Indianapolis Colts, NFL

Is Jim Irsay owed an apology for controversial Jeff Saturday hire?

So far, Jeff Saturday’s lack of professional experience hasn’t ended in immediate disaster for the Colts. Does that mean Jim Irsay did the right thing?

Two weeks removed from Frank Reich’s mid-season termination, the 3-5-1 Colts are now 4-6-1 under current head coach Jeff Saturday. Saturday’s two games so far — a 25-20 win over the Las Vegas Raiders and a 16-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles — have proven to be two of the most competitive games for the Colts so far this season.

The Colts seem to have made the right decision by moving on from Frank Reich, but is the team’s recent surge a result of Saturday’s direction, or is there a confluence of other factors?

It’s still a little early for NFL analysts to line up and apologize to Jim Irsay, but it is true that the hire hasn’t been the “disgrace” to the coaching profession that some anticipated.

Is Jim Irsay owed an apology for hiring Jeff Saturday?

The Colts did defeat the Raiders in Week 10, but the Raiders have been one of the NFL’s most inconsistent units this season. And the Colts nearly defeated the Eagles, who remain the NFL’s No. 1-ranked team. Despite the wins and losses and the opponents they’ve faced, the Colts have done well reverting back to Matt Ryan, and the offense has operated more efficiently. Saturday is the reason for that, but there’s more to it than Irsay’s preferences.

The Colts have renewed focus on their offensive line, thanks to Saturday’s veteran experience and insight as a former NFL center. In Week 10, Johnathan Taylor saw his most successful performance since Week 1, rushing for 147 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts. Against the Eagles, Taylor saw 22 rushing attempts again, but only went for 84 yards and a touchdown. Taylor’s performance has opened up the offense, but part of that is that his return to form coincides with Saturday’s arrival.

The return of Ryan also means increased utilization of Michael Pittman Jr., catching six of seven targets for 75 yards. Parris Campbell caught five of six targets for 67 yards, as he has also seen a boost since the return of Ryan. Essentially, shifting to Sam Ehlinger at quarterback proved to be an ineffectual mistake, and the offensive improvements are a result of Ryan and his favorite targets being able to perform efficiently. Unfortunately, Taylor scored the only Colts touchdown in Week 11, but the Colts were leading the entire game before the final two minutes.

But another key factor here is that no one in the NFL has substantial tape on Saturday or his offensive coordinator, Parks Frazier. Even the worst coach is going to be at an advantage in a chess match where no opponent can predict their moves. A change in scheme and predictability gave the Carolina Panthers a mid-season boost after the firing of Matt Rhule; the Colts could be benefitting from the same. Overall, interim head coaches tend to fair poorly as they overtake troubled rosters, and the game-planning boost could fizzle out as more tape accrues against Saturday and his crew.

The Colts are playing better, and in the short term, the hiring of Jeff Saturday seems to have the Colts operating much more successfully. But an accurate analysis of Saturday’s hire is going to need more data than two games.

Even if the Jeff Saturday experiment is a triumph, it doesn’t detract from initial concerns about the hire, such as Irsay displaying favoritism to a friend.

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