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NFL executives baffled by Colts’ hiring of Jeff on Saturday: ‘Crazy’, ‘Never seen anything like it’

The Colts left people around the NFL in a state of confusion.

“It’s hard to understand what’s going on there,” asked a leader of the opposing team.

This was the consensus among a few executives who were interviewed by Athleticism and granted anonymity for this story so they can speak freely after the Colts fired head coach Frank Reich and replaced him on an interim basis with former center Jeff Saturday, who has no experience coaching in the NFL or in college and had been an ESPN analyst.

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Additionally, Colts owner Jim Irsay opted for Saturday over certain qualified candidates already on staff. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and senior defensive assistant John Fox have a combined 20 seasons of NFL head coaching experience. It’s common for teams to promote a veteran head coach in such cases, as the Panthers did last month with Steve Wilks in the wake of Matt Rhule’s layoff.

Alternatively, the Colts could have given special teams coordinator Ray Ventrone a try, considered an up-and-coming coach. Or if they were more interested in the sentimental route by hiring someone from the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl championship roster, wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne and assistant linebackers coach Cato June are also part of the personal. How do Ventrone, Wayne and June see their future with the organization now?

Dive further down the rabbit hole, if the NFLPA leadership experience was appealing – Saturday was a key member who was credited for his role in negotiations during the 2011 lockout – the assistant coach of the Colts offensive line Kevin Mawae was the AP president from 2008-12.

Some of these references are clearly more important than others. But throw them all together, and it’s a recipe why other teams are so shocked at Saturday’s unconventional hiring. Other staff had similar qualifications to Saturday – all have more coaching experience.

“Never seen anything like this,” the executive said. “I’ll never see anything like it again.”

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It came down, of course, to Irsay’s close relationship with Saturday. And every owner has the right to make those decisions. But those decisions, especially the unconventional ones, always send some kind of message, intentional or not.

How will other staff members feel about being overwhelmed? How will the players react?

The Colts, after all, are 3-5-1 and still only 2.5 games behind the AFC South Titans and Chargers for the final wildcard spot. While the Colts haven’t always played like a team that showed they can run in the second half, the 2021 Raiders were evidence of a mid-season coaching change and a voice of Different leadership can sometimes be enough to trigger a team.

Irsay thinks Saturday can provide that spark.

“Because he’s a better fit,” Irsay said Monday night when asked why the Colts chose Saturday over the team’s own assistants with prior experience. “He’s the best man for the job, and there’s no doubt about that in my mind. I’ve been around for a long time. The last coach I hired as an interim coach was Bruce Arians. He was the right coach. So (Saturday), was the best guy. That is why. There is no mystery behind it.

“I’m glad (Saturday) doesn’t have NFL experience,” Irsay said. “I’m glad he didn’t learn about the fear that is in this league, because it’s tough for all our coaches. They’re scared. They go to analysis, and it gets tough. I mean, “He doesn’t have all that. He doesn’t have that fear and there was no other candidate. We were lucky he was available. He has tons of experience.”

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It’s fair to wonder now, though, if in the coming months, when the Colts try to hire their next head coach, how will potential candidates view the stability of the position? If Saturday is the property’s chosen replacement, the next set of interviewees will be alerted that something like this could happen again, according to a former NFL head coach. Those who already have head coaching experience tend to be more selective about their next job opportunities, knowing it will likely be their last shot, and that could now be a factor.

Two opposing team executives and an assistant coach used the same word to describe Monday’s events: “Crazy.”

The confusion wasn’t necessarily rooted in defending Reich, who is respected by his peers but understandably came under fire after a third straight loss – an uncompetitive 26-3 blowout in New England. It was the breaking point for a team that had big ambitions this season before opening with a 20-20 draw against the Texans and a 24-0 loss to the Jaguars. Frustration mounted almost every week as the team underperformed, especially in attack.

Now rival executives, including a few GMs, are questioning GM Chris Ballard’s future.

“They’ve smelled the QB position since he got there,” a league official said.

While that point has merit, Ballard — and Reich — also faced woes at the game’s most important position. Ballard arrived in 2017, and franchise quarterback Andrew Luck missed the entire 2017 season in due to shoulder surgery. Luck returned in 2018 and made his fourth Pro Bowl while leading the Colts to the playoffs, but he surprisingly retired in the 2019 preseason.

Ballard signed Philip Rivers in 2020, believing the veteran would play for several years, but he retired after one season despite taking the Colts to the playoffs. The Colts then traded for Carson Wentz in 2021 and Matt Ryan in 2022, and neither quarterback was successful. Ryan was benched last month.

Ballard has drafted only two quarterbacks in six years – Jacob Eason in the fourth round in 2020 and Sam Ehlinger in the sixth round in 2021. Eason was on the team for 17 months, while Ehlinger endured a few tough games during of his hearing for future consideration.

The Colts are in a precarious situation. Irsay could have promoted Bradley or Fox as a last-ditch effort to salvage the season, but he opted to face the optics of an eight-game tryout for Saturday.

It was a puzzling decision as it happened on Monday afternoon. And if that doesn’t work out and the season is truly lost, that will only be the start of the fallout.

(Photo: Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

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