As acts of organizational sabotage continue, it does not become more egregious 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 college or NFL coaching experience, is the man who will lead the Colts — at least on an interim basis. “It’s for eight games, hopefully more,” Colts owner Irsay said of his new head coach at the weird intro press conference for Saturday.
It is an unprecedented gesture. The last time a professional football franchise handed over the keys to an inexperienced coach, the Beatles had yet to release a record, the average American home cost $12,000, and the communist government of the German Democratic Republic hadn’t started yet construction on the Berlin Wall.
As far as anyone can tell, Saturday’s only qualification for the job is that he’s Irsay’s pal; a nod to a time when the Colts were perennial contenders.
Just one problem: Saturday has no idea what he’s doing. His only coaching experience: guiding a private high school in Georgia to a 55% win-loss record. Irsay doesn’t mind. It excites him. “I’m glad he doesn’t have one. NFL experience,” Irsay said Monday night. “I’m glad he didn’t learn about the fear that is in this league. Because it’s hard for all our coaches. They’re scared.
Irsay also lashed out at the analytics and type of coaches currently populating the league to justify Saturday’s hiring. His message was clear: All people who aren’t my friends are cowards…or nerds…or cowardly nerds.
To add further insult, the Colts named Parks Frazier, 30, Indy’s response to Dwight Schrute, to be the team’s offensive playmaker. Frazier did not coach a position, coordinate a unit or call any plays during his six-year career. He is a former PA for former coach Frank Reich and the former assistant head coach.
These are moves that once again raise questions about NFL hiring practices, especially in the wake of The trial of Brian Flores, who accused the league of marginalizing minority applicants in favor of less-qualified white applicants and conducting “bogus” interviews. Saturday’s date will now serve as rooms A, B and C.
It’s a slap for everything coaches in perpetuity – regardless of color. You know the ones: the coaches who sleep in the office trying to figure out what the Miami Dolphins do on third down (throwing it at Tyreek Hill); who miss their child’s dance recital to recount the intricacies of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ zone pressures; who care a little too much about this stupid sport, to an almost pathological degree. They miss those moments, throw those Red Bulls in the hope that 10 more minutes means they find an advantage.
Irsay dismissed all of that. Know how. Knowledge. Live. Deserved. They mean nothing. You can skip the queue as long as you have a strong jaw, a fiery personality and the owner’s phone number.
An interim tag can serve as an ideal job interview for a full-time position, especially one with a team in the wrong division with a talented roster and an eight-game lifespan. These positions often work against minority or older applicants – but they remain one of the few examples where such coaches have a chance.
Irsay, it should be noted, is not the first to attempt this kind of maneuver. Earlier this year, the lawyers scared the Houston Texans far from hiring Josh McCown, a journeyman quarterback with no coaching experience in the college or professional ranks. McCown topped Texans roster before Flores trial crashed the rental. The Texans turned to Lovie Smith to save face, even though McCown expected to be in contention for jobs in the upcoming cycle.
Maybe Saturday turns out to be an inspired choice. In the middle of a season, when a team seems to have quit, maybe drafting a rah-rah personality that bleeds team colors makes sense. Additionally, Indy’s biggest problem has been its offensive line — a group it allocates more heading space to than any other team in the league — and Saturday was one of the best centers of its era. He’s legendary for his understanding of wards, so maybe he can help address some of those concerns.
Maybe — just maybe — Saturday could be the NFL’s answer to Steve Kerr, who left television for the sidelines at Golden State and helped usher in a new NBA dynasty.
But it feels like sifting through the rubble to try and find an explanation that fits. Bumping Gus Bradley or John Fox (both former head coaches) or Bubba Ventrone (a rising contender for other high-profile roles) as head coach when writing on Saturday from the ESPN studio to help with offensive line woes would have made more sense. Or what about Reggie Wayne, another throwback to Manning and Dungy’s glory days? Wayne is also in the Colts’ ring of honor. As the current wide receivers coach, he is more qualified than Saturday.
The other way to look at this is that the Colts are on a run to the bottom.
Irsay’s No. 1 priority is fixing the team’s long-term quarterback situation with the franchise still reeling from the aftershocks of Early retirement of Andrew Luck. The best way to do that is to make sure they rank as high as possible on next year’s draft committee. Through this prism, hiring someone with no idea of the job can provide Irsay with a top-notch tank commander. If you intend lose, someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing may be the most qualified candidate.
We should at least consider the possibility of Saturday being good at that, 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. Maybe he doesn’t need to be a schematic wizard involved in the minutiae of everyday life. Perhaps the type of CEO – who sets the message, delegates and focuses on things like organizing the team’s travel schedule – will be back in vogue.
Why stop there? Is it even necessary to be a football coach if the actual coaching is secondary to the role of CEO or inspiration? Does a team contact again Condoleezza Rice? Will Jeff Bezos name himself owner/HC of the Newly Minted Washington Primes? Why even have someone at the top? What if there was, like, a board of directors that decides things by consensus, man?
The NFL worked hard in the offseason to try to restore confidence in its hiring process after Flores’ lawsuit. He organized an inaugural coaching and front office accelerator program, designed to bring young people, minority and overlooked coaches and front office executives together in the same room as league owners, in hopes of breaking down some of the walls of “who you know”.
It was considered a success by those present. “One thing I think it did was demystify the diverse candidate, quote/decisive and shine a light on who we are as people and the fullness of the real individual,” said Glenn Cook, assistant Browns general manager.
It was a smart move. The NFL has recognized real problem in his hiring culture: owners by default people they know or feel comfortable with. Nepotism remains a motor force behind hiring. Rather than adding new legislation to the Rooney Rule (a rule that has been constantly changed), the league has attempted to close the distance between its owners and coaches.
The ultimate stress test for the initiative was to be the next hiring round, to see if new relationships forged at the summit would give a previously overlooked candidate an equal chance in the interview process.
Irsay torched this good work with just one phone call. Saturday’s hiring is yet another reminder that achieving one of football’s 32 most coveted jobs has nothing to do with what you know and is more about the friends you’ve made along the way – some cocktails and sofas cannot replace the relationships built over the years.
“I have no preconceptions that I’m going to be anything spectacular,” said Saturday when asked about his lack of qualifications for the job. Other coaches hope that’s not the case, and the league office hopes Irsay hasn’t started a trend.