KRAVITZ: Luck’s status shouldn’t matter to a coaching candidate, but it most certainly will

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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - It’s a question that every Colts coaching candidate will ask and want answered, even if no answers are readily available: Will Andrew Luck be back next season? Not because owner Jim Irsay says so – his record on this thing hasn’t been particularly stellar – but because general manager Chris Ballard says so, and Luck says so after a throwing program this month that will go part of the way toward determining his short-term status.

Let’s face facts:

With Luck, the Colts represent the most enticing job opening in the league. Except for the Detroit Lions, who have Matt Stafford, none of the other vacancies come with a ready-made franchise quarterback. We’re talking Bears (Mitch Trubisky), Giants (Eli Manning in decline or a rookie), Cardinals (Carson Palmer retired), and Raiders (who have Derek Carr, although it appears Jon Gruden is headed back to Oakland). Add to that the fact the Colts have the No. 3 pick and plenty of draft capital, have the third-most money to spend on free agency and are run by an owner who doesn’t pinch pennies, and the Colts offer a new coach the best potential to win soon and win big.

Without Luck?

Different story.

Ballard made it abundantly clear Monday he doesn’t want a new head coach who is only interested in coming to Indianapolis because of Luck – “I don’t want them to come here just for Andrew Luck,’’ he said. “I want somebody who wants to build something special and build a team that’s special, and if a candidate is coming here just for Andrew, then he’s probably not going to be the right fit.’’

Asked if Luck’s situation will give some candidates pause, Ballard answered quickly. “Not the right fit. Not the right guy. If he has pause, he’s not the right guy,’’ he said.

Should anybody have pause?

“No,’’ Ballard said.

But they will. Of course, they will. Especially those candidates who have employment options. Would you rather coach the Giants’ new quarterback-to-be-named-later – they will certainly take one in the upcoming draft – or Jacoby Brissett and maybe Brad Kaaya? These candidates will demand answers, answers the Colts may not yet be able to answer as Luck embarks on his next throwing regimen.

Soon after Ballard talked about how Luck’s availability should not and will not be a make-or-break issue for a prospective head coach, Irsay basically contradicted him. Kind of.

“Andrew just makes it that much more special and enticing because he’s coming back,’’ Irsay said. “He’s coming back. But putting that aside, the great fan base we have, the great tradition we have, the incredible stadium that we have..."

Yes, with Luck, this is the best opening out there.

Without Luck, the Colts are a losing proposition, at least in the short term.

Irsay would like to believe that the Colts are close to being decent, that the ball just didn’t bounce right this season, that with a few plays, a few breaks, “we could be one of those guys playing this wildcard weekend.’’

That, folks, is patently absurd.

Yes, the Colts blew lots of second-half leads. Yes, the Colts lost lots of close games. But they’re not close to mediocrity, not without their franchise quarterback, they’re not. True, Ballard has made them younger and more physical, especially on the defensive line, but there’s no getting around these telling statistics:

They were 30th in points allowed. They were 29th in sacks. They were 30th in total defense. They were 32nd in sacks allowed. They were 31st in total offense. They were 31st in red-zone offense. And on and on it goes. They were strong in turnover margin and that’s just about it. They were a 4-12 team through and through, and no amount of mental gymnastics should lead you to any other conclusion.

One thing is clear, at least to me: The Colts will not, and should not, select a quarterback in the upcoming draft, especially early in the draft. Unless Luck’s right arm falls off, unless Ballard knows something about his health that the rest of the world doesn’t know, there’s no way you blow a high pick on a quarterback.

I saw this happen in Denver in 1992, when Dan Reeves, whose relationship with John Elway was famously icy, drafted Tommy Maddox out of UCLA in the first round. The owner, Pat Bowlen, understood that it had come to an Elway-or-Reeves showdown, and summarily fired Reeves after the 1992 season. Elway would go on to win two Super Bowls under Mike Shanahan. Maddox bounced around the league, even doing a stint in the ill-fated XFL.

If the Colts stay at No. 3, they must think long and hard about either Bradley Chubb, the pass-rushing defensive end from North Carolina State, or Saquon Barkley, the electric running back from Penn State. The conventional thinking in this modern day is that you don’t select a running back high in the first round, but if you believe he is a transformational player, an Ezekiel Elliott, for example, you grab him and never look back.

Irsay seemed to offer a hint Monday, saying, “You put [Luck] on that field, healed up, and you put an Edgerrin James – maybe that’s bigger and faster – and let [Ballard] continue to do the job that he’s already begun to do, this is going to be a special place to be and a special place to play.’’

The rest of the draft? Inside linebackers. Offensive linemen. Wide receivers. It’s a long list when you’re coming off a 4-12 season.

First, though, a head coach, and the Colts, who’ve known for some time they were parting with Chuck Pagano, have hit the ground running. Already, several candidates are scheduled for interviews, and several more will come to Indy as the playoffs progress.

Dave Toub
Kansas City Chiefs Special Teams Coordinator Dave Toub stands on the sideline before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

My instinct tells me Dave Toub, the special teams coach at Kansas City and a longtime Ballard running mate from way back, is the leader in the clubhouse as the process gets underway. That said, Pagano was not on anybody’s radar until he was actually hired before the 2012 season. Nobody knew much about Andy Reid before he got to Philadelphia. Nobody knew much about Mike Tomlin until he blew everybody away with his interviews and got the Steelers’ job.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be my years of experience, Mr. Irsay’s years of experience in football, and you’ve got a gut feel of when it’s the right guy,’’ Ballard said. “I think the longer you spend with people, the more time you spend, the better you get to know them. You get a pretty good feel of who that person is and if he’s a good fit and can you have a good working relationship…’’

My personal preference is the Colts find someone with prior NFL head coaching experience, whether that’s Josh McDaniels, Pat Shurmur or another candidate. You may view them as retreads who failed previously, but I see someone who has experience and has learned from his mistakes. Bill Belichick didn’t win big in Cleveland; how’d he work out in New England?

Ballard said it shouldn’t matter to a prospective head coach whether Luck is going to return to form or not, but it will matter, and the sooner the Colts have some hard-and-fast answers about their franchise quarterback, the better.

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