INDIANAPOLIS – When DeAndre Smith scans the room during offensive staff meetings, the Indianapolis Colts running backs coach can’t help but notice he’s in a class of his own.
“I read something that said, ‘The Colts have a fairly young staff, but Smith is the outlier,’” he recalled. “I'm like, I don't even see myself that way. But when you start saying the ages, I'm 54. I’m not old, but I am much older than these guys. I have a daughter that’s 30. So, it's kind of crazy to think about.”
Smith is not only the eldest member of Colts coach Shane Steichen’s offensive staff, he’s the oldest by a full decade over the next-oldest staff member, receivers coach Reggie Wayne. Beyond that pair -- and quality control coach Brian Bratton (40) -- this group is composed of a bunch of 30-somethings, including Steichen himself. At 38, he is the third-youngest head coach in the NFL.
And none of this happened by accident.
“I kind of wanted to go that route offensively,” Steichen said. “Young energy, youth, hungry. I kind of wanted to build that kind of culture offensively from a coaching staff, just being able to relate to the players, bring that energy, bring that relatability. Times are changing … Just bring that energy into that building every single day is what we want to get done.”
Steichen is the latest in a wave of younger head coaches to ascend to a team’s top job in recent years, a trend that stems, in part, from the success of Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams. In some instances, young coaches will opt for assistants with significant experience to bolster their staffs.
But Steichen deliberately went with a younger group because he believes it meshes well with the laboratory approach he wants to promote with his offensive staff. To that end, there has been a fair amount of innovation, coaches say. That includes some influence from the college ranks, where several of the offensive assistants -- like Smith -- have worked in recent years.
“There's a lot of energy, there is a lot of creativity, there's a lot of new ideas,” offensive line coach Tony Sporano Jr., 36, said. “Guys aren't afraid to speak up and be part of something collaborative, which I think has been awesome.”
Most of last year’s defensive staff was retained after Steichen was hired in February and consists mostly of veteran staff members. But on offense, where the Colts have almost an entirely new group of coaches, the makeup could not be more different.
Steichen’s approach of encouraging the offensive staff to be vocal while giving coaches significant input appealed to Wayne, specifically. Steichen made it clear early on that the former All-Pro receiver would have a true voice on his staff, and the possibility of helping shape the offensive direction of the team appealed to Wayne. It also helped solidify his decision to return for his second season of coaching after experiencing a disastrous entrée into the profession in 2022, when offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and head coach Frank Reich were fired in-season.
“I had some unfinished business,” said Wayne, who successfully lobbied for the selection of former North Carolina receiver Josh Downs in the third round.
Even with the youth movement, the Colts still were selective. Multiple staff members said Steichen conducted rigorous interviews before they landed their respective jobs. Steichen also resisted the temptation to hire mostly his friends in the profession, as is often the case. Even Wayne, despite his impressive credentials as a player and his relationships in the locker room, was not rubber-stamped.
“I had to submit my resume and I had to do my interviews and things like that and show that I was worth coming back for another year,” he said.
Sparano, who had been an assistant offensive line coach for the past six seasons, had a similar experience.
“It was incredibly detailed,” Sparano said of his interview process. “Everything from philosophy, techniques, scheme, what the mentality of the room would be, things that were important to me philosophically, to see obviously if we aligned. It legitimately was a really detailed process.”
Before hiring Sparano, Steichen said, the Colts interviewed “five or six candidates. The interview process with all those guys was six to seven hours.”
Another area in which Steichen was somewhat unconventional was in adding coaches from different philosophical backgrounds. While Steichen has had some overlap with Smith and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (38) in previous career stops, he has no history with other key members of his staff. Tight ends coach Tom Manning (39), quarterbacks coach Cam Turner (35), Wayne and Sparano had never worked with Steichen.
“It's kind of a unique deal,” Turner said.
Added Sparano: “Being able to get in the same room together and work together and collaborate on how we've done things, I think it's been awesome. It's made all of us better.”
Steichen recognizes his youth. It’s why, during the NFL’s annual meeting in March, he made it a point to seek out experienced coaches such as Andy Reid and Pete Carroll, picking the brains of the two Super Bowl winners.
But Steichen feels strongly about the young staff he has assembled and sees it as an advantage for his team.
Unless and until that changes, it seems Smith will have to get used to being the old guy in the room.