Colts' hiring of interim Jeff Saturday is already wild. But his success could be a problem for the NFL.
Only minutes into what amounted to the most enthusiastic sales pitch for an interim coach in NFL history, the only person in earshot of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay who was buying the temporary nature of Jeff Saturday’s employment was Irsay himself. And that was likely only because Irsay kept making sure to underscore the “interim” tag himself, like a gubernatorial candidate circling back to the spine of his political talking points.
But if you absorbed the full weight of the news conference that was Saturday’s first introduction as any type of NFL coach whatsoever, you likely felt the significant gravity of one theme: This hire is real. It’s not some oddly genius maneuver to tank into some highly sought quarterback in the next draft. Irsay is bringing Saturday in with the goal of eventually installing him as the permanent head coaching fixture for his franchise.
Given how this all went down, this could be a significant Rooney Rule loophole/headache for the league. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first we must stand back and contemplate Irsay turning a historically routine transfer of title into something with lasting ramifications.
Yes, Jim Irsay made a comparison to Don Shula
We’ve seen interim head coaching hires, but nothing like this. Nothing that coupled a candidate from the outside of an organization and lacking any coaching résumé above the high school level. They're credentials that should scream that an audition is temporary in nature, only to have that assumption drown in a sea of superlatives. That’s what Irsay lavished Saturday in his introduction — a ceremony fit for not just a new coach, but an addition the Colts owner had been seemingly thirsting after for some time.
This is how he described his feelings for (and about) the former Colts center, who played for the franchise from 1999 to 2011: “Very excited ... thrilled … fully experienced … fully capable … extremely smart …extremely competitive ... understands the game ... ”
“You want to bet against this guy?” Irsay said in a moment of emotional punctuation. “Put your money down, people. Love to see it.”
There was something almost cartoonish about all of it. Not just because Saturday appears to be the first interim coach since 1961 without any college or NFL level coaching, but also because it was hard to follow the metric that Irsay was using to override that reality. Rather than even one solid data point, Irsay offered a jumbled tapestry of memories, feelings and metaphors leaning into his gut instinct.
“Yes, there’s a maturation curve,” Irsay said at one point. “[Don] Shula was 32 years old. He had three nondescript years with the Detroit Lions before he took over the reins [for the Baltimore Colts] in 1963. No, the game is not different. We don’t build rockets to go to Mars. We’re not nuclear scientists. That is none of our jobs here. It’s very simple jobs that we do here. We cultivate winning cultures. We cultivate toughness.”
Well, there’s that. Intermingling this hire with that of Shula, one of the greatest to ever coach in the NFL. Who also had two years of college experience and three in the NFL before he was given a head coaching job. In 1963, no less. Sixty years ago. That’s a deep cut, right along with his reference about learning the weekly install with Ted Marchibroda, who hasn’t been a Colts coach since 1995. It was almost this century, so that felt like progress. And he went on.
Why NFL sees Rooney Rule headache on horizon
He called Saturday’s hiring an “intuitive decision” and how choosing Super Bowl-winning head coach Tony Dungy was methodical and analytical “like the CIA.” But this? This was the opposite. Less like the precision of the clandestine organization and more like something extremely careless at the DMV.
“You’ve seen the inside of a car before? Excellent. Let’s get you onto the freeway.”
Here's how Irsay framed Saturday’s lack of coaching credentials at one point: “I’m glad he doesn’t have NFL experience. 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. They go to analytics and it gets difficult. I mean, he doesn’t have all that. He doesn’t have that fear.”
We could probably spend all day on the one-liners. But hopefully everyone gets the point by now. Irsay is totally flying by the seat of his pants on this one. He’s leaning into familiarity and reaching for the past, like someone clinging to an old photograph that seems to get more yellow with time. Sometimes this happens with NFL franchises. And in this case, at least some of the mystery was translated by Irsay himself, who noted that Saturday has been a “paid consultant” for years, “informing” the Colts' owner, general manager Chris Ballard and others of his opinions regarding the team.
It’s not rare that someone who has the ear of a team owner ends up with a job in the organization. It’s rare for that job to be atop the food chain and so clearly meant to be more permanent than the interim tag. It's a reality that has to concern the NFL, which must see the loophole here that Irsay exposed. Not to mention the inevitable cries of sham minority interviews if Saturday ultimately ends up turning this supposed test run into a permanent job.
Irsay just showcased that if you want to go make some kind of head coaching hire of whoever is available in the manner Saturday was (think: any coaches in the media ranks), you can get them into the fold under the “interim” tag and then maneuver them into the job permanently at the end of the season. While that’s unlikely to happen with heavy-hitting names like Sean Payton, it’s certainly achievable with some of these out-of-the-box test runs like Saturday. Certainly this could have been utilized by the Houston Texans when some senior members of that franchise had an infatuation with potentially making Josh McCown their next head coach last season, when he didn’t have any coaching credentials to speak of.
Nobody in Houston thought of this kind of work-around. If they had, McCown might have gotten a few games of on-the-job-training late last season under an interim tag, potentially setting up a sham process that installed him as Texans head coach this season. Instead, the Texans waited until the offseason and then had the pursuit blown up by the Brian Flores class-action lawsuit against the league, which is alleging racial discrimination in the exact kind of process that will draw some leery eyes toward the Colts.
If Saturday solidifies himself as the permanent head coach in Indianapolis, it won’t matter that Irsay will try to deflect Rooney Rule concerns by pointing to Tony Dungy as a head coach he previously hired, or that Dungy was succeeded by Jim Caldwell for the next three years after Dungy’s retirement. All anyone will care about is the optics of here and now. And those optics were clear Monday.
Irsay brought in Saturday without needing to satisfy the Rooney Rule because it’s for an interim coaching title. But the design is for Saturday to eventually have that job permanently. How he makes that happen with minority candidates seeing the tone of that introductory news conference is anyone’s guess.
Irsay’s underlying goal isn’t shrouded after Monday. His hiring of Saturday is wild and unconventional, and meant to be lasting. What that ultimately means for the Rooney Rule is a mess in waiting. But the Colts and the NFL can already see it coming.