LAS VEGAS — After being hired as the Colts’ interim coach on Monday, a controversial move that dominated the football world throughout the week, Jeff Saturday texted quarterback Matt Ryan and said he’d love to meet the following day, which is typically an off day for players. He didn’t say why, other than to catch up.
Ryan was in an awkward place psychologically. Widely considered the missing piece to a playoff run when the team traded for him in the offseason, he had been benched a couple of weeks earlier, with my colleagues Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reporting the decision came from ownership and not the head coach at the time. When he arrived at the facility the following day, Saturday quickly cleared the air.
“I kind of know what has gone on here the last couple of weeks; as a player I’ve gone through it in Green Bay, getting benched,” he said. “I know all of the emotions that go along with it. Where are you at?”
“He made it pretty clear he was talking about playing,” Ryan said.
Everything was happening so quickly for Ryan and the team: benched one week, offensive coordinator fired the next week, head coach dismissed the week after that. Ryan’s head was spinning. He wanted to talk things over with his wife. The conversation lasted maybe five minutes.
“Alright, Jeff,” Ryan said. “I’m ready to go.”
With that, the decorated passer went out and played one of his more efficient games of the season, completing 21-of-28 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing four times for 38 yards and a score, to lead the Colts to a 25-20 victory over the Raiders on Sunday in Allegiant Stadium.
“The two weeks prior, you never know what’s going to happen — someone could get hurt, the situation could change, so there’s always that reality that I have to stay ready, that I can’t assume anything,” Ryan said as the locker room cleared out on Sunday. “But your perspective changes when nothing has happened and suddenly they talk to you about, what are you thinking? I practiced Thursday and Friday, and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m good. I feel pretty good.’ It was his call to make at that point about what he wanted to do.”
It was an easy call for Saturday, who had been working as a paid consultant to the team. It was clear their 3-3-1 start was less about Ryan and more about those around him, particularly along the offensive line. The Colts have nearly $200 million invested in three players along the line, but the unit as a whole was turning in a $2 performance.
Ryan had been sacked 24 times in seven games. In three of them, he was sacked at least five times, including one in which he was sacked six times. And that doesn’t even account for how many other times he had been hit by defenders.
But he was made the scapegoat, just as offensive coordinator Marcus Brady was made the scapegoat, just as Frank Reich was made the scapegoat last Monday. The benching and firings were viewed as the moves of an impatient owner, and although sources confirmed Sunday that there was pushback from others in the organization — to the extent that anyone can push back against an owner — Jim Irsay had made up his mind. He wanted change and turned to Saturday, a good and trusted friend who, during 13 seasons with the franchise, was a lynchpin of the offensive line during the Colts’ glory years, better known as the Peyton Manning Era.
It didn’t matter to him that Saturday had never coached at any level above high school — more on that later — or that in recent years he turned down multiple opportunities to join the team as an assistant coach. Ownership has its privileges, and Irsay exercised his, going so far as to say he liked the fact that Saturday lacked high-level coaching experience.
Irsay was vindicated, if only for a week, but let us not forget that the Colts defeated the 2-7 Raiders, who have lost three in a row and four of five. The case can be made that the Raiders have been the league’s biggest disappointment, sometimes lacking focus, other times direction and other times confidence. Losing to an Indianapolis team that had lost three in a row and was breaking in a coaching newbie added meat on that bone.
If Saturday did something that his counterpart Josh McDaniels did not, it was getting his players and coaches to believe in each other. There continues to be murmurs of discontent within the Las Vegas locker room as the losses mount, and the only way to silence them is by winning.
This is where I need to come clean. Saturday is a friend of mine. I covered him from afar as a player, then worked with him at ESPN. We have golfed together, broken bread together, and talked as much about family and life as we have about football. I have long considered him an advocate in the fight for equality and meritocracy, but I do not anymore. Not in this case.
That does not mean I don’t root for his success, because I do. He’s one of the finest men I know. But he had a chance to walk the talk and did not, in this case.
Coaches always talk about making personal sacrifices for the greater good. Perhaps that means fewer touches or sharing reps. Do what is necessary for the team to succeed. Saturday could have made a real statement about the importance of equality and meritocracy by turning down Irsay’s offer.
Before you call me naïve, among other things, it has been done. Two years ago the Texans had a strong interest in hiring former quarterback Josh McCown as head coach. Like Saturday, he had no coaching experience beyond high school, but he was extremely close to the decision-makers. Instead of pursuing the opportunity, McCown told them they should consider others who had put in time for such a shot, even citing a minority coach he had worked with.
“My wife and I were praying about this, and I wanted a player to get a chance,” Saturday told me on Sunday. “I’ve seen the Boones of the world go straight from TV to being the manager of the Yankees. I’ve seen basketball guys go straight to the head coaching job and get opportunities. I have not seen that in the NFL, and I told my wife, ‘This does not just come around. It’s not something that’s just arbitrary.’ And I felt very passionate and convicted that, if I step up and I do a good job, and people can see the way that former players can lead a group of men …
“I don’t pretend to be the smartest coach on the staff; I pale in comparison, and I mix [sic] no words. But I do know how to lead men, whether that’s coaches, players or an organization. And I know a bunch of men who are just like me that I’ve lived with, I’ve broken bread with, I’ve played with and against. And I want us to have a chance. I want players to have a chance. I had no idea if (Irsay) was going to go with me, but I just told my wife that I felt the Lord leading me here. The other side for me personally is, I care about this organization. This isn’t just a job; this is the organization I lived in and my adult life was forged in. My wife and I have all our kids here. I told them the first day, it’s not just about players, it’s not just about coaches — although I love them and their families, and I understand the seat that they’re sitting in — but, bro, the equipment room, the media relations, the training room, I love them and care about them. I know I can help them and help this organization turn around and get the direct [sic] they need. Maybe I break through and different owners turn around and say, ‘Hey, maybe we give guys chances, and maybe it starts with people who have played for the organization.’ “
In theory that sounds good, but diverse candidates typically don’t have the type of personal relationships with NFL owners that Saturday has with Irsay. That said, I will continue to want nothing but success for Saturday, because he is a good man. And he is someone who can lead (yes, I know a lot more goes into being a successful head coach; but the first step is getting others to follow).
Listen to running back Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 147 yards and a score on 22 carries, when asked what Saturday brought to the team.
“He gave us passion,” he said. “Anytime he speaks to us, anytime he’s on the field, you can just feel the passion that he has, given the history that he has with this organization. It’s not about him getting a bunch of wins. It’s not about him being at the forefront. He just wants to see the men and women of the Indianapolis Colts succeed, the whole organization, whether it’s the kitchen staff giving us the correct food, or whether it’s the equipment staff making sure we’re ready to go.”
Perhaps most importantly on an individual level, Saturday brought passion back to Ryan, a decorated passer who deserved better than how he was treated. He threw for nearly 60,000 yards and 367 touchdowns in 14 seasons with the Falcons, and has been a class act throughout his career. Being demoted by the owner, largely for things beyond his control, was infuriating, though he would never say so publicly. It is not a reach to say it sapped some of his joy, but as a veteran leader he was not going to allow it to distract or hurt the team.
“He’s a pro’s pro,” Taylor said. “Everything he went through, he’s been a pro through in, and throughout, still giving knowledge and everything he has to offer when he wasn’t on the field. And now that he’s back on the field, and he’s back making plays, he’s showing why he’s a Hall of Famer.”
The love of being back in the mix was never more obvious than on a play late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 20-19, the Colts had a third-and-3 from their own 25-yard line. Ryan, whose footspeed might be slower than thick syrup from the bottle, dropped back and took off. But rather than slide as defenders closed after a short gain, he cut upfield and kept going to gain at least 20 more yards. The 39-yard run was the longest of his career and allowed him to finish the game with a higher rushing total than he had ever had in his previous 229 games.
It set up his decisive 35-yard touchdown pass to Parris Campbell with 5:07 to play.
“Maybe if I was a little faster, I could have scored,” Ryan said. But I did the best I could.”
He smiled and laughed. It had been a few weeks since he had done that, and it felt good.