Of all the numbers from the Colts’ 11-5, wild-card clinching season — most notably the minus-30 point differential and minus-12 turnover ratio — perhaps none defies logic more than the following: 36 newcomers on a 53-man roster.
Another newcomer and PFW/PFWA Executive of the Year, Colts GM Ryan Grigson, is the man owner Jim Irsay tabbed to “rebuild the monster” after a 2-14 season in 2011 ended in complete upheaval. Grigson, a rookie GM, replaced future Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, and one of his first tasks was cutting ties with the most popular Colt of all, four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning. Grigson also ousted head coach Jim Caldwell, then just two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance.
“At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know if they (Colts fans) would be ready to move on,” Grigson explained to PFW. “We let go of a lot of great football players that meant a lot to this community.”
Grigson knew what needed to be done, however, and after hiring head coach Chuck Pagano and assembling a staff, whose new schemes required bigger players to fit it, the roster churning began.
“I’m talking like a scout here because that’s what I am,” said Grigson, who worked every job imaginable on his way to the GM role, beginning as a scout with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL in 1998. “But, to me, the guys that find players are the ones passionate about it and the guys that are willing to do the work.
“And the key word is finding. Scouts jobs are about finding talent. You have to literally find them, go search for them high and low. There is a vast number of human beings on the planet that are putting on a helmet and playing organized football.”
Grigson, who says hard work helps him form strong opinions on players, seemingly scoured the entire planet.
His first signing, ILB Jerrell Freeman, was the reigning CFL Defensive Player of the Year who, fittingly, played for the Roughriders. All Freeman did in his first NFL shot was start 16 games and set the franchise record for tackles in a season.
It was the first of many player-acquisition home runs — from the draft to trades to street free agents — for Grigson, who, among countless moves, completely turned over the team’s CB corps, acquiring Vontae Davis and Cassius Vaughn via trade and Darius Butler off waivers.
“What I’m most proud of, I think, of all things: I want to say we had seven guys — two guys from the UFL on our active roster (Teddy Williams and Matt Overton); Dominique Jones from the IFL, who was was active for six games; then you have Jerry Brown (formerly of the AFL), who, god rest his soul, was on our practice squad and active most of the year and Ty Nsekhe made our 53; Justin Hickman and Freeman both made our squad from the CFL.”
Grigson regularly went the extra mile to dig for hidden gems, but his first draft also qualified as a home run. After selecting QB Andrew Luck with the top pick, he unearthed several middle-round gems, including TE Dwayne Allen (third round), WR T.Y. Hilton (third round) and RB Vick Ballard (fifth round).
Although he had an age limit for rebuilding, Grigson’s and Pagano’s philosophy included having at least a few “pillar players” who would help spread the gospel of winning and being professional to a club filled with rookies and young players.
Much to the surprise of Colts fans and many NFL observers, they found a way to re-sign a pair of Colts greats who were unrestricted free agents, WR Reggie Wayne and OLB Robert Mathis.
“Reggie was a guy … we didn’t think we had a chance at him,” he said. “At the last moment, teams that were on him, and we just took a crack at it and Jim Irsay got out his checkbook and saved the day.
“We don’t win 11 games this year if we don’t sign those guys,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Wayne had a career year as Luck’s main lifeline. Mathis led the team in sacks. But the veterans’ greatest contributions may have come off the field.
Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia on Oct. 1. The Colts were 1-2 at the time, coming off a heartbreaking last-second defeat to the Jaguars.
“Collectively, those guys we signed, at critical points during the season when we could have went either way — when Chuck got sick, when we’re down 21-3 (at halftime to the Packers) or we just lose to Jacksonville on a last-second play — those guys, I can remember specific instances when I was crossing myself, thanking God that we signed these guys.”
The overriding message with Grigson, however, is that the Colts’ magical season wasn’t about one guy. Not him. Not Luck. Not Wayne. Not Mathis.
“This is bigger than one person. It’s bigger than all of us; this is about a team,” he said. “It’s special, and I’m glad that I was a part of it. I believe that it helped me grow — not only as a person, but as an executive. I saw firsthand how successful you can be if you get everyone on the same page — regardless of what is happening week-to-week.”
It’s about the team — built by Grigson.
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