Chris Ballard’s future with the Indianapolis Colts is reliant on Anthony Richardson

Anthony Richardson
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Chris Ballard recently completed his eighth NFL draft with the Indianapolis Colts. During his time he established a reputation as being a good drafter, like coming away with Anthony Richardson last season. This aligns with his philosophy of building a championship team through the draft. And like all good general managers, he has his share of good and bad picks. 

Ballard’s first 20 consecutive draft selections signed their second contract in the NFL. He has now drafted 74 players during his tenure. Of those 74, 38 have been eligible for a second contract, with 29 signing a second NFL contract. Now, not all the drafted players signed with the Colts, 15 signed with a different team, leaving the remaining 14 to return with the team that drafted them. 

Reviewing Chris Ballard’s resume with Indianapolis Colts

NFL: Combine
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A major success of Ballard’s has been finding success with players in the later rounds—guys who were and are considered more developmental. Six of the 14 players who signed a second contract with the Colts were final-day selections. The players are Marlon Mack, Grover Stewart, Nyheim Hines, Zaire Franklin, E.J. Speed, and Danny Pinter. Only Mack and Hines are no longer with the horseshoe.

Now, when it comes to free agency Ballard’s been more willing to retain his own than bring in outsiders. While also being sure not to overpay for the big-name or top-tier players. The biggest dollar signing was the one-year contract for quarterback Philip Rivers. 

It’s hard to argue that any of Ballard’s free-agent signings have been bad since they’ve been on low-dollar and short-term deals. All of them have been assets for the Colts’ success or lack thereof. Despite his draft success and free-agent frugality, winning has yet to arrive on the field, which led to a lot of frustration and anger from the fanbase. 

The Indianapolis Colts have compiled a record of 54-60-1 during the Ballard regime. They’ve been in the playoffs once with one victory to show. The horseshoe has never finished higher than second in the AFC South either, doing so four times. And they’ve never finished last, finishing third three times. This isn’t entirely surprising since Ballard has preached about building a team. However, what is head-scratching is that the teams he’s put together have not been successful.

The NFL is a win now league and coaches, general managers, and players who do not win don’t last long. They are quickly replaced. Yet despite the Colts’ 46.9 win percentage during the Ballard era, the GM has been able to keep his job. In August of 2021, he signed a five-year extension through 2026.

Not too many general managers make it eight years in the NFL without having success. There are only three GMs who have made it eight years with worse success than Ballard.

Arch Wolfe from 1936 to 1946 with the Chicago Cardinals who went 26-88-5 (21.8%) with the team reaching .500 twice and the highest win total being six. Phil Krueger from 1978-1991 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 69-146-1 (31.9%) with the team reaching the playoffs in their three only winning seasons. Matt Millen from 2001-2007 with the Detroit Lions who went 31-97 (24.2%) with the team never having a winning season and the highest win total being seven.

Most GMs that make it six years and beyond have far better success.

General ManagerDurationRecordSuccess
Trent Baalke2011-201678-84-14 playoff appearances, 6 playoff wins, 2 Division titles, 1 Super Bowl appearance
Jerry Reese2007-201791-854 playoff appearances, 8 playoff wins, 2 Division titles, 2 Super Bowl Wins
Les Snead2012-present101-93-15 playoff appearances, 7 playoff wins, 3 Division titles, 2 Super Bowl appearances, 1 Super Bowl win
John Elway2012-202082-624 playoff appearances, 5 playoff wins, 4 Division titles, 2 Super Bowl appearances, 1 Super Bowl win

When you look at Ballard’s resume in comparison, a 54-60-1 record with one playoff appearance and win, and zero division titles, it’s amazing he’s survived this long. But he is a survivor who knows exactly what to say and do to stay in his current position. And now, just a year after selecting the team’s franchise quarterback (hopefully), Ballard is putting everything on the young quarterback’s shoulders. Despite telling the fan base not to view Anthony Richardson as Superman.

Before this year’s free agency, Ballard suggested that the team would be more aggressive since they weren’t paying big money to a quarterback. “We have more flexibility right now than we’ve had the last few years. A little bit of that is we’re not paying a quarterback big money anymore. We’re going to have some more flexibility. We’ll always be prudent, but we’ll be as aggressive as we need to be in free agency with players that we think can help us.”  – Chris Ballard

To be fair, Ballard made good on this proclamation as the team spent. Then the Colts went out and retained 11 of their 15 free agents, including star wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. Now of those 11, seven were on defense that ranked 28th last season. The only “outside” free agent the team brought in is defensive tackle Raekwon Davis. This strategy shouldn’t be surprising, considering Ballard spoke about consistency being important on this side of the ball.

Related: Predicting NFL playoff bracket and Super Bowl 2025 winner

Gambling on his drafted players again

NFL: Combine
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Now, Ballard will be pinning the success of this year’s team on hope, a gamble he’s done a few times in the past. In 2021, he didn’t add a veteran pass rusher after Justin Houston left. Instead, Ballard believed (or hoped) that DeForest Buckner’s presence in the middle, along with the growth of some of his young players and the additions of rookies Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo would get the job done. 

That didn’t work out, as the team wasn’t able to generate consistent pressure in critical situations. Finally, in 2023, the team signed Samson Ebukam to remedy the problem. Resulting in last year’s defensive line setting the Indianapolis Colts’ franchise record for sacks in a season with 51.

Now, in 2022, on the other side of the ball, Ballard made two big gambles. First, he thought that the collective play of Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Braden Smith could lift or offset the play of Danny Pinter and Matt Pryor. Pryor was the defacto starting left tackle for the Colts after they parted ways with Eric Fisher. Pryor showed some promise in his limited play the previous season, however, even he thought it was a bad idea to have him be a starting left tackle.

In that same season, the Colts did select left tackle Bernhard Raimann in the NFL draft with the idea that he would need some time to develop and they could rotate him in some during the games to gain some experience faster. Raimann got his first start in Week 5 and it didn’t go well. But he got another chance in Week 9 and has not looked back. 

Ballard’s second gamble was with the wide receivers. The team entered the season with an established Pittman and a group of wide receivers who combined to catch 27 passes the previous season with the Colts. To be fair, the team did draft wide receiver Alec Pierce and he finished his rookie season with 41 catches on 78 targets for 593 and two touchdowns. And, Parris Campbell had the best season of his career with 63 catches on 99 targets for 623 yards and three touchdowns.

However, the offense ranked 30th while averaging 17 points per game. And it remains to be seen if Pierce is the solution at wide receiver the team is hoping for. The Colts lacked explosive plays and so the team let Campbell walk in free agency and released quarterback Matt Ryan. None of Ballard’s gambles have been successful that same year. It’s been the following year that the team has seen some success.

Ballard’s recent decisions carve path to success, or failure

In the 2023 NFL Draft, the Colts selected Anthony Richardson and Josh Downs to help provide some explosive plays. Unfortunately, both rookies dealt with injuries during the season that forced them to miss time. Richardson only played in five games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. The offense did finish 10th in the league, thanks in large part to the successful play of backup quarterback Gardner Minshew and head coach Shane Steichen’s coaching ability.

Now, heading into the upcoming 2024 season nothing has changed for the team. The Colts do have a new backup quarterback in Joe Flacco who experienced a renaissance last season with Cleveland. But considering the franchise has aspirations of being better, Ballard and his front office failed to add impact NFL talent. This is the same mistake he’s made over the years.

The Colts are, again, hoping that the young players on this team take a huge step forward and that this year’s rookie class can hit the ground running. Many fans and even some NFL experts are expecting rookie wide receiver Adonai Mitchell to make an immediate impact on offense as a starter. There is certainly reason for optimism and hope for his success but an area of improvement, that could keep him from being a starter in Week 1, is his blocking ability.

That is an area where incumbent starter, Alec Pierce excels. This season will most likely make or break Pierce’s career with the Colts. He’ll finally get a chance to play with a strong-armed quarterback, so he’ll have an opportunity to thrive as the deep play threat he was expected to be when drafted.

While Ballard’s plans have been more successful in future years, they have yet to generate immediate success. And, as previously stated, the success of the Colts has been pathetic. It’s very possible that another year without a division title or at least a playoff appearance could be the end for the GM. It’s now been four years since the last time the team made the playoffs and six years since they won a playoff game.

The success of the Colts and the future of Ballard this season rests squarely on the, rebuilt, shoulder of Richardson. The organization is asking the 22-year-old quarterback, with less than five full games of NFL experience, to lead the team to the playoffs for the second time in the past eight years. There are many reasons to be optimistic that Richardson will have a fantastic season.

However, Ballard’s history of gambling on hope in the immediate upcoming season has not ever paid off for him. And this reason is at the crux of all the animosity towards him. His lack of successfully making a big move when the team is primed for success has led to wasted years and opportunities. 

The division appears primed to be a more difficult division than it has been in decades past. This is not your Peyton Manning’s AFC South. Houston and Jacksonville both have their franchise quarterbacks. Tennessee is in a similar ‘hope boat’ as Indianapolis with their young quarterback. The Colts will not have the luxury of being wrong with their overall assessment of the team. If the front office is, they could be looking up at everyone else in the division.

Related: See where Anthony Richardson lands in Sportsnaut’s NFL QB Rankings

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