LAS VEGAS — Indianapolis Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday was doing his level best to stay locked in on the next offensive play on Sunday, with nothing less than the game itself on the line.
But when you are charged with presiding over all of the ever-moving parts of an NFL roster, tasked with overseeing the frenzy that unfolds on each and every play, singular focus is a luxury you cannot enjoy.
With the Colts on offense, Saturday was being summoned on his headset by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was making plans for how the Colts would attack the Las Vegas Raiders on their ensuing, final possession in the one-score contest.
To blitz or not to blitz was the question.
“Gus is talking about, ‘Hey, can we heat him up?'” recalled Saturday, the parlance meaning Bradley wanted to blitz Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. At such a critical juncture, decisions like that fall to the head coach — even interim ones with zero experience.
“Man, it’s all the back-and-forth,” Saturday added. “But you still have to be mindful of what’s happening on offense. It’s like, ‘What are we talking about? Is it a two-minute? Is it four-minute?’ A lot of different scenarios, situations, and the decision’s got to be made right there. What ya got?”
The whole experience was, at times, bewildering to Saturday, who stunningly took the helm for Indianapolis last week after fifth-year coach Frank Reich was fired. Saturday assumed the role with no experience beyond the Georgia high school team he coached for three seasons from 2017 to 2019.
Now, everything about his role is new. The game-planning process. The logistics of the job. The breadth of the responsibilities. And, most of all, the pace of managing the game.
“It’s fast,” Saturday said. “I looked up and it’s halftime. And then, in the third quarter, it was like two drives, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I mean it was quick. As a player, you don’t realize it because you’re in the moment. But for a coach, man, it flies by.”
Nine days ago, Saturday was an ESPN analyst. He had spent 13 NFL seasons as a center for the Colts, a two-time first-team All-Pro whose final campaign was with the Green Bay Packers in 2012. By Sunday, his head was spinning on the sideline. How did Saturday get here? How did he make it work? And where is this all going?
This is the story of Saturday’s first week on an all-consuming job for which there is no manual, a week that ended with the Colts scoring an improbable win in Saturday’s coaching debut.
THE COLTS WERE a broken team a week ago. Their 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots on Nov. 6 was a low point, as quarterback Sam Ehlinger, a 2021 sixth-round draft pick starting for the benched Matt Ryan, was sacked nine times, and Indy went 0-for-14 on third-down conversion attempts as Indy fell to 3-5-1.
Saturday, who was a Colts consultant as well as ESPN analyst at the time, received two calls from team owner Jim Irsay that day. One was during the middle of the game asking why the offensive line was struggling so badly, and the other was later that night to broach the idea of Saturday becoming the interim coach.
“Shocked would be an understatement,” said Saturday, who added that he had a long discussion with his wife, Karen, and prayed about the decision.
After some deliberation with Saturday, Irsay phoned Reich on the morning of Nov. 7 and told him his services were no longer needed.
General manager Chris Ballard took the floor in the team meeting room at Colts headquarters and informed players of the decision. The news left some players wrecked. Reich was the only coach many of the young players had known in their pro careers. He was their biggest cheerleader and fiercest defender. And now, he was gone.
All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson would later say he felt partially responsible for Reich’s dismissal because of his own inconsistent performance. Emotions were high, but Ryan resisted the urge to look the other way. The 15-year veteran jumped into action and gave a stirring address to his teammates.
Fading into the background “would have been a very normal thing to do,” Ryan told ESPN.
But he looked his teammates in their eyes, and without the benefit of starting-quarterback status, spoke to them as a friend and not on behalf of the organization.
“I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got no agenda here. It’s just me,'” he said. “I just said, ‘We’re all we’ve got.'”
This is the environment into which Saturday was inserted when, about an hour after that somber team meeting, the Colts announced he was the interim coach. It was a hire that followed a “spirited” debate — according to Ballard — between the GM and Irsay.
If there’s one thing Saturday’s 14 seasons in the NFL taught him, it was how to read a locker room. That perceptiveness served him well at a critical time.
“This was a very tough week for these guys,” Saturday said. “The relationship they had with Frank, it’s hard in all these circumstances.”
“The fatigue on these guys has to be insane,” he added, “from the emotional fatigue, the physical fatigue of where we are in the season — all of those things.”
Saturday treated the situation with the delicate touch it required. It’s part of the reason players gave him a fair shot despite the shock of the team hiring a relative outsider in midseason. His hiring also was met with skepticism from some team staffers who, unsurprisingly, were stunned. One described the franchise as a “clown show” after the move.
There already was some frustration with Irsay inside the organization dating back to January, sources said, when he began signaling publicly he wanted the team to move on from quarterback Carson Wentz. It was feared those statements would undermine Wentz’s trade value, although the Washington Commanders ultimately yielded two draft picks to acquire him.
More recently, those frustrations were renewed when Irsay influenced the decision to bench Ryan and exacerbated by the hiring of Saturday.
But the way Saturday approached the week — with humility — paid dividends.
“He did a great job at the beginning of the week of addressing the situation, understanding it’s completely unprecedented, completely unique, and was very clear about how he was going to try and go about it,” Ryan said.
As running back Jonathan Taylor explained, “It’s not about him getting a bunch of wins. It’s not about him being at the forefront. He just wants to see … the Indianapolis Colts succeed.”
IRSAY HAS INSISTED Saturday was the perfect candidate for the job, despite criticism from observers such as former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and former Cleveland Browns All-Pro offensive lineman Joe Thomas, among others, who maintained it was a slap in the face to assistants working their way up the ladder to be bypassed for an inexperienced candidate.
Irsay offered various explanations for the Saturday hire during last week’s introductory news conference before being pinned down on what drove his decision. Irsay cited one specific quality: leadership.
It didn’t necessarily suggest Reich was a poor leader. It just solidified that Saturday’s approach to leadership would look different. Where Reich was known to help build players’ confidence through positive reinforcement, Saturday goes about it in his own way.
Irsay’s conviction, however, wasn’t based on any of the usual criteria by which head coaches are evaluated. It was, in effect, a gut feeling.
But gut feelings don’t put points on the scoreboard. It would be up to Saturday to figure out how he could positively impact the Colts despite not being totally equipped to do the job for which he was hired.
The solution, he figured, was simple. Saturday let his assistant coaches focus on their specific tasks and tried not to be an impediment, while serving as a resource where possible.
But one of his most immediate challenges was to address the gaping holes in the Colts’ staff created by the departures of Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, who was fired two weeks ago.
That meant delegating tasks to coaches he didn’t know well. And it required him to find an offensive playcaller to handle duties previously addressed by Reich.
“This was a very tough week for these guys. The relationship they had with Frank [Reich], it’s hard in all these circumstances.”
The Colts first approached quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich about taking over the playcalling, but there was no pay adjustment or change in title, according to sources, and Milanovich declined, so the Colts moved on to assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier.
Frazier embraced the role, but there was one problem: He had never been a playcaller at any level.
Another major decision involved who would start at quarterback. Saturday watched Ehlinger take all the first-team snaps in Wednesday’s practice before Ryan returned from a shoulder injury on Thursday and impressed Saturday with his control of the offense.
“I needed to get a good feel of his command in a huddle,” Saturday said of Ryan.
By the time Friday arrived, Saturday had made up his mind.
Ryan and the Colts responded with their second-highest point total of the season in a 25-20 win. To his credit, Frazier had an impressive performance against the Raiders, according to Saturday and players.
“I’m proud of Parks, and I thought he did a great job,” Ryan said.
Saturday’s contributions over the past week came mostly through providing energy and motivation.
“He brought a different level of accountability to the team,” wide receiver Parris Campbell said. “Even from his playing days, you can watch those clips of him going at it with Peyton Manning. That’s just the type of guy that he is. He brings that fiery attitude to team meetings. And he’s not scared to tell you when you’re wrong. He’s not scared to tell you when you look like crap, for lack of better words … That’s just his personality.”
Saturday’s approach was made clear from his first meeting with players, according to veteran defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
“I mean, it hit me,” Buckner said. “He didn’t come out here with any false pretenses [saying], ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that.’ He’s like, ‘Hey, I’m just going to work my ass off. And that’s what I expect from y’all.'”
AS COLTS CORNERBACK Stephon Gilmore swatted away a fourth-down pass to Davante Adams in the end zone with 52 seconds remaining on Sunday, it effectively ended the game.
On the sidelines, joy overtook Saturday. He got a backslap from Bradley and a bear hug from assistant offensive line coach Kevin Mawae.
How long Saturday’s coaching career lasts, and whether he is a success or a failure, remains to be seen. But for now, he has a perfect record.
All you critics…you criticize all of us in the NFL for losing…When we make moves to Win… you act so righteous! “Who You Crappin’..”. Just Win,Baby!!🏈✌️
— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) November 14, 2022
“It’s one win,” Saturday said afterward. “But heck, man, they’re hard to get in the NFL.”
The difficulty of achieving wins in this league is about to be reinforced for Saturday and the Colts, who will face the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) before games against the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Chargers in the weeks to come. By the time it’s all over, the novelty of Saturday’s hire will likely have worn off.
Another subplot is whether the Colts challenging conventional wisdom by hiring an inexperienced head coach will give other teams something to think about. In that sense, the Colts are something of a test case for the slow-to-change NFL.
But at this point, Saturday is a coach who is figuring it out on the fly while delivering a message with resonance.
If only he could just keep up with all those headset conversations.