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IF IRSAY TANKS AND FLOUTS THE ROONEY RULE, HE’S NO BETTER THAN SNYDER
He proudly defended the NFL by calling out a fellow owner, but weeks later, with his Indianapolis Colts trapped in self-inflicted disarray, Irsay looks like another suspicious billionaire himself
And the most farcical thing of all? Jim Irsay is trying to remove another owner for tarnishing the NFL’s vaunted shield. He’s leading the institutional charge to oust Daniel Snyder, whose toxic workplace sins are deplorable, and just last month, Irsay looked like an American hero who was taking an admirable stand for humankind.
Now, in a tragicomedy unmatched in a sports world loaded with twisted drama, he should be subjected to a sweeping league review himself. Who calls out a rogue in Washington, then turns around and burns down his own house in Indianapolis? Who defends the shield, then shoots it full of holes?
He thinks it’s his business if he wants to appoint Jeff Saturday — on a Monday, after firing Frank Reich on a Sunday — as interim head coach of a team that doesn’t have enough days in a week to wipe its excreta. But it becomes our business when Irsay, in the process of appointing a good friend whose lack of head-coaching experience is outrageous, might be flouting the Rooney Rule. It also becomes our business when Saturday’s eight-game neophyte trial smacks of a deranged attempt to tank a season and position the Luckless Colts — who haven’t recovered since Andrew Luck retired suddenly three years ago — to draft a franchise quarterback.
As it was, Irsay’s gonzo performance at a screwballish news conference couldn’t have been more shocking and disconcerting. If it’s unfair to draw parallels to his troubled behavior of eight years ago, when an addiction to painkillers led to a DUI arrest, do feel free to wonder if Irsay has misplaced his marbles in despair over the Colts’ demise. Did he really reference the CIA and journeys to Mars while addressing what has happened to a team that, not long ago, had Super Bowl aspirations?
We knew he was quirky. But would Irsay, whose loathing of losing is legendary if not deeply disturbing, go so far to overlook the most sacred rules of a league that he reveres? What’s bothersome isn’t so much that he turned to Saturday, he of the three coaching seasons at Hebron Christian Academy, over considerably more seasoned options on the current staff — including Gus Bradley and John Fox, who’ve served as NFL head coaches for a combined 20 seasons. Rather, it’s what Irsay said about Saturday:
“This is for eight games, hopefully more.”
The comment suggests Irsay is eyeing Saturday, best known as Peyton Manning’s center in the team’s glory years and recently seen as an ESPN studio analyst, for the long-term coaching job. That is a verbal gaffe of the lowest order in a league that mandates equitable hiring processes — and is failing miserably in its quest for diverse leadership on the sidelines. To date, Irsay has been the most open-minded of owners, having hired Tony Dungy — who became the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl — and replacing him with another Black coach, Jim Caldwell. When pressed, he said he’ll comply with the Rooney Rule, which isn’t enforced during the regular season.
But his over-the-moon enthusiasm for Saturday prompts doubt about whether he’ll genuinely consider other candidates, minorities or otherwise. To say the least, Irsay is making many NFL people uncomfortable with his blind defiance of conventional front-office wisdom.
“I’m glad he doesn’t have NFL experience,” Irsay said of His Guy. “I’m glad he hasn’t learned the fear that’s in this league, because it’s tough for all of our coaches. They’re afraid. They go to analytics, and it gets difficult. I mean, he doesn’t have all that. He doesn’t have that fear and there was no other candidate. We were fortunate that he was available. He has tons of experience.”
Wait, didn’t he say earlier that Saturday has no NFL experience? If you feel confused, consider what’s happening inside Irsay’s brain. “Want to bet against this guy?" he dared the assembled media. “Put your money down. (I’d) love to see it, because I know what he's about.”
Gambling also is taboo in the league, but the bigger issue is whether Irsay is committing an integrity breach. Knowingly or unwittingly, he is all but ensuring the Colts land a hot quarterbacking prospect in the 2023 draft — C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young and Will Levis are projected as top-five picks — if Saturday turns out to be as raw and incompetent as expected. Since Luck’s escape from football, general manager Chris Ballard has acquired Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan. When Ryan struggled, Irsay ordered Reich to bench him for unproven Sam Ehlinger, a decision that disrupted the locker room and exposed disarray on high. The owner is so out of control these days, we’d be foolish to dismiss any possibility, including a wish to lose as many games as possible for future gain. At present, the Colts are 3-5-1 with a historically abysmal offense.
Rather than bet on Saturday, wager on the Colts finishing 3-13-1. Here’s where Roger Goodell might start sniffing around for a rat. NFL teams have recovered from bigger holes to reach the postseason. If Irsay didn’t want Reich, why not Bradley or Fox? Why not special teams coordinator Ray Ventrone, considered future head-coaching material? This team still has talent. The Colts are 2 1/2 games behind the Titans in the AFC South and 2 1/2 behind the Chargers for the final wild-card berth. Why pull Saturday out of a debate with Stephen A. Smith when continuity and competence already are on site? Isn’t this an all-time stretch, if not a naked attempt to fail? Why Saturday and not one of the other more stable choices?
“Because he’s a better fit,” Irsay said. “He’s the best man for the job, and there’s no question about it in my mind. I’ve been around it a long time. The last coach I hired as an interim coach was Bruce Arians. It was the right coach. So he was the best guy. That’s why. There’s no mystery behind that.”
To compare Saturday to Arians, who had substantial experience as an NFL assistant before his hiring, is loony. Even Saturday was stunned to pick up the phone Sunday night — “Shocked would be an understatement,” he said — and hear Irsay’s offer. “I’ll be frank,” he said, “I asked Mr. Irsay: ‘Tell me why I’m a candidate you would consider in any role to do this.’ ’’
At least his expectations are low, which might serve his boss’ ulterior motive. “I’m here. Nobody expects anything,” Saturday said. “Hopefully, it'll go extremely well. But I have no preconceived notion that I'm gonna be some spectacular anything.” His first move was anything but spectacular, promoting 30-year-old assistant Parks Frazier to call offensive plays when he has zero experience in the role. There are 10-car pileups at Indianapolis Motor Speedway less messy.
And to think only 22 days have passed since Irsay, in what seemed his proudest ownership moment, protected the league’s honor. In describing Snyder’s dirty shop as “gravely concerning,” he said, “Some of the things I've heard doesn't represent us at all. I want the American public to know what we're about as owners. ... You can't shy away from the fact that, I believe it's in the best interest of the National Football League that we look at this squarely in the eyes and deal with it. That’s not what we stand for.
“I believe there is merit to removing him as owner.”
Since then, Snyder and his wife have hired Bank of America to explore options, including the outright sale of the Commanders. Before this week, Irsay would have been master of ceremonies at the ejection party, letting the door hit Snyder on the ass.
Might the same door await him?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.