fortress for Luck, who has completed 67 percent of his passes for 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and is a leading candidate to win the league’s comeback player of the year award.

But much of Luck’s success must also be attributed to Reich, who was hired in February once Ballard’s first choice, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, backed out of the position.

Who’s the man behind Andrew Luck’s resurgence? New Colts head coach Frank Reich (right) has played a big hand. (Getty)
Who’s the man behind Andrew Luck’s resurgence? New Colts head coach Frank Reich (right) has played a big hand. (Getty)

The right man for the job

In retrospect, it didn’t take either man very long — Reich’s first interview with Ballard — to realize that they were a really good match for each other.

“He’s just very direct, a straight-shooter,” Reich recalled this week. “I felt right there – I could just feel the integrity. I expected that but just football, through and through. It was a fun conversation and fun building that relationship.”

Reich, in turn, has been a revelation, as he and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni’s well-schemed attack has helped Luck get the ball off much quicker than he used to, and thus prevent him from taking the unnecessary hits that could put his shoulder at risk.

“Frank’s got a unique perspective on what he wants to do offensively,” Ballard told Yahoo Sports back in August. “I think we’ll get the ball out fast and we’ll take our shots, but at the end of the day, it all starts up front. You’ve got to be able to protect, you’ve got to be able to block people, and if you can’t do that, you can’t have an offense.”

Reich has backed up those words by establishing a versatile run game led by the O-line and running backs Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins (three Ballard draft picks). The Colts’ multiple run game allows them to set up quick-hitting short-to-intermediate passes to players like tight end Eric Ebron — a castoff from Detroit who caught 13 touchdown passes this season, his first as a Colt — and play-action deep throws to Pro Bowl holdover T.Y. Hilton.

Watching Indianapolis on tape this week, Sutton realized that the Colts’ offense was really well-constructed for a team that Ballard has been a part of for only two years.

“You’re not trying to build a roster, you’re trying to build a team,” Sutton said. “Talent makes a roster, but people make a team. And you can’t do it with just talent — you’ve got to get the right people, and I think that’s one thing he’s pretty good at.”

To football men like Ballard, the best way to gauge whether or not they’ve got the “right” players is by how hard they play. And Sutton, Reid and Bieniemy agree: The Colts’ 2018 tape — which is filled with well-schooled players who go to the whistle — is the type of team that reflects their old friend and co-worker, one they’re not surprised in the least he’s built this quickly.

“That’s a testament,” Bieniemy said with a smile, “to who Chris is.”

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