Published November 14, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS – Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is more comfortable watching practice in sweat pants and sunglasses than he'll ever be standing behind a podium in a stuffy suit.
It's the perfect style fit for the former offensive lineman who is debunking the NFL's conventional wisdom.
He's winning games with a rookie quarterback and one of the league's youngest teams. He's winning when nobody else thought he could, and he's doing it his way — by instilling a gritty, down-to-earth attitude in a team that has no illusions about where it's been or where it's going.
"Obviously, I'm elated, I'm not going to sit here and lie about it," Grigson told The Associated Press as he watched practice Wednesday. "But we're still only at the mid-point of the season. We know six wins doesn't get you anywhere in the postseason, but we feel the organization is going in the right direction."
Indeed, it is.
Nine games into the season and barely 10 months into his first gig as an NFL general manager, the 6-foot-6 giant has already achieved things longtime GMs only fantasize about.
Grigson has survived the most publicized parting of the offseason, cutting four-time league MVP Peyton Manning, and the shocking release of a handful of other big-name favorites. He stayed calm when other key players left in free agency and ignored the ongoing debate about which quarterback should be taken first overall pick in April's draft — Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III.
When anxious fans pleaded for the Colts to make a bold move in free agency, the 6-foot-6 giant stood pat, locking himself inside an office to study game tapes, budgets and ponder the possibilities of what will likely be remembered as the biggest decision of his career: Cutting Manning.
"First of all, how do you replace him?" Grigson said as he thanked team owner Jim Irsay for taking responsibility for the controversial move. "You look at him (Manning) and he's a great player, and he's still a great player. But I knew from a fiscal standpoint and an age standpoint, I knew that we had to have a change if we were going to have success in the future."
Somehow, it all worked out.
Manning is thriving in Denver. Luck is on pace for a historic rookie season. Receiver Reggie Wayne, one of the few veterans Grigson decided to keep around, is having the best season of his career. Two of the three ex-Baltimore Ravens he signed, Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski, have played key roles on an improving defense, and most of Grigson's draftees have been key contributors, too.
The magnitude of Indy's turnaround has been nothing short of amazing.
A year ago when the Colts headed to New England, they were 0-11 and were surrounded by talk of a winless season. Eleven months later, as they prepare for a return to Foxborough, Mass., they are 6-3 and hold a two-game lead on their nearest competitor for a wild-card spot. They've won despite a rash of injuries, the usual rookie mistakes and even losing their head coach, Chuck Pagano, indefinitely as he battles a form of leukemia.
They've won with a first-time head coach, a first-time interim coach and a first-time GM, who looks nothing like the stodgy front-office folks of years past.
And yet they've done it, in large part, because of Grigson's masterful strokes.
"I think he has to be the executive of the year so far," punter Pat McAfee said. "You look at the wow factor the day of the cuts. Basically, he rebuilt this team in four or five months. We had a great core group of guys here, and the way he picked up the pieces is just amazing."
How did Grigson do it?
The opinions vary.
McAfee credits the GM for bringing in solid cornerstones to construct the foundation. Redding believes the competitiveness Grigson demonstrates on a daily basis has rubbed off on those inside the locker room. Luck thinks it's all about Grigson's homework and his commitment to making the right calls.
"The first thing that stood out to me is, 'Man, this is a big guy'," Luck said, drawing laughter as he explained his experience through the draft process. "Second, was that you could tell how hard he worked. He was like a tireless worker. He had a great sort of enthusiasm and love for football. Those were the first three things I really noticed."
Doubters point out that Indy has only beaten one legitimate playoff team (Green Bay) this season as they head to New England (6-3) this weekend.
They contend Grigson has essentially rebuilt the Colts with smoke-and-mirrors in a weak division and against a depleted AFC.
A deeper look reveals something else — Grigson has rebuilt on the Colts with players who were considered top talents when they came into the league.
Luck, of course, provides Indy with the most valuable commodity in football, a franchise quarterback. He's protected on one side by Anthony Castonzo, Indy's first-round draft pick in 2011, and can hand the ball off to Donald Brown, the Colts' first-round draft pick in 2009.
That's not all.
Indy signed the oft-injured Donnie Avery, the first receiver taken in the 2008 draft and used its second and third round draft picks this year on the top two tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen). Grigson also traded up to get speedy receiver T.Y. Hilton in the third round and made trades for right tackle Winston Justice, Philadelphia's second-round pick in 2006, and cornerback Vontae Davis, Miami's first-rounder in 2009. He even signed free agent Darius Butler, this week's AFC defensive player of the week, New England's second-round choice in 2009.
Some of those players say Grigson's belief has provided motivation to perform.
"I think it means a lot when you have someone that believes in you that much," Justice said. "It makes you want to play harder."
The question, of course, is whether the Colts can keep it going.
Players insist they can, and Grigson will have tens of millions of dollars to spend in free agency during the offseason.
But Grigson won't just spend that money on some big-name guy. No, he wants somebody who is willing to fit in with the rest of these gritty guys, who are willing to work sweat it out on blustery November days.
"I'm always thinking about the future and how we can get better," Grigson said with a smile as he stared into practice through the sunglasses. "The players know that, I know that and we want to be the best. As I mature in this role, because I am still a newby GM, I still have a lot to learn. But if we can get better, we will. I'm also sensitive to the chemistry we're building. I don't want to make a splashy signing, I want to make a decision based on what's good for the team."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL