INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard today joined former Colts punter Pat McAfee on "The Pat McAfee Show." What did Ballard have to say about the start of training camp, the impact already being felt by quarterback Philip Rivers, and the role he sees quarterback Jacoby Brissett playing in 2020?
Here is that entire interview, which you can also catch above if you go to about the 33-minute mark:
In this COVID-19 world that we're in, how is the team looking in training camp and how are they handling the whole thing?
Ballard: "Good. I mean, look: everybody makes the excuse that we didn't have an offseason, but we're all playing under the same rules. Nobody's got an advantage on anybody else. So the playing field's equal. And in terms of … we had our first three days in pads. It was good, normal padded practice. You know, the first two weeks was interesting; it'll be interesting to see how we follow this going forward, because there's some things in the ramp-up that we liked, that we think that can be beneficial for us going forward. But so far, so good."
How are you preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic roster-wise? Do you just have a long list of players and just be ready to pick and place them at any time?
Ballard: "So this Connexon device is very important. It's contact tracing our proximity to other people, and if you're around a group for over 15 minutes at a time, it becomes an issue if somebody tests positive, because they're going to be knocked out. So the way we've explained it — Frank (Reich) and I to our staff, both coaches and our scouts — is, look: every guy on the team's important. Even the practice squads that are usually a little more developmental, you've got to think of them as starters, 'cause there's a chance during the season they're going to come in to play. Now the good news for us is that's usually where our first pool is from when we're bringing players in. We've been very active on our practice squad — something we've really sold the players, and we've had guys come from there. But it's even more important this year. Those 16 players have to be treated just like they're playing on Sunday each and every week, 'cause you just don't know. And then we've got to have an emergency list ready to go that's long and deep, and our scouts will work on that."
What's the discussion like about accountability with your team in terms of staying smart about the virus?
Ballard: "It's going to be very difficult, and our team knows it — and not just our team, our staff. I mean, I've got five kids. When I go home, I've got five children, and I can't ask them to stop living. I ask them to be careful, and I'm careful around them. Look: we're not going to focus on the problem. Frank and I have (discussed this), and Frank made a great point of this: we're going to address the problem at the start of camp, and like we both told the locker room, if you want to win, and if you want to go where you wanna go, it's gonna take some accountability on each one of you. And you've got to hold each other accountable. And they know. Pat, you've been in that locker room; they know the guys that are doing what needs to be done, they know the guys that are working. I mean, you can bulls--- the media, you can bulls--- the fans, but you cannot bulls--- the locker room. And they know. So there's got to be a degree of accountability being held within that locker room for it to be successful. And it doesn't mean we won't have a slip-up, and I don't want somebody if they do get it … but they've got to be honest. They can't come in the building; they've got to be honest, and we've gotta make sure we continue testing and doing the protocols that the league has asked us to do."
There's rumors out there that the NFL is exploring the option of using a playoff bubble, whenever that time comes. How does that work?
Ballard: "I'd love to have a playoff bubble here in Indy. We can put everybody in hotels, and we can hold them up (laughs). I can't lie to you, A.J.: my viewpoint right now is just on today, and I hadn't even thought that far in advance, or had I heard anything from the league regarding some type of bubble."
A lot of people are talking about the Philip Rivers signing and adding DeForest Buckner on defense. I'm excited about the Xavier Rhodes addition. First, what was it about him that you saw that you wanted to get on your team? And second, how's he fitting in with the team, considering he's coming from more of a man-to-man scheme?
Ballard: "It's going good. And, look: we had two coaches here that were with Xavier in Minnesota in Jonathan Gannon and Alan Williams, so they had history with him. And usually when you hit 30 in this league, that's kind of a breaking point, but there's certain players I've been around that just have freakish talent and can extend their careers, and Xavier has that. He's got some of God's gifts that are hard to find. We think we can help him; we think we can help him physically with some of the stuff we're doing nutritionally and with our strength program, and so far so good. And we knew … like one of the things I really addressed and wanted to address was making sure I added, and we added, a couple veterans in the secondary, 'cause it's such a young group. I mean, even Kenny (Moore II), even Kenny's young. We forget, he hadn't been in the league a long time, and as great a player as he is and as good a leader as he is, it's good to have a vet. The year we had Mike Mitchell, you know, Mitch was unbelievable guiding that room. And I think Xavier, and then we added another (veteran) Tavon Wilson here a few weeks ago, and he looks like he's going to be a real good addition, and then also T.J. Carrie — I mean, I don't want to undersell what he can do. He can play inside and outside and can play safety. So we think we've added three to the secondary, vets that can help these young kids come along."
You came from the Kansas City Chiefs, and you had said their general manager, Brett Veach, is really good at setting up contracts and building a roster. Recently they've pulled money out of seemingly nowhere to sign some of their top players to contract extensions. As you're building your roster, are you just focused on the AFC South? Do you focus on non-divisional opponents like the Chiefs that seem set up for success for years to come?
Ballard: "(The) good thing is they're not in our divison. They're in the AFC, but they're not in our division. So that helps. And in terms of Kansas City, Brett's outstanding. He's got a cap guy in Brandt Tillis who I'm also very close with from our time there who's outstanding. But, no, when we put our team together … I mean, look: it's a passing league. It just is. It's a passing league. And you've got to be able to rush, and you've got to be able to cover on defense. And you want 11 guys that can defend the pass. I know stopping the run's big, but we'll rally and we'll figure out how to stop the run, but you've gotta have 11 guys to defend the pass. And that's always going to be our emphasis defensively. I think that's when you see at linebacker, I mean, I don't know if we have a linebacker that weighs over 233 pounds. We want guys that can run and cover and take space away. And that's how you have a chance to defend the (Deshaun) Watsons, the (Patrick) Mahomes, the (Lamar) Jacksons — you've got to have speed on the field to be able to match them."
There was obviously a buzz when you signed Philip Rivers. How has he looked so far throughout the first few days of camp?
Ballard: "I mean, look: he's accurate. I think he's at 89 percent (pass completion rate) so far in practice. I mean, this dude, he is accurate, now. Philip will get out bed when he's 70 and be accurate. I mean, there are guys that can get out and when they can throw it, that'll never leave them. Look: his energy, his presence, all of that just bleeds over (into) confidence to everybody else. And I think everybody knows — let me tell you one of the cool things — everybody knows what Philip's done in his career; I mean, players know. But he comes out every day and works and wants to still earn their respect, which I think is key."
When it comes to Jacoby Brissett, you gave him a two-year deal last year, he got the chance to start, and now he's sitting behind Rivers as your backup. Brissett will now have a chance to sit behind Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Rivers — how can that help him moving forward? What is his future, and how valuable is it to have him in this COVID-19 world?
Ballard: "Well it's tough. It's tough, one, 'cause I've got a relationship with him, and I think so much of him. But bringing Philip in was such a unique chance for the organization, especially with his relationship with both Nick (Sirianni) and Frank, alright? But Jacoby being who Jacoby is, of course he's pissed — he should be. But, at Jacoby's core, he's as good a teammate as I've ever been around, and he wants the team to win. Sure, he wants to be the guy, and I wouldn't want a player on this team that doesn't want to start and play and compete. So Jacoby will continue, at some point, like I told Jacoby, at some point you're going to have to make a play to help us win. And he'll be ready."
How do you balance being the general manager and the relationships you build with players and coaches? You'd think some GMs almost have to be robotic in their interactions to avoid getting too close.
Ballard: "Look, I can't do that. I just can't. It's just not me. And I can't change who I am. I'm gonna have relationships — I do. I care about our players. I want them to do good. I want them to have successful careers, I want them to continue when football is over to have successful lives; it's tough when you're making that transition. So I can't sit here and say I don't have relationships that are close with them. But here's how I kind of explain it to our guys: don't take the business end personal. And you do — most of them are young. I'll say, 'Look: at some point we're gonna have a discussion about money here, and you might not agree and I might not agree. And that's OK. If you do well and do everything we're asking you to do, either we're gonna pay you or somebody else is gonna pay you, and it's gonna work out good for you and your family.' I want to keep every player we can, but that's not realistic. It'll get sticky every once in a while, but I think at the end of the day, players know a few things: one, I'm gonna be very honest with them about what's going on and how they're playing and what the expectations are; and I think they know at the end of the day I want good for them. I want players to do good. We're not in the anti-player, screw-player business. This is a players' league — it's a players and coaches' league. You cannot forget that."