INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard on Thursday held his 2019 season-ending press conference at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. What were the top takeaways from the session?
» Jacoby Brissett is the Colts' starting quarterback heading into 2020: Ballard on Thursday took many questions about the quarterback position moving forward for the Colts, both about Brissett and the possibility of adding through the draft. Just days removed from the end of the 2019 season, Ballard said Brissett "right now … is our starting quarterback," but that "the jury is still out" heading into the offseason.
"That's why we did the short-term deal with Jacoby, one, to give us some security that we had a player we knew we liked and could go forward with, but also, two, to give us time to figure out if he is the guy or not," Ballard said. "Jacoby did a lot of good things. He also did some things that I think he would tell you he needs to get better at. But it's a constant evaluation."
Brissett in 2019 completed 272-of-447 passes (60.9 percent) for 2,942 yards with 18 touchdowns to six interceptions for a passer rating of 88.0. Fourteen of his 18 passing touchdowns came in the Colts' first six games, when Indy got out to its 4-2 start. He had four passing touchdowns over the final 10 games — missing about a game and a half due to a knee injury — and the Colts were 3-7 over that span.
Several other factors went into those results, of course, but the conversation always starts with the quarterback position.
"He had a good start, good first half of the season. And did some good things in the second half of the season, too. We just need more consistency out of him," Ballard said of Brissett. "He knows that. One thing about Jacoby that I like, he's honest with himself about things he needs to fix and work on. That's what makes him pretty cool to be around."
» The Colts will explore options at quarterback in the draft…: … but that's not much different than any other year. Under Ballard, the Colts' college scouts are always doing their due diligence on various quarterback prospects, and that process won't change or intensify this year just because there's a perceived need at the position.
"I learned this in Kansas City; we always go through the process of studying quarterbacks. One, because you never know when you're going to be looking one in the face, so you just take him. Two, because you gotta play against them," Ballard said. "So you want to be able to interview them, study them and at least know some history and background when they enter the league."
Most importantly, Ballard said, the Colts don't feel any pressure to add a quarterback this offseason. That's when teams can get into some trouble.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes teams make is they force it," Ballard said. "You can't force the evaluation of a quarterback — can't do it. Because then what you do is talk yourself into a guy, and then you set your organization back four to five years.
"We're going to continue to evaluate the position," Ballard continued. "We would've done this no matter who the quarterback was. And if we felt like we found the guy we liked, who was a good fit for the Colts, we would've taken him — and we'll do the same thing moving forward."
» Andrew Luck does not factor into the Colts' future plans: Luck, of course, retired from the NFL back in August, and while Ballard remains in contact with the former quarterback on a personal level, the team had no choice but to immediately forge on without him.
"Look: Andrew's retired," Ballard said. "Do I talk to Andrew? Yes I do. Haven't talked to him here in a few weeks. I'm sure he's been busy being a father. But Andrew is retired. I think we all need to accept that. That's where he's at. He's retired."
Ballard said he was so locked in after Luck's retirement on Aug. 24 that the stunning development didn't "settle in" until two days ago.
"I didn't have time to think about it," Ballard said. "When Andrew retired — y'all know me by now, man: it's about, 'Let's go. We've gotta find a way — no excuse, no explanation — let's find a way to get the job done.'
"But I wouldn't be being honest and real to y'all if I sat here and said when the season ended I didn't have a moment or two where I thought about it, yes."
» The Colts' defense is "young" and "still needs work:" It was a season of ups and downs for the Colts' defense in 2019. From Weeks 5 through 11, Indy allowed just more than 300 yards per game on defense, ranking eighth in the league over that span. Over the final six weeks of the season, however, the Colts allowed an average of about 382 yards per game, ranking 24th in the NFL.
Over the course of the full season, the Colts allowed 346.8 yards per game, ranking 16th — smack dab in the middle. That means to Ballard there was some good, some bad and some average play out of the defense, a very young unit overall that has some growing to do this offseason.
"Disappointed in the last month of the season," Ballard said of the Colts' defense. "I thought we were really making strides up until about the second half of the Tennessee game (Week 13). That's where it was just like a slope. Ball got rolling, and we couldn't stop the ball from rolling.
"Saying that, we were playing with a lot of young players on defense," Ballard said. "I remember looking up against Kansas City and seeing five rookies playing. That's tough sledding on your coaching staff. I don't care how good they are as players. They're still rookies. Then when you start talking about first-, second- or third-year players, I would say 19 to 20 players that we play on defense are all on the first or second or third year."
But one hallmark of the Colts' 4-3 defensive system should be the ability to limit big plays, and Ballard said he was frustrated down the stretch in this area specifically. Starting in their Week 12 loss to the Houston Texans through the end of the season, the Colts allowed 21 pass plays of 20-plus yards — an average of more than three per game; included in that figure is nine pass plays of 30 or more yards.
"That can't happen. Giving up explosive plays gets your a-- beat," Ballard said. "If you look at the tight games we lost, that's what happened. Houston, we gave up five of them. Tennessee, we gave up a couple of explosive runs and the big shot at the end of the game. You can't give up explosives."
Ballard mentioned the need for more interior pressure up front, better communication in the back end and a lack of consistent takeaways as a few key contributing reasons to the defensive breakdowns down the stretch.
» The Colts are evaluating several pending free agents: While it's way too early to have definitive answers — free agency begins on March 18 — Ballard did offer the following on these free-agents-to-be:
• Tackle Anthony Castonzo: Castonzo indicated earlier in the week he was going to take some time to decide whether he wanted to return for a 10th NFL season in 2020. Ballard was asked if he thought Castonzo would play football again: "Let me say this: I hope he does," Ballard said. "I hold Anthony Castonzo in high, high regard. It's a shame that it's the first time he's even been voted as an alternate to the Pro Bowl. I thought, since I walked in the door, Anthony Castonzo has played at a really high level at left tackle. I can't believe people are just now starting to recognize it. We'll see. Anthony and I will be in touch here over the next two or three weeks, and he'll make a decision. I know this: Anthony loves the Indianapolis Colts, he loves being here, so we'll see what decision he makes, and look, if he decides to retire, then it's our job to find an answer."
• Kicker Adam Vinatieri: Vinatieri was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 9, and subsequently underwent knee surgery. The 24th-year veteran struggled at various junctures throughout the season, hitting 17-of-25 field goals (68 percent) and 22-of-28 extra points (78.6 percent), but despite the fact the team brought in kickers for workouts at multiple junctures, Ballard said it was obvious that keeping Vinatieri was the best option every time. "We worked out a ton of kickers," Ballard said. "I kept asking our group, 'If we had Adam working out with this group of kickers that we brought in, who would we pick?' We would have picked Adam. I told Adam that. Every time I'd work guys out, I'd look at Adam and say, 'Adam, if I had to tell you who I had to take out of this group, I'm taking you.' Do I wish we would have produced more in that position? Yes, I do. But, saying that, I do not regret the decisions we made with Adam. Not at all." Asked if there have been any discussions about Vinatieri possibly returning in 2020, Ballard said: "That'll come down the pike. We'll let him rehab his knee and see where he's at physically."
• Tight end Eric Ebron: Ebron burst onto the scene after signing a two-year deal with the Colts in 2018, catching 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns and earning his first Pro Bowl selection. But he would see that production slow down considerably in 2019, as he logged 31 receptions for 375 yards and three touchdowns before being placed on injured reserve Nov. 25 with ankle issues. Asked Thursday if the team could explore the possibility of bringing Ebron back, Ballard said, "We'll probably move on."
• Defensive end Jabaal Sheard: Sheard underwent a minor knee procedure during training camp that forced him to miss the first three games of the season. He's been counted on not only for his production along the edge, but for his leadership, and Ballard can't say enough about what Sheard has brought in both aspects. "What a pro. What a pro," Ballard said. "Fun to get to know him, the way he works, the way he's in the locker room. He's everything you want a player to be in terms of being a pro. You wanna talk about a guy who fights through injury? He's battling the knee, misses all of training camp, misses the first four weeks of the preseason, he just battles, great teammate. We haven't made any decisions yet on who we're bringing back and who we're not, but I hold Jabaal Sheard – wherever his future may be, whether it's here or somewhere else – I hold Jabaal Sheard in high regard. Appreciate him, what he brought to the Colts."
• Wide receiver Devin Funchess: Signed to a one-year deal this past offseason, Funchess was supposed to be a much-needed No. 2 wide receiver that could make plays and take the heat off T.Y. Hilton. But he suffered a broken clavicle in the team's very first game against the Los Angeles Chargers, which wasn't able to fully heal by the time faced a deadline whether to return him to the active roster or revert him to IR for the rest of the year. "Devin, that was just bad luck," Ballard said. "The guy splinters his collarbone in five places and misses the entire season. That's just bad luck." In terms of possibly re-signing Funchess, Ballard said: "We'll see. We'll have some visits. I give him credit, it's been frustrating for him. He was discouraged. He cares. We'll see how it works out."