INDIANAPOLIS -- In each of the last three seasons, the Indianapolis Colts have taken a step forward in the playoffs, leading general manager Ryan Grigson to have the type of dreams the franchise has not envisioned since Peyton Manning was quarterbacking them.
“I don’t know why you get out of bed in the morning and work these jobs in this league if you don’t have that belief that you can win it all,” he said during the combine back in February.
Grigson and owner Jim Irsay went for broke in the offseason by attempting to surround quarterback Andrew Luck with the best talent he’s had in his NFL career by signing veterans such as Andre Johnson, Frank Gore and Trent Cole.
Irsay said it was hard to remember a more anticipated season, saying it could be a “really special” one.
Instead, this team has been arguably the NFL’s biggest disappointment through the first eight weeks of the season. Here the Colts are at 3-4, barely clinging to first place in the AFC South, heading into Monday’s game against the undefeated Carolina Panthers (6-0) and staring at possibly their first three-game losing streak in the Grigson, Luck and Chuck Pagano era.
Luck and Pagano have taken the brunt of the Colts’ criticism for their struggles as the franchise's quarterback and its head coach. But it was Grigson who put the roster together. And that’s why his job status isn’t secure despite being contract for the 2016 season.
“When it doesn’t work, it can crash and burn so quick, and I’m not saying this has crashed and burned for them yet, but it looks like it’s heading that way,” ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick said. “He’s swung and missed on a lot of moves and ultimately that really falls on the GM. They could be starting over.
"I've been under the belief of this, they all came in together and they all had success together. Now that things have starting falling apart, the blame needs to be shared. It would be weird for me if Chuck Pagano got fired without them wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch."
Riddick has more than a decade of front office experience along with seven years of playing experience in the league.
Grigson has a reputation of being a tireless worker who has no problem taking risks. The risk he took in the offseason -- bringing in players over the age of 30 and on the decline of their careers -- has not panned out so far.
Johnson has only 20 receptions. Cole has yet to record a sack. And Todd Herremans lost his starting job in Week 3 and has been a healthy inactive twice this season. It also can’t go unnoticed that Luck, who continues to play behind a poor offensive line, is having the worst season of his four-year career, and Pagano’s coaching future has become a topic of conversation after each loss.
“It’s too early,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “As a veteran you know the chatter is going to change throughout the season whether you win or lose. You understand that. I think when the season is over with, then we can talk about expectations. Right now 3-4, we’re not where we want to be. We’re still first in the [AFC South]. Right now it’s a matter of finding our stride.”
This isn’t the first time that Grigson has been part of an organization that tried to stockpile talent in the offseason to make a run at the Super Bowl the following season.
Remember the hype surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles and Vince Young referring to them as the “Dream Team” in 2011?
Grigson, then the director of player personnel for the Eagles, saw that team add players such as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin. The Eagles didn’t live up to expectations and went 8-8. Grigson was very media-friendly during his first three seasons, but he’s gone dark since late in the preseason. He declined an interview request for this story through a team spokesman.
“Some of the misses he had are coming down on him this year, and people are starting to access how good of a team-builder that he is,” said Riddick, who was director of pro personnel of the Eagles in 2011. “And that doesn’t look real good this year. He knows the pitfalls of free agency. He knows how things went in Philadelphia in 2011 when, coming out of the lockout, we went all-in on free agency because we thought that would be the way to get over the top. That backfired. And as of now -- and I say now cause it’s only halfway through the season -- it’s backfiring in Indy.”
The Colts are in a tough predicament, especially if the season doesn’t go as expected, because they’re not set up for the future. The players they signed in the offseason are more short-term rentals than long-term players, and Irsay said they’re “not going to be making the splashes the next few years" on the free-agent market "because the money won’t be available because of the cap.”
Grigson’s first-round picks (outside of Luck) have not panned out, either. Linebacker Bjoern Werner (2013) is a backup, the Colts didn’t have a first-round pick in 2014 because of the disastrous Trent Richardson trade and Phillip Dorsett (2015) was the team’s fourth receiver when he played before suffering an ankle injury.
“They haven’t drafted well for the present and the future,” ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson said. “It always comes down to that. And they’ve had more hits than misses when it comes to free-agent signings. There are holes on the roster. Offensive line needs help, and they have one of the oldest defenses in the league.”
Hall of Famer Bill Polian agrees with Williamson’s assessment of the Colts’ roster, but he added that the season is too young to say they don’t have a chance to get it turned around, especially since they play in the AFC South.
“For heaven’s sake, the season is seven weeks old,” Polian said. “There are nine more games to go. The world will turn over three times before we reach January. No need to panic now.”