Colts GM Ryan Grigson has unearthed roster puzzle pieces on Day 1 of the draft and on Day 3, in basketball gyms and in far-off countries. As for finding balance in his dream job? That's the holy grail
START WITH COFFEE. It is the scout's restorative, and when Ryan Grigson was young and combing the nation for football talent, he would drink 10 cups a day. "Peak concentration," he says. Can't have the eyelids drooping in the fourth hour of a film session.
Grigson is the Colts' general manager now, and he is down to three cups a day. He walks into Café Patachou, in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood of Indianapolis, and orders one. This is the kind of place where you grab a mug and fill up; most customers just pick the nearest one. Grigson, though, surveys them all before making his decision.
"Aren't they all the same?" asks a waitress.
No, he says. They're very different. The one he chooses today is slightly wider, sturdier, even a little bigger than the others—although I can't really tell the difference when he points this out. But the waitress realizes he is right. Not long ago, Café Patachou ordered new mugs. Grigson grabbed one of the old ones.
To Grigson, scouting is not just a skill. It's a state of mind, and it doesn't stop when the film does. A scout should know where to eat on the road, and which hotel to choose, even if he has only been to a town once before. A scout who routinely eats at Olive Garden will always like the same players that other scouts like. Back in the days when Grigson visited college programs every week, he would ask for a room at that school's facility where he could watch film alone, away from the other scouts.
Under Grigson, the Colts may lead the NFL in turning over stones. This off-season, they signed former Georgia Tech basketball center Demarco Cox, who is 6'8", 294 pounds and will come to training camp as a tackle, but who hasn't played football since high school. Indy also picked up CFL receiver Duron Carter, the son of Hall of Fame wideout Cris Carter. The younger Carter's maturity has been questioned, and after winning the genetic lottery he took a roundabout path to the NFL—Ohio State, Coffeyville Community College (after being deemed academically ineligible for the Buckeyes) and then the Canadian Football League. But Grigson thinks Carter's ready, at 24, to help the Colts.
Grigson needs to be creative, because the draft you've been hearing about for the past few months is not Grigson's draft—at least, not in the way that it is the Buccaneers' or the Titans' or the Jaguars' draft. Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? Doesn't matter to Grigson. He has Andrew Luck. Should Alabama's Amari Cooper be the first receiver taken, or should it be West Virginia's Kevin White? That doesn't matter, either. Both will be long gone by the time Indianapolis picks at No. 29, unless Grigson makes a stunning trade.
Grigson doesn't need rookie star power. What he needs are solid starters or backups who can make big plays in key moments—the way that defensive end Jonathan Newsome, a fifth-round pick last year out of Ball State, forced Peyton Manning to fumble in this year's divisional-playoff win over the Broncos.
Grigson sits down at Café Patachou. It is late February and the NFL combine, at the Colts' home stadium, has just concluded. In bars and in hotel lobbies throughout downtown Indianapolis and across the U.S., televisions had been tuned to the event's endless stream of jumps and leaps. But from his seat at Lucas Oil Stadium, Grigson mostly ignored what was happening on the field. Sure, once in a while one of Grigson's colleagues alerted him that a Player of Interest was performing a drill, and he looked up. But mostly he watched game footage of prospects on his iPad.
He is wary of players who come in with spotty college careers and then make first-team All-Combine, and of evaluators who dismiss players with good track records but poor predraft measurables. He remembers running back LeSean McCoy—who had run for 35 TDs and nearly 3,000 yards in two seasons at Pittsburgh—falling to the 53rd pick in 2009 partly because of a poor vertical jump at his pro day. (McCoy missed the combine with the flu.) The three-time Pro Bowler has since had four 1,000-yard seasons. Now nobody cares if he can dunk.
"I don't mess with the board at all postcombine," Grigson says. "I've worked places where it's completely rearranged after the combine. Completely. I've seen a lot of things where I said, That's what I won't do. It's what pisses you off as a scout. We all agreed that this guy was a first-round talent—and now we're moving him to the bottom of the third based on what he did in one drill?"
Grigson, who took over as Indy's GM before the 2012 season, is 43, the architect of a team that, in his tenure, reached the wild-card round, then the division round and then, in January, the conference championship. This is the job Grigson wanted for most of his adult life, the chance to build a Super Bowl contender. There's only one problem.
"The term 'building' is a fallacy," he says. "We 'build' on the fly."
SOMETIMES a player will be summoned to Grigson's office and sit at the big conference table in front. Music is almost always playing, usually something that Grigson would have heard as a kid in Northwest Indiana, riding around in his dad's Chrysler Cordoba: Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Jefferson Airplane, the Eagles....
When Grigson releases a player, he usually turns the music down, because "if some guy comes in and 'Baby Love' by the Supremes is on," Grigson doesn't want that to be the soundtrack for being cut.
All you do is treat me bad
Break my heart and leave me sad
When the player walks out, he may be angry or bitter, determined or relieved. But he probably won't realize: That wasn't Grigson's real office.
His real office, the one where he gets his best work done, is nestled behind the one with the conference table. This is where he has a recliner called the Beast, a fridge, a coffee maker, a table for his laptop, and the centerpiece of his job: a wall-mounted depth chart that he could happily study for hours.
"There is nothing I love more," he says.
The door to this office stays locked. Players are never, ever allowed in, and this is why: The chart is color-coded. If a name is in green, Grigson wants to re-sign that player. The ones in blue have character issues. The ones in black are on their way out. Some are labeled IBG. These are Injury Bug Guys.
For Grigson, every day is a battle to get into the real office. If a GM isn't careful he can spend all day dealing with administrative issues—talking to agents, managing employees, meeting with the business staff and putting out little fires. He won't have time to find and evaluate players. This is why Grigson arrives at work at 6 a.m., without having showered. He sits in the Beast and watches film for two hours, then takes a shower and starts the rest of his workday.
Grigson was an experienced scout with the Eagles when Colts owner Jim Irsay hired him to this job. But he had never dealt with the myriad issues that face a GM every day. He was overwhelmed. During one early meeting about the salary cap, he felt a sensation that he'd never experienced in his professional life: "I was almost getting physically ill. I was trying to do too many things."
In his fourth year, he is getting better with the NFL's complicated economics, but he still puts his full trust in Indianapolis's salary-cap expert, Mike Bluem, and in general counsel Dan Emerson. When Grigson's assistant, Lisa Andrzejewski, emails him every day, she always finishes with the same message, at Grigson's request: "Get back to your scouting roots." Irsay always tells Grigson that he wants him in "the engine room," the metaphorical intersection of the coaching staff and the front office.
But even that keeps Grigson from doing what many fans assume he is doing. He rarely travels to college games or practices, "because when I leave [Indy], something always comes up," he says. "If something comes up on the [waiver] wire when I'm at a school watching tape, I might miss out on a guy that can help us now."
In Grigson's first season, after he took Luck with the No. 1 pick, the Colts shocked the league by improving from 2--14 to 11--5. But after their playoff loss to the Ravens, Grigson looked down on the field and thought, for the only time in his career, that his team couldn't win. Luck could barely set his feet before getting hit. After the team flew home, Grigson went to his office and wrote "PROTECT 12" on a piece of paper. It is still on his desk.
Grigson thinks of his roster as a bonsai tree. "I am constantly pruning it," he says. During the season, most of his early-morning video watching is of the Colts, so he can decide which names should be green and which ones should be black. Toward the end of the year he starts watching pending free agents from other teams, and eventually he sprinkles in film of college prospects at positions of need.
This is the reverse of how most fans think a GM's job works. We focus on high draft choices first, free agents second and then the back end of the roster last. But Grigson must first understand his own team's needs. He prides himself on churning the last spots on his roster, maximizing late-round draft picks and finding players in unconventional places. This is the heart of his job, and the best chance to help the Colts move from contender to champion.
"We have a mind-set where we want to build a dynasty," Grigson says, "because we have the quarterback to do it."
OVER LUNCH at Café Patachou, Grigson is trying to explain all the things that can derail a player's career, but a word escapes him. "I can't believe I can't think of this word," he says. "Oh my Lord! The combine wears you out. It's things that entice you.... This is crazy."
Temptations can derail franchises too. Grigson admits that he can be emotional. But in order to win he must resist the allure of trading way up in the draft in exchange for an undeniable talent; he must fight the urge to overpay for the best free agents.
He has three kinds of currency—players, draft picks, money—and he must use them all wisely. Some moves involve players, some involve draft choices, and some involve both. But they all involve money, in salaries paid, salaries inherited, salaries saved.
GMs must weigh money whenever they make a decision. This helps explain the most-discussed move of Grigson's tenure: trading a first-round pick to the Browns for running back Trent Richardson in September 2013.
The move failed. Richardson, the No. 3 pick in 2012, was a bust in Indianapolis and was released last month. But a decision that two years ago may have seemed impetuous was actually quite calculated. Richardson's draft-choice price was expensive, but in actual dollars he came incredibly cheap. Cleveland had already paid his $13.34 million signing bonus and taken the cap hit that came with it. The Colts paid him just $3.57 million total, for two seasons (and could have had him under team control for two more seasons at a low salary). Grigson thought the combined risk, in salary and a draft choice, was worth taking to get a guy who was considered one of the most talented players in the draft just a year earlier. "I'll do that every single time," Grigson says.
A similar calculation explains the Colts' recent moves in free agency. They needed a strong interior D-lineman and were mentioned prominently in virtually every list of teams thought to be pursuing Ndamukong Suh. But Grigson resisted temptation. Suh would have had to transition from a 4--3 to a 3--4 defense (a substantial adjustment, even for an All-Pro player), and the price tag was too great. Assuming the Colts sign Luck to a mammoth contract extension, they don't want nearly $50 million per season tied up in just two players.
Instead, Indianapolis signed running back Frank Gore and receiver Andre Johnson, filling two more glaring holes. Both have been described as "win-now" moves because Gore will be 32 and Johnson 34 this fall. But they are also low-risk moves that give the Colts flexibility in the future. After this season, Gore is only guaranteed $3 million; Johnson $2.5 million. Indy also signed former Eagles linebacker Trent Cole and Broncos linebacker Nate Irving to similar low-risk deals with a big potential payoff.
Grigson, a devout Catholic, often prays in his office—sometimes for his family or for strength, but often for wisdom. "Wisdom crushes intelligence at every turn," he says. That's why Andrzejewski's daily emails also include this nugget: "Wisdom is to call something by its right name." It is a reminder not to overthink.
"When I have to talk myself into liking a guy, or when I have to watch six tapes to think I might take him—that's usually when I miss," Grigson says. "You don't want that guy. You want the guys who pop."
When a guy pops, Grigson remembers, even if he doesn't draft him. He thinks back to the only time he ever saw a college freshman and wrote, on his report, "He could play in the NFL right now." That was an Illinois cornerback named Vontae Davis. Six years later Davis was struggling with the Dolphins when Grigson dealt a second-round pick for him. Davis did not cede a single touchdown last year, his first as a Pro Bowler.
If you turn over as many stones as the Colts do, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Grigson knows that every Super Bowl champion has employed players whom you wouldn't ask to babysit your kids. He will not draft a player he deems a character risk in the first four rounds. After that he will consider it, as long as the player has the potential to be a starter.
"Usually these aren't the cleanest guys, or they don't learn well, or they have some sort of drug issue, or maybe they don't fit in society well," he says. "But between the white lines, they can go all day. That's their sanctuary."
The risks are not all character-based. Sometimes this hypothetical late-rounder played at a small school, against weak competition or had a disappointing senior year. Maybe he will have to learn a new position. But at some point in this draft, after those first four rounds, Grigson will see a name on the Colts' board, "just staring at you." And suddenly one of those projects will be the highest-rated player left on the board.
Somebody in the room will ask, "Why don't we take him?"
By that time the hype will be gone, the TV audience will be limited, and most fans will be outside, reveling in a spring Saturday. But the Colts might just turn over a stone and find the last piece of a Super Bowl champion.
When Grigson releases a player, he turns the music down. "If some guy comes in and 'BABY LOVE' IS ON," he doesn't want that to be the soundtrack for being cut.
"I'LL DO THAT EVERY SINGLE TIME," Grigson says of his widely panned trade for former No. 3 pick Trent Richardson—which, people forget, cost very little in actual dollars.
ROUND 1 2012
ROUND 3 2012
ROUND 3 2012
FREE AGENT 2015
FREE AGENT 2015
Photograph by AJ Mast For Sports Illustrated
Photo Illustration by SI Premedia
BILL FRAKES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES
BOB LEVEY/GETTY IMAGES
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES
POINT OF PURCHASE The view from above is promising: Through savvy drafting, trades and thrifty free-agency dealings, Grigson has built a Super Bowl contender in just three years.
COLT HERO After his team went 2--14 in 2011, Irsay (right, near) entrusted Grigson to right the ship. Indy hasn't missed the playoffs since.