Insider: What the NFL's best teams can teach the Colts about finding a coach and QB
In a league run by quarterbacks, one conference will pit Patrick Mahomes against Joe Burrow in a battle of the two best.
The other has Jalen Hurts facing Brock Purdy in a contest of which has to carry the least.
This Sunday's NFL conference championship games will draw the lines between the ceilings the floors needed at the most important position. They will tell us about whether a defense can still carry a team to the Super Bowl, how much one star's ankle matters and whether trading big for a running back can actually be a cheat code.
The teams that aren't playing will be taking notes. They'll look at their blueprints and see where it can apply to them. The Colts will be one of those, and perhaps no team could use a direction more.
This will be the first year they draft a quarterback in the top 10 since Andrew Luck. It's a vital step in moving on. But to make him thrive, they'll need to hire a head coach who can fix whatever took that 9-6 team late in 2021 and turned it into the 4-12-1 train wreck it was this year.
These four teams have some lessons on all of that. Whether it was the Bengals picking No. 1 in the draft, or the Chiefs at 2-14, or the Eagles tanking to end a season, or the 49ers giving out six-year deals to a coach and general manager just to get them to say yes, they've all come from desperate places.
They each built a path at the two most important positions.
Star quarterbacks are rarely born, often made
After Joe Burrow shredded the Bills on their home field in the snow and Patrick Mahomes threw sidearm touchdowns on a hobbled ankle to beat the Jaguars, the matchup between the top two quarterbacks in football was set. Mahomes has been there since he won the MVP in his second season, and Burrow just rose through Josh Allen to get here.
Burrow came the way of Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck as a No. 1 pick, clear-cut, can't-miss guy. He was fresh off perhaps the greatest season in college football history at LSU, when he threw 60 touchdowns and six interceptions in a 15-0 run through the Southeastern Conference to the national title. He joined the 2-14 Bengals, a franchise that acted allergic to free agents and hadn't won a playoff game since 1990. By his second season, he played on a surgically repaired knee to lead one of the youngest offenses in the game to three playoff wins and the Super Bowl.
His cool command of the position contrasts Mahomes' supernatural grace, the kind that launches a sidearm pass around a defender to a spot he wasn't even looking at. But it took a scientist and a lab to build something like this. Mahomes was all bloodlines and raw tools coming out of Texas Tech in an Air Raid offense that never produced NFL quarterbacks. Mitchell Trubisky went ahead of him in the draft.
But he found a match in Andy Reid and the Chiefs, the rare coach and team that could afford to trade up for a backup quarterback. Kansas City went 10-6 as Mahomes sat and learned Reid's complex playbook from a willing and knowledgeable veteran in Alex Smith. They unleashed him the next year with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and he won the MVP.
The best quarterbacks in the game rarely come Burrow's way. Most can be created or destroyed by circumstance. A No. 1 pick like Trevor Lawrence can hit rock bottom as a rookie, throwing a league-high 17 interceptions and winning just three games as Urban Meyer lost a franchise and then his job. But you supply him with a coach like Doug Pederson and spend $35 million on new wide receivers, and that same player can lead a team to a division title and a comeback playoff win, looking radiant and in command, not the shell he once was.
Stars make plays with the ball in their hands
It usually takes a village to raise a child.
Even with Burrow, unleashing the ceiling took a draft pick few general managers would make. Despite Burrow's knee injury and a glaring hole at right tackle, the Bengals passed on Oregon star Peneii Sewell to draft Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s leading receiver during LSU's national title run. What some panned as a down-the-line luxury move ended up keying Burrow’s breakout, as someone familiar was here to unleash Burrow’s confidence, catch his brash downfield throws and turn them into points.
There’s overdoing it, and then there’s the level the contenders take themselves to in order to get it right. Take the 49ers, who already had a monster tight end in George Kittle, a yards-after-catch machine in Deebo Samuel and an ascending first-round receiver in Brandon Aiyuk. They knew they had to continue to insulate the quarterback position to survive injures to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, so they dealt four draft picks to the Panthers to add Christian McCaffrey. Now, Brock Purdy can play like his receivers are open even if they aren't, in total comfort.
The Eagles sent a first-round pick and forked over $100 million to A.J. Brown because they needed a safety valve. Entering his third season, Hurts was an electric runner with developing touch in his arm, but the 226-pound Brown gives him one more safe option to take in the Eagles run-run-pass-option playbook. Brown racked up 1,496 yards this year and Hurts has only turned it over eight times. More explosive plays and fewer giveaways have lifted the Eagles from a 9-8 record like the Colts had in 2021 to the NFC's top seed.
The Bengals, Eagles and 49ers all got here by aggressively chasing skill players with top-10 picks or major trades, something Colts general manager Chris Ballard has yet to try. He’s spent three second-round picks to acquire Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell and Alec Pierce, who all might be very good receivers. Higher investments could remove the might.
Ballard hails from Kansas City, where the Chiefs built this in a more patient and homegrown way. Hill was a fifth-round pick and Kelce a third-rounder who developed a ceiling in Reid's system before they dropped Mahomes into it. And when it came time to pay Hill this spring, the Chiefs were the team trading a star receiver away and transferring more of their offensive spending to the line.
That's life with a quarterback who has earned a major contract. You can count on him to create something out of pass catchers. You invest in an offensive line to keep that player on the field as much as possible.
It’s how the Colts used to live with Luck, but they can’t live that way anymore.
The ecosystem is everything
Ballard’s philosophy is rooted in building a complete team that lessens the burden on a quarterback. He believes if you can run the ball on your terms and play shutdown defense, you allow the quarterback to be a leader and a high-level operator of a talented team, and you trust his coaching to build even more.
That’s exactly what the Eagles and 49ers have become. They are the teams Ballard wants to have and tried to build for Frank Reich, down to the quarterback whisperer at head coach, the sturdy offensive lines and the defenses that pound opposing quarterbacks into the ground. San Francisco had the No. 1 defense and Philadelphia the No. 1 run game, by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.
The Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles and 49ers rank Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5, respectively, in spending on the defensive line. The Colts come in at No. 6 on that list. Like the Jets at No. 2, they mostly had the Robert Mathis-Dwight Freeney formula for closing out wins with a pass rush, except for and the most essential piece: an explosive offense that can give them a lead.
Building through the offensive line can work, but at such a connected position, missteps at one spot can sink the plans at others. Just three years ago, Howie Roseman built an Eagles offensive line that gave up the most sacks in the game. He allowed the depth to sag and injuries to rip his line apart, and the offense hit rock bottom with Carson Wentz in a 4-11-1 season that got Pederson fired. This spring, Roseman spent a second-round pick on a backup interior lineman in Cam Jurgens, partly because he could and partly because he wasn’t making the same mistake again.
The 49ers couldn’t avoid the costly injuries to quarterbacks that kept dooming their seasons, so in 2020, they traded a third-round pick and handed out a six-year, $138 million contract to Trent Williams. Last Sunday, the 10-time Pro Bowler did what few left tackles can in handling Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons so his rookie quarterback could avoid disaster.
Despite that contract, San Francisco is paying $13 million less for its offensive line this season than Indianapolis. The 49ers also has the inverse structure, with the left tackle making the bulk of the money and the rest of the line sized for pass protection over run blocking. They did it because left tackle is the hardest position to fill, but it’s also the most intrinsically tied to the comfort of a right-handed quarterback. Trust in the protection leads to better trust in the playmakers and in the plays. Availability allows chemistry to grow.
The Eagles are far more vulnerable at left tackle with a former seventh-round pick in Jordan Mailata, but the downside is limited by the RPO system and Hurts’ ability to scramble away from pressure. Slower-developing runs allow the best parts of the Eagles’ line to get in space and block downhill with a rolling start, like the Colts did in 2021, when Jonathan Taylor led the league in rushing.
The Colts have to find a tackle plan that fits the quarterback they choose. It takes a special type to play around a band-aid, and even then, good teams don’t take that risk lightly. The Chiefs learned a hard lesson in the Super Bowl against Shaquille Barrett and the Buccaneers, so they traded a first-round pick for Orlando Brown. The year before Burrow arrived, the Bengals drafted Jonah Williams in the first round.
Mobility can give a young quarterback a lever to pull when receivers are covered or the picture changes on him after the snap. This year, Hurts ran for 165 times for 760 yards. It created 67 first downs and 13 touchdowns he didn’t have to find with his arm.
A quarterback's legs can also empower his arm. Burrow is able to survive a leaky offensive line and create explosive plays with Chase and Tee Higgins often by extending the play. Mahomes has become so accurate and powerful throwing on the run that it allows him to never abort a play, and that wears out a defense over time.
The Colts had the play extender in Wentz and the accurate arm in Ryan. They were forced to choose one or the other with the rates they were willing to pay at the position, and they couldn’t cover up either flaw with a hole at left tackle and an absence of game-breaking skill players. They didn’t go hard enough after the positions that best accentuate a quarterback’s own play. Those aren’t guards and running backs.
That isn’t to say a running back can’t be the star of the offense. That value just doesn’t all come in running the ball. McCaffrey racked up 1,880 yards this season, but nearly 40% of it came on receptions. His ability to do both kept teams from dictating his usage by stacking the box and made them pay whether they lined up in base or nickel personnel. It opened up more play design opportunities for Shanahan, who can then get his quarterback ready for something the defense is not. That three-down versatility is the next step Taylor must take to be worth the investment McCaffrey is.
Superstars help create the settings around them. As the Chiefs shrunk their receiver room with the trade of Hill, they leaned more on Kelce, arguably the greatest tight end in history, who can carry the load with 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns even with defenses keyed on him. Rather than spend up for a second star pass catcher when they owed Mahomes $36 million this season, the Chiefs instead diversified with specific skill sets like Marques Valdez-Scantling’s downfield speed, JuJu Smith-Schuster's steady play in the slot and Kadarius Toney’s ability to stretch horizontally and break tackles in space.
One star pass catcher can create a trickle-down effect of matchups and roles, and a talented play designer can then build out those roles. That’s what Kelce and Reid have given Kansas City, and it’s what Brown, Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen are now doing for Philadelphia.
The coach has to put the quarterback first
A head coach doesn’t have to be the offensive play caller, as Sirianni is showing in Philadelphia. It does help if he’s an offensive coach. The system starts at the top, and it can’t be hired away by another team, the way Brian Daboll was to the Giants from the Bills, who fell apart in the playoffs without him. The biggest coaching lift should come on the offensive side of the ball, where the quarterback has the most to carry and the highest payoff.
That doesn’t mean a coach has to win the press conference or even win in his first season. Shanahan was 10-22 in his first two seasons, and the Bengals’ Zac Taylor was 6-25-1. Sirianni could barely make it through his first press conference, leading to questions about the legitimacy of a non-play-calling offensive coordinator of the Colts.
None of them were Andy Reid, with instant credibility due to his 14 seasons, six division championships and Super Bowl appearance in Philadelphia. His vision instantly became the vision in Kansas City.
But all three had the support of their general managers and owners, which created a support group for the quarterback. The connection of those four pillars – owner, general manager, head coach, quarterback – can then bring out whatever the best is in that quarterback, whether it’s Mahomes, Burrow, Hurts, Jimmy Garoppolo or Purdy.
That creates the rules of the world you have to live and win in.
As the Colts look to hire a coach and draft a quarterback, they must find a way to link the two. From Reid’s patience with Mahomes to Taylor’s confidence in Burrow, from Sirianni’s gameplan for Hurts to Shanahan’s system for Garoppolo, the teams left standing have all found a way to let the success of one bring out the best in the other.
That’s how 22-year-olds grow and how coaches get a locker room to believe. It's how franchises make their way out of the dark.
Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts: What this year's contenders can teach about building a winner