Chris Ballard Notebook: Colts GM Fills In For Peter King’s Football Morning In America Column
Chris Ballard Notebook: Colts GM Fills In For Peter King’s Football Morning In America Column
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INDIANAPOLIS – It might be summer vacation, but Chris Ballard is busy taking his turn at some candid journalism.
For years, long-time NFL scribe Peter King has produced a must-read Monday morning column for Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports.
Well with King on vacation this time of year, he’s had guest writers pen his column on a weekly basis.
Ballard took fans down a very thought-provoking road, with plenty of tidbits on how he has built the Colts roster over the last three years.
Outside of football talk, Ballard also shared some very inspirational stories with how the Colts have connected to fans, away from the playing field.
Here are some of the highlights from Ballard’s column:
-On why the Colts were attracted to Rock Ya-Sin in the draft process:
What traits make up an Colts cornerback? Is it possible to pick a Colts cornerback out of a crowd? The answer is yes and there are a few things we look for. Ya-Sin had them all:
• Size and length. Ya-Sin is 5-foot-11 with 32-inch arms, which are considered long for a cornerback.
• Instincts and ball skills. Yup.
• Toughness. It’s impossible to play our scheme if you’re not tough. Frank Reich’s definition of toughness: A relentless pursuit to get better every day; an obsession to finish. Ya-Sin is a two-time state champion high school wrestler, fitting this definition to a T.
Our scouts were aware of Ya-Sin from his time at Presbyterian in South Carolina, but not as a top prospect. When he transferred to Temple, he was awarded a single-digit jersey within a few weeks and our Northeast Area Scout Mike Derice took notice. (A single digit jersey at Temple signifies a player as one of the toughest on the team. Even more impressive, the single-digit jerseys are voted on by the teammates.)
Ya-Sin looked like a Colt, and Derice said Ya-Sin had the right makeup to ascend within the NFL. Derice followed his season, watched him play against Buffalo (where he recorded his first interception as an Owl), and used his contacts at the university to get a sense of his character.
Derice’s first scouting report on Ya-Sin said he had great football character and his physicality fit what we needed for a defensive back. At that time, we thought he’d be drafted somewhere in the third round. We marked him with an ascending grade, one to watch hard at the Senior Bowl.
Ed Dodds, our assistant general manager, said we should go “A-Z” on him during the Senior Bowl. Ya-Sin had a standout performance. He was getting better every day, and Derice developed a strong conviction about his belonging on the Colts. We made sure to interview Ya-Sin at length because we put a big emphasis on knowing a player’s character and story. The story leads us to the answers that we’re trying to find out about each guy.
-On the debate to trade back (again), and not take Ya-Sin, at the start of Round Two in 2019:
The next day (Friday of draft weekend), there were five players we still liked who were available at No. 34, and the draft room was split. Half of the room thought we should trade again and acquire another second and third-round pick, and the other half wanted to stay at No. 34 and pick Ya-Sin.
Ultimately, the decision is on me. However, because of our collaborative process, I made sure I heard everyone’s opinion one more time before we made the selection.
The defensive staff and scouts talked through the direction we wanted to go and we debated a couple of players on the board. We had a specific safety we debated hard for weeks and thought he could move to corner. He reminded us a lot of Rashean Mathis when he came out of college. We debated taking him if we moved down. We had a strong conviction about what type of player he could be and he had good football character. Saying that, blue card players are hard to find and there was the chance that we’d lose Ya-Sin if we hesitated and didn’t make the pick.
Matt Eberflus, our defensive coordinator, talked about Ya-Sin’s fit on the Colts. Derice then noted Ya-Sin’s character, grit, toughness, and will to be great. Furthermore, about four days before the draft, I had asked Decker to give me a list of the top players based on football character available in the draft. Ya-Sin was on that list.
The other half of the room—who wanted to trade back—thought we could still get Ya-Sin, but at a lower pick. There’s never a perfect alignment in the room, but once we make a decision, there is no looking back and second-guessing.
Coach Reich and I huddled for a few minutes and we decided we couldn’t afford the chance to lose a blue-card player like Ya-Sin. He fit exactly what we wanted at corner and there was no way we could pass on him at No. 34.
-On the role Director of Player Development Brian Decker plays in the character evaluation process:
When I first took the job in Indianapolis, I wanted to find an expert who could help us get to the core of a player’s football character. We found the perfect person in Brian Decker, a former Green Beret and now our director of player development. He uses a model he developed in the military and applies toward our interview process. He interviews every prospect on our draft board and teaches our scouts specific interviewing techniques.
I didn’t know anything about Decker until I read an ESPN article about his journey in the NFL and the work he was doing on player character assessments to more accurately predict if a player will succeed or fail. I was really intrigued by this topic so I reached out to Decker to get to know him and pick his brain.
At the time I was working in Kansas City, and he was doing some consulting with for the Kansas City Royals. I was impressed right away with his intelligence, vision and humble spirit. He also had an easy way about him that made you want to talk to him. I knew after a few more visits that if I ever had a chance to hire him that I would do it. I can’t sit here and say I knew exactly what his role was going to be, but I did have a strong conviction that Decker would really help us get to the core of a player’s football character, which in turn would help us in our hit rate in the draft. His role has really grown in two years and has become a valuable resource to our coaches, scouts, and players.
I am not going to give away any trade secrets but here are the five questions Decker wants to get the answers to:
• Does this player have a favorable developmental profile?
• Does he have a profile that supports handling pressure and adversity?
• Does he have a good learning and decision-making capacity?
• Is he a character risk and, if so, what can we do to help support him?
• Is he a fit?
-On Ballard wanting full transparency in his draft room:
There are times that I refer to our draft room as “the Room of Candor,” just like they have for film screenings at Pixar Studios. I picked this up in Kansas City while reading Ed Catmull’s book “Creativity, Inc.” and it has followed me to Indianapolis. At Pixar, they meet every few months about their current projects and honestly assess the films they create. They aim to put smart and passionate people in a room with an emphasis on problem solving.
Similarly, in our version, it’s a room for honest conversation, where everyone has a chance to present their case, ask questions, and speak to the abilities of each player.
From our February meetings until draft day, our team pokes holes in the viability of every player. As we enter the draft room, titles get checked at the door. We want everyone in the room to challenge and say what they think. You never know if what you say might spark a different mindset about the player. I promise, this is not easy for scouts. When you have scouted a player for a long period of time and everyone in the room is questioning your work, you have to fight the urge to be defensive. Saying that, it’s a great way to grow and learn because you get to hear other perspectives from the scouts.
-Here are a few random thoughts from Ballard to close out the column:
- I think I spend a lot of time during the summer studying the successful coaches, executives, and teams in not only football but also other sports. I really believe that you can grow by studying the success of others. It is always fun to learn about others’ journeys and how they got to the highest point in their professions.
One executive that I have tremendous respect for is Theo Epstein. I think he will go down in history as one of the best executives and leaders in sports. He has won three World Series in two different cities that were both suffering long droughts. Under his leadership, Boston won in 2004 and 2007 after not winning a title since 1918. Theo and his staff did it again with the Chicago Cubs in 2016 to break a 108-year drought. His ability to adapt and grow after leaving Boston is very hard to do and what led to one of the great turnarounds in sports history. Epstein went from an analytical approach with the Red Sox to a character-based approach plus analytics with the Cubs. Even though I am not a Cubs fan—I grew up in Texas City, close to Houston, and am a big Astros fan—I have great respect for the approach they have taken in Chicago.
- I think there has been a lot of talk about moving the scouting combine from Indianapolis. I’m guessing if you polled all 32 NFL front offices, coaching, medical, and strength staffs, the majority would be against it. For 32 years, Indianapolis has worked with National Football Scouting, the NFL and local partners to expertly hone every aspect of the combine. The work that Jeff Foster and his staff at NFS have done to accommodate the ever-changing needs of the NFL and its broadcast partners has been nothing short of incredible. Indianapolis is the best and most logical location for the combine for many reasons and chief among them being the advantages our city offers from a football perspective to our athletes and personnel across the league:
-Facilities: Lucas Oil Stadium, which has been ranked multiple times as the top stadium in the country, and the Indiana Convention Center are world-class facilities that have ample, contiguous space to conduct drills and all the other business, media, and networking activities surrounding the combine.
-Medical: Our major hospital and medical partners are strategically located within minutes of every combine facility, making it easier, quicker, and more efficient to fulfill the needs of the athletes and teams. Partners like Indiana University Health understand the complex inner workings of our medical scheduling, which is critical to organizing and executing a successful combine. This institutional knowledge is a practical and logistical advantage few other cities can match.
-Accommodations: Most of our hotels are connected to the stadium and convention center by walkways and other connectors. They are centrally located in our downtown district and offer the ideal amount of meeting space and resources for teams, partners and media. What’s more, plans for two new downtown hotels are underway and will add important new options for the combine’s continued growth. Both properties plan to open in 2023
- I think I am a big fan of going away for training camp, but this is something that is disappearing from the NFL. I understand that teams want to eliminate distractions. But there is nothing like human interaction. Sure, teams can provide minute-by-minute updates on social media, but the ability to connect with our fans has to be more than looking at their computers and phones. Training camp allows fans to see their favorite team up close and personal. They get a chance to connect and make interactions that they are not able to make on game day.
It is also important that we continue to connect with our fans who are not season ticket holders. Young fans are able to get an autograph, shake hands, catch a football, and make a connection that will last a lifetime. I don’t care what anyone says—you cannot build trust through the internet and social media. Nothing will ever replace human interaction or the ability to look people in the eye and connect.