INDIANAPOLIS -- Chris Ballard's message has been the same since the day he was hired by the Indianapolis Colts almost three years ago.
During his introductory news conference as general manager, Ballard sternly said the franchise was not about one player. It was about every player in the organization, all the way to the last one on the practice squad.
Ballard’s mantra was put to the test this season when Andrew Luck, the one player the general manager was talking about, retired two weeks before the start of the regular season. It looked as if Ballard’s approach was working when they opened the season 5-2, with three of those victories coming against Tennessee, Kansas City and Houston, teams still alive in the AFC playoffs. The Colts were in first place and on a path toward a second consecutive playoff berth.
But then everything came crashing down.
It came in the form of injuries, which exposed a lack of depth. That, along with struggling play from quarterback Jacoby Brissett, caused the Colts to lose seven of their final nine games and miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
The weak spots that were exposed ate at Ballard as each body went down, as each week passed and as each loss piled up.
“It guts me. It pissed me off to be honest with you,” Ballard said. “I’m pissed at myself for not giving our coaching staff enough depth during this season, because we had a real opportunity to do some pretty cool things this year, and I didn’t do my job good enough to give them enough depth for us to succeed. That bothers me.”
The 2019 season was a real eye-opener for Ballard. As the Colts make their offseason plans in 2020, he will harp on building depth, and there will be no such thing as having too much roster competition.
When receivers go down -- they lost their each of their projected top three at one point in 2019 -- Ballard's goal is that coach Frank Reich and his staff will plug in players that keep things going in the right direction. He also wants to create competition on the roster that will push Brissett. Ballard said last week that the jury is still out on Brissett being their next franchise quarterback.
“I’m pissed, but I’m not discouraged,” Ballard said. “There is hope. We have a lot of good young players on this roster. We just have to continue to add. In the moment, yeah, not happy. Not happy with myself for not giving them the things they needed to be able to overcome some of the injuries we had. The one thing about this league is nobody cares about your problems. They don’t care. They’re just glad you got ’em.
“Nobody cares about injuries. Nobody cares. To be quite honest with you, I don’t make that excuse, either. It’s our job to make sure we have enough good players on the roster to win, no matter what happens. And I failed in that area.”
The initial thought would be that Ballard will change the approach he has stuck with from the start, and that he’ll suddenly become a free spender in free agency. The Colts are projected to have around $96 million in salary-cap space to add receivers, a tight end or two, some defensive backs and possibly a quarterback.
But don't bank on that.
Ballard’s feet are set in the sand. He wants to try to make wise decisions when it comes to free agency and continue to build through the draft, where the Colts' first pick is No. 13 in the first round, as he’s still trying to find core pieces for the foundation of the franchise. Ballard has been in the mix for some marquee free agents in the past, such as safety Landon Collins, but he sets a price tag on what they’ll spend on a player, and he’s very reluctant to go beyond what they budgeted.
“We have a lot of young players. Young players take time,” Ballard said. “We still have work to do. You all know my philosophy on free agency. You cannot buy a championship. You cannot buy a locker room. We will continue to go down the same road we’ve been going down. Saying that, when we get opportunities to acquire players that we like, we’ll do it. It’s not like we haven’t gone into free agency. Our general philosophy is always going to be to build through the draft. That’s how we’re going to do it.”
Ballard has to try to follow that approach closely because Luck isn’t -- at this moment -- walking through the door anytime soon. Ballard said on Jan. 2 that “Andrew is retired. I think we all need to accept that. That’s where he’s at. He’s retired.”
Luck’s father, Oliver, echoed Ballard’s comments on the Dan Le Batard Show on Wednesday that he “didn’t notice any hankering from [Andrew Luck] to get back on the field.”
That means the Colts have to do better at assembling a complete squad, because a partial one won’t get it done.
“You can always learn more through your failures,” Ballard said. “They stink. They’re not fun. But that’s usually when you learn the most about not only yourself, but also the people around you. I think we learned a lot this year. I think we learned a lot about our team, both good and bad. ... We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to improve. We’ve got to evaluate everything we’re doing within our program, and we’ve got to find the answers. That’s our job and that’s what we’re going to do.”