As acts of organizational sabotage go, it doesn’t get more flagrant than what Jim Irsay inflicted on the Indianapolis Colts this week.
No, you didn’t eat a weed brownie. Yes, Jeff Saturday, an ESPN analyst with no experience as a coach at college or NFL level, is the man who will lead the Colts – at least on an interim basis. “This is for eight games, hopefully more,” Irsay, the Colts owner, said of his new head coach at the bizarre introductory press conference for Saturday.
It’s a move without precedent. The last time a professional football franchise handed the keys over to a coach with no experience, the Beatles had yet to release a record, the average US house cost $12,000, and the communist government of the German Democratic Republic had yet to begin construction on the Berlin Wall.
As far as anyone can tell, Saturday’s sole qualification for the job is that he’s Irsay’s buddy; a nod to a time when the Colts were perennial contenders.
Just one problem: Saturday has no idea what he’s doing. His lone coaching experience: Guiding a private high school in Georgia to a 55% win-loss record. That doesn’t bother Irsay. It excites him. “I’m glad he doesn’t have any NFL experience,” Irsay said on Monday night. “I’m glad he hasn’t learned the fear that’s in this league. Because it’s tough for all our coaches. They’re afraid.”
Irsay also let loose on analytics and the kind of coaches currently populating the league to justify Saturday’s hiring. His message was clear: All of the people who are not my friends are cowards … or nerds … or cowardly nerds.
To add further insult, the Colts tabbed 30-year-old Parks Frazier, Indy’s answer to Dwight Schrute, to be the team’s offensive play-caller. Frazier has not coached a position, coordinated a unit, or called plays in his six-year career. He’s a former PA to ex-coach Frank Reich and the former Assistant to the Head Coach.
They’re moves that once again raise questions about the NFL’s hiring practices, particularly in the wake of Brian Flores’ argument, which accused the league of marginalizing minority candidates in favor of less qualified white candidates and conducting ‘fake’ interviews. Saturday’s appointment will now serve as exhibits A, B, and C.
It’s a slap to all the coaching lifers – regardless of color. You know the ones: the coaches who sleep in the office to try to figure out what the Miami Dolphins are doing on third down (throwing it to Tyreek Hill); who miss their kid’s dance recital to chart the intricacies of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ zone pressures; who care about this dopey sport a little too much, to an almost pathological degree. They miss those moments, crank those Red Bulls in the hope that 10 more minutes means they’ll find an edge.
Irsay discarded all of that. know how. knowledge. Experience. merit. They mean nothing. You can skip the queue so long as you have a strong jawline, a fiery persona, and the phone number of the owner.
An interim tag can serve as the ideal job interview for a full-time position, particularly one with a team in a bad division with a talented roster and an eight-game lifespan. Those positions often work against minority or older candidates – but they remain one of the few instances of such coaches getting a chance.
Irsay, it should be noted, is not the first to try to pull off this kind of move. Earlier this year, lawyers spooked the Houston Texans away from hiring Josh McCown, a journeyman quarterback with zero coaching experience in the college or professional ranks. McCown was at the top of the Texans’ list before Flores’ argument squashed the hire. The Texans turned to Lovie Smith to save face, though McCown expected to be in the running for jobs in the upcoming cycle.
Maybe Saturday turns out to be an inspired choice. At the midpoint of a season, when a team looks like it has quit, perhaps drafting in a rah-rah personality who bleeds the team’s colors makes some sense. Plus, Indy’s biggest problem has been its offensive line – a group that it allocates more cap space to than any other team in the league – and Saturday was one of the top centers of his era. He is legendary for his understanding of protections, so maybe he can help fix some of those concerns.
Maybe – just maybe – Saturday could be the NFL’s answer to Steve Kerr, who left TV for the sideline in Golden State and helped usher in a new NBA dynasty.
But that feels like sifting through the rubble to try to find any explanation that fits. Bumping Gus Bradley or John Fox (two former head coaches) or Bubba Ventrone (a rising candidate for other top jobs) to the head coach spot while drafting Saturday in from the ESPN studio to help with the offensive line woes would have been more sensible. Or what about Reggie Wayne, another throwback to the glory days of Manning and Dungy? Wayne is also in the Colts ring of honor. As the current wide receivers coach, he’s more qualified than Saturday.
The alternative way to look at this is the Colts are engaged in a race to the bottom.
Irsay’s No 1 priority is to sort out the team’s long-term quarterback situation, with the franchise still reeling from the aftershocks of Andrew Luck’s early retirement. The best way to do that is to ensure they get as high up next year’s draft board as possible. Through that prism, hiring someone with no clue about the job may provide Irsay with a tank commander of the highest order. If you’re intending to lose, someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing may be the most qualified candidate.
We should at least entertain the possibility that Saturday could be good at this, and what would that mean for the league and its hiring structure? If nothing else, it would open up the very idea of what it means to be the ‘head’ coach of an NFL franchise. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be a schematic wizard involved in the minutia of the day-to-day. Maybe the CEO type – who sets the message, delegates, and focuses on things like organizing the team’s travel schedule – will be back en vogue.
Why stop at that? Does it even need to be a football coach if the actual coaching is secondary to the role of being a CEO or inspirer? Will some team reach out to Condoleezza Rice again? Will Jeff Bezos appoint himself owner/HC of the newly minted Washington Primes? Why even have someone at the top? What if there was, like, a leadership council that decide things by consensus, man?
The NFL worked over the offseason to try to restore faith in its hiring process after Flores’ hard argument. It held an inaugural Coach and Front Office Accelerator Program, designed to get young, minority, and overlooked coaches and front office executives in the same room as the league’s owners, in the hope of breaking down some of the ‘who you know’ walls.
It was deemed a success by those in attendance. “One thing I think it did was demystify the diverse candidate, quote/unquote, and spotlight who we are as people, and the fullness of the actual individual,” Browns assistant GM Glenn Cook said.
It was a savvy initiative. The NFL recognized the real issue in its hiring culture: owners default to people they know or feel comfortable with. Nepotism remains a driving force behind hires. Rather than adding further legislation to the Rooney Rule (a rule that has been consistently amended), the league tried to compress the distance between its owners and coaches.
The ultimate stress test for the initiative was to be the upcoming hiring cycle, to see if any new relationships forged at the summit would give a previously overlooked candidate an equal shot in the interview process.
Irsay torched that good work with one phone call. Saturday’s hiring serves as another reminder that reaching one of the 32 most coveted jobs in football has little do with what you know and is more about the friends you made along the way – some cocktails and canapés cannot override relationships built over years.
“I have no preconceived notion that I’m gonna be some spectacular anything,” Saturday said when asked about his lack of qualifications for the job. Other coaches will be hoping he’s not, and the league office will be hoping Irsay has not kickstarted a trend.