Ballard, most recently the Kansas City Chiefs director of player personnel, was hired by the Colts to replace fired Ryan Grigson. He’ll be introduced in a formal news conference on Monday and immediately get to work on moving the Colts ahead after consecutive 8-8 seasons.
Ballard, 47, starts a step ahead of most first-time NFL general managers. He has a franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck, and an offense that shows signs of spectacular play and needs tweaking, not overhauling.
But he must fix the defense.
Ballard doesn't need to build the 1985 Chicago Bears, although that sure would be nice. Building a version of the 2006 Indianapolis Colts (when Bob Sanders was healthy) would be a great start. Ballard must take a mediocre at best unit, and find a way to turn it into an above-average unit. If the can do that, he can eliminate the need for Luck to put the team on his shoulders and play out of his mind to put together a string of wins.
Ballard has been praised as a key part of the Chiefs’ turnaround from a 2-14 team in 2012 to the AFC West champion this past season. He has helped build a team that was solid on both sides of the football.
"He’s a savvy, organized and thorough talent evaluator, but beyond that, he’s a terrific person our community will be proud of,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said in a release.
Ballard has his work cut out for him, no question.
In building a defense, he will – at least initially – have to find a way to work with returning coach Chuck Pagano. Irsay has said Pagano is the coach for 2017. That could always change. Irsay wouldn’t be the first owner to change direction when “circumstances” change.
The fact Ballard’s official team statement says he looks forward to working with Pagano implies that Irsay’s claim about 2017 remains intact with a new general manager. Pagano was also quoted by the team addressing the hire.
“I am extremely excited about Chris coming on as our general manager,” Pagano said in the release. “He brings a wealth of knowledge and a ton of experience to the organization. I’m looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and going to work alongside him.”
Pagano had, at the very least, communication issues in dealing with Grigson. Irsay alluded to as much when he announced Grigson’s firing on Jan. 21.
The Colts hiring of Ballard’s prompted universal praise from around the league on social media. Ballard’s reputation as a scout – he spent 12 seasons with the Bears – led him to the Chiefs opportunity and made him one of the most sought-after football minds in the league. He was hired as Chiefs director of player personnel in 2013 and later promoted to director of football operations.
Among the teams that showed interest in him during recent front-office searches were the Bears, the Tennessee Titans, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the San Francisco 49ers. The Chiefs kept the 49ers from obtaining an interview this offseason. Ballard played football at the University of Wisconsin and later worked as an assistant coach at Texas A&M-Kingsville.
Irsay and the Colts chose Ballard over five other candidates, including in-house candidate Jimmy Raye III.
Now there’s a honeymoon period – at least until the Colts defense takes the field in 2017.
There are number of Colts defensive issues that Ballard must attack as general manager, including the lack of a premier pass rusher now that Robert Mathis has retired, an unproven linebackers corps and a questionable secondary beyond cornerback Vontae Davis.
Ballard has shown a strong eye for talent through the draft, as evidenced by some of the Bears picks during his time as a scout, including running back Matt Forte, defensive tackle Tommie Harris and cornerback Charles Tillman. Only Bears insiders know the extent of Ballard’s input, but he has been praised extensively by those who have worked with him, players who have known him and reporters who have covered him.
In choosing Ballard over Raye, Irsay will inject a much-needed fresh perspective into the organization. It can’t hurt to have a new person evaluating the Colts’ roster, needs and options for improving the roster. There are any number of ways to improve the Colts, through both the draft and free agency. Ballard will not have any preconceived ideas about the current players, either, so he can decide objectively which of Grigson's players are worth continuing to groom and develop.
Colts fans are rightfully excited about the prospects of a talented new general manager getting to work on improving the roster.
But if Ballard uses a first-round draft pick on a wide receiver, all bets are off.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.