Coach Frank Reich’s attempt to fix the Indianapolis Colts’ sputtering offense failed, so now owner Jim Irsay is turning to another trusted name—former All-Pro center Jeff Saturday.
Jeff Saturday was hired as interim head coach Monday shortly after Reich was fired. The Colts made both announcements about an hour apart, less than 24 hours after one of the worst offensive performances in team history.
Irsay said he had grown weary of the team’s ongoing struggles and that he would reevaluate the coaching situation after the end of the season.
“You never like to make a change, much less during the season. It’s not ideal,” Irsay said. “But (general manager) Chris (Ballard) and I, in talking, we saw things collapse and I’ve seen things go from bad to worse and I thought it was time to make the change.”
It was an out-of-the-box move in the NFL, where interim coaches are usually promoted from within. Saturday will have less than a week to get acquainted with his staff and implement a plan for Sunday’s game at Las Vegas.
Saturday’s only coaching experience was a four-year stint as head coach at a Georgia high school. He’s served most recently as a team consultant and ESPN commentator. He’s a member of Indy’s Ring of Honor, played a key role in an agreement to settle the 2011 NFL lockout and has been a fixture in the Indy community since his rookie season in 1999.
Irsay got in touch with Saturday following his team’s embarrassing 26-3 loss to New England. Saturday said he and his wife spoke about the opportunity and he decided to take the job Monday morning.
“Shocked would be an understatement,” Saturday said. “It was a 12-hour whirlwind.”
The Colts (3-5-1) have endured a similar experience over the past few weeks.
Reich announced he was benching 2016 MVP Matt Ryan, in his first season with the Colts, in favor of second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger two weeks ago.
Last Tuesday, Reich fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady even though Reich was calling the plays. Ballard also sent running back Nyheim Hines to Buffalo just before last week’s trade deadline.
Now Reich is out in the first midseason coaching change Irsay has made since taking over as owner 25 years ago and Saturday is speaking with staff members to find a new play-caller.
“I think Frank’s an unbelievable football coach, I think he’s an unbelievable man,” said Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, the last head coach still left from the 2018 hiring class. “We all know what we sign up for, and this is the other side of it that’s probably not so … it’s difficult. You never want to see anybody lose their job.”
Irsay uncharacteristically declined to take questions following a dismal performance Sunday in which the Colts produced 121 total yards and 43 net passing yards, the lowest single-game totals by Indy since 1997 against Seattle.
The Colts also went 0 for 14 on third downs, just the second time their conversion rate was 0%. They allowed nine sacks, the highest single-game total since October 2017, and the second most in a game since 1981.
But it wasn’t just one game.
Indy has zero points on its opening possession this season and is the league’s only team to enter the fourth quarter trailing in every game. The Colts have scored a league-low 14.7 points per game. After three straight losses, Irsay pulled the plug.
“We’ve tried to hire Jeff as a coach a couple of times, the timing didn’t work out,” Ballard said. “It doesn’t take long to figure out he’s got leadership, real special leadership in him. So for this eight-game stretch and where we’re at, we thought it would be a really good fit for us.”
The hope is Saturday can find a solution to Indy’s most glaring problem, an offensive line that has allowed a league-high 35 sacks in nine games. It had been one of the league’s top units from 2018 through last season but has been in flux most of this season.
On Sunday, the Colts pulled right guard Matt Pryor and left tackle Dennis Kelly and replaced them with Will Fries and rookie Bernhard Raimann in yet another attempt to improve the pass protection.
“Jeff has been a beloved, integral member of our NFL family for nearly a decade,” ESPN said in a statement Monday. “When he came to us about this incredible opportunity he had with the Colts, we were thrilled for him and his family. We wish him the best of luck as he makes his NFL head coaching debut.”
As the season went on and the woes mounted, the growing pressure was evident on Reich’s face and in his shorter and quieter answers.
Even in the locker room, where Reich was respected and well liked, players seemed uneasy with so many changes.
Still, the players continued to express trust in Reich and Ballard making the right calls.
Reich was hired in 2018 after serving as offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles — and after Josh McDaniels backed out of an agreement to coach Indy. Strangely, the Colts will face McDaniels in Las Vegas on Sunday.
“Frank’s a really good coach,” the Raiders coach said Monday. “He’s a great person and has done a lot of great things in our profession. I have a deep respect for him and what he does. It’s always tough to hear that.”
Reich took the Colts to the playoffs in two of his first four seasons and had them on the cusp of making it last season. But two inexplicable losses to close the season behind quarterback Carson Wentz, whom Reich lobbed to acquire in a trade, kept Indy out of the postseason.
Indy traded Wentz to Washington in March then acquired Ryan in a subsequent trade with Atlanta.
Reich was previously an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals and the then-San Diego Chargers after starting his coaching career working for the Colts and with Peyton Manning.
The longtime Buffalo Bills backup quarterback finished his first head coaching job with a 40-33-1 record. Reich is the second coach to be fired this season, joining Matt Rhule of Carolina.