INDIANAPOLIS – Four weeks have passed since the bad football mercifully stopped and the coaching search quickly commenced. The Indianapolis Colts fired Chuck Pagano an hour after the season finale on New Year’s Eve; three days later, in Foxboro, Mass., General Manager Chris Ballard was sitting down with his first candidate.
He’ll have to wait one more week before officially naming Josh McDaniels Pagano’s successor.
The Patriots’ offensive coordinator has a work conflict, of course. He’s in Minneapolis scheming ways to attack the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense in Super Bowl LII.
From there McDaniels will descend on Indianapolis and embark upon the second head-coaching stint of his career, the aim being to do everything he did not the first time around. For starters: win.
Here are the remaining questions McDaniels and the Colts will soon have to answer:
1. This late in the coaching cycle, can McDaniels build a capable staff?
This is absolutely vital for McDaniels, and a factor Ballard has repeatedly stressed since taking over 12 months ago. The Colts want assistants who can develop young players and turn them into regular starters. It happened far too rarely under Pagano – in recent seasons, tight end Jack Doyle and cornerback Rashaan Melvin are two notable exceptions. But the gross lack of development, especially with high draft picks, has proven especially costly. That’s what leads to overspending in free agency. That’s what leads to four-win seasons.
At the outset of his coaching search, Ballard insisted that Pagano’s successor has “got to be able to hire a first-class staff that can teach and develop players. That’s what we’re going to be about. We’re going to be about teaching and developing players, and you’ve got to live through some bumps when you do that.”
That sentiment echoes Ballard’s stance on the coming free agency period: He’s long preferred building a team through the draft. But with roughly $85 million to spend, and holes darn near everywhere on his roster, it’ll be hard for Ballard not to address some, or plenty, of this team’s needs.
Colts insider Stephen Holder on what he learned about the next likely Colts coach from the Patriots’ locker room. Stephen Holder/IndyStar
And hiring that first-class staff might prove more difficult in February, a month into the coaching cycle. Plenty of sought-after candidates have already landed their next job. (At least six Pagano assistants have taken a job with a different team, notably offensive line coach Joe Philbin, quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer, wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal and special teams guru Tom McMahon.)
Reportedly, McDaniels has tapped veteran Dallas Cowboys defensive coach Matt Eberflus as his coordinator on that side of the ball, and ex-Raiders QB coach Jake Peetz as the offensive coordinator. Neither move can be made official until McDaniels’ hiring is official. Eberflus is well-respected across the league, even reportedly turning down an offer from the Cowboys to coordinate their defense in favor of joining McDaniels’ staff in Indy. Peetz is more of a wild card.
For starters, that’s a young triumvirate: McDaniels himself is only 41, Eberflus 47, Peetz 34. By comparison, Pagano was 57 last season, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski 49, defensive coordinator Ted Monachino 51.
Maybe it matters. Maybe it doesn’t. But it’s clear McDaniels isn’t making decades of experience an overriding factor in his coaching hires.
As for Peetz, the expectation is that McDaniels will run the offense, install the concepts and call the plays. Peetz will work closely with franchise QB Andrew Luck, whom the team expects back at full strength next season.
2. With new coordinators, how much will the schemes change?
Expect the Colts to slide from the 3-4 defensive front they employed (rather unsuccessfully) throughout Chuck Pagano’s six seasons and shift back into the 4-3 base they used throughout the Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell eras. It’s the system the Cowboys have run under coordinator Rod Marinelli since 2013, the one Eberflus is familiar with. His expertise comes at the linebacker position, and that will be vital as the Colts alter their scheme up front.
The central question in all of this: Do they have the players for it?
Possibly. Vital in the 3-4 scheme are playmakers at the second level; it really only worked for the Colts in 2013, when Robert Mathis erupted for 19.5 sacks from the edge rushing position. The Colts – armed with capable if not spectacular outside linebackers in John Simon and Jabaal Sheard – aren’t getting anywhere near that kind of production these days. And the inside linebacking position was a huge weakness throughout the 2017 campaign.
Instead, at this juncture, the real strength of this average-at-best defense arrives up front. That fits the needs for the 4-3. Space-eating linemen Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods were the hidden gems of the Colts’ unit in 2017, under-the-radar Ballard signings who revitalized what had been a porous run defense for over a decade. The thinking if the Colts’ shift to the 4-3 base: Hankins and Woods would clear some lanes for Simon and Sheard (who would likely see time at defensive end) to get to the quarterback, a far more likelihood than those two shedding blockers in one-on-one situations.
A player to watch if the Colts do indeed make the switch: second-year linebacker Tarell Basham. An up-and-down rookie season ended on a relatively positive note for Basham, who stood out in pass rushing situations as well as on special teams. Basham starred in college as a 4-3 defensive end at Ohio, and prefers playing with his hand in the dirt. The Cowboys – with Eberflus on the staff – were very interested in Basham during last year’s draft, according to a league source. A move to defensive end in a 4-3 scheme might spark an uptick in production for Basham in Year No. 2.
3. Can McDaniels win over the locker room?
Do not discount the necessity of the new coach earning the respect of his players, particularly in this scenario. Publicly, there’s nothing Ballard emphasizes more often than the need for a strong locker room. There’s no strong locker room without a strong head coach. McDaniels knows this. He knows how rocky his tenure as the Broncos’ head coach unfolded. And he knows how Bill Belichick does it in New England.
Jan 13, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots
Jan 13, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the sideline against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports David Butler II, David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 13, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots1 of 10
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Make no mistake: That Ballard, a second-year general manager, is handing his team over to McDaniels is a gamble. Outside of the optimal coaching incubator that is Foxboro, McDaniels hasn’t done a whole lot in this league.
In Indianapolis, he’ll have to first win Andrew Luck’s trust. But it won’t end there. Defensive veterans like Sheard – whom McDaniels worked with in New England – Simon, Hankins, Woods are next on the list. Earn their belief and the rest will follow.
“You can’t buy a locker room,” Ballard likes to say.
It’s clear McDaniels has his work cut out for him.
First up: the Eagles’ defense, and potentially McDaniels’ sixth Super Bowl ring with the Patriots.
Then he’s got a program to build in Indianapolis.