It had been a tough week for Colts GM Chris Ballard, so when he ended his left-at-the-altar press conference last February 7, his parting words seemed like a pithy but understandable effort to save face.
“The rivalry is back on,” he said.
Yeah OK, Chris. Good luck with that. You have no head coach and your franchise quarterback will spend June minicamp throwing high school-sized footballs because of a “mental block” with regulation footballs. You just went 4-12. Appreciate the irritation but tugging on the Patriots’ pant leg, waving a fist up at them and promising payback is more cute than threatening.
Eleven months later, the Colts and Patriots are one win away from meeting in the AFC Championship. Working title for that game? The Irony Bowl.
It’s been a remarkable reversal of fortune for the Colts who started 1-5 under Frank Reich and are now heading to Kansas City having won 10 of 11.
Two of their rookies – linebacker Darius Leonard and guard Quenton Nelson – were named All-Pro. Luck is likely going to be named Comeback Player of the Year.
Under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus – who McDaniels hired – the Colts defense has undergone a drastic improvement. Same with the Indianapolis special teams under former Patriots player and coach Bubba Ventrone, another McDaniels hire. Same with the Indy defensive line under Mike Phair. Also hired by … you get the point.
McDaniels’ cold feet were caused by a reluctance to uproot his family but also by creeping unease with the situation he was stepping into in Indy.
Regardless of the reason, the decision to back out did undeniable damage to McDaniels’ reputation. And that’s been borne out in this season’s round of head coaching interviews.
There were eight vacancies. Only the Bengals and Packers made official requests to interview McDaniels. He rebuffed the Bengals. On Monday, the Packers agreed to make Matt LaFleur their head coach.
Maybe something will break with the Browns.
A report last week stated McDaniels is “enthusiastically interested” in interviewing with Cleveland. Makes sense. He’s from Ohio. The Browns are the most attractive landing spot in the NFL with a bona fide franchise QB in the making with Baker Mayfield. It’s a perfect fit.
But so far, there’s been nothing official from Cleveland which has so far met with Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, Browns interim coach Gregg Williams, former Indianapolis and Detroit coach Jim Caldwell, Minnesota interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and New Orleans tight ends coach Dan Campbell. The Browns are also expected to meet with their interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens and former Packers coach Mike McCarthy sometime this week. They interviewed Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus on Sunday.
Maybe the Browns and owner Jimmy Haslam feel they’re already up to speed on McDaniels having twice interviewed him before when they had openings in 2013 and 2014.
Or maybe GM John Dorsey, a close friend of Ballard’s from their time spent working together in Kansas City, has a hair across his ass about the way McDaniels made his guy look bad and wants no part of working alongside McDaniels.
Maybe teams around the league presume McDaniels is a lock to succeed Bill Belichick. Not only is that not etched in stone, but Belichick isn’t really giving off the vibe he’s about to hang it up.
Or maybe after 14 head coaching interviews of McDaniels dating back to 2009 (Broncos, Browns, Rams, Browns, Browns, 49ers, Falcons, 49ers, Rams, Jaguars, Bears, Giants, Colts, Packers), teams have grown tired of the epididymal hypertension that a McDaniels courtship seems to invite.
Whatever the case, the chance that Kansas City throws up on itself and the Colts wind up in Foxboro with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line is very real.
The story of the Patriots can’t be written without devoting a few chapters to the layers of interpersonal and inter-franchise intrigue and bitterness their run of greatness spawned.
But the rivalry with the Colts may be the most consistently bitter. From Peyton and Polian through Grigson and DeflateGate, it’s been almost two decades of unabated toxicity.
Now, all the two teams need to do is hold up their end this weekend to prove Ballard was a prophet.
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