Jim Irsay's football team concluded the 2021 season with an epic collapse, getting dominated by a lowly division rival to surrender a chance to win its way into the playoffs.
Irsay, like the many fans who support his Indianapolis Colts, was stunned. He eventually filmed a short video standing beside a jet on a desert airport tarmac, pledging his commitment to correcting the Colts' mistakes to ensure they don't fall short of the postseason again in the future. Nearly a week later, Irsay hadn't moved on from the disappointment, calling the failure "an epic shortfall."
"(Colts coach) Frank (Reich) and (general manager) Chris (Ballard) and I realize the weight of this historic collapse," Irsay said, via The Athletic. "It's not normal."
Indianapolis' loss to Jacksonville wasn't normal. The Colts fell to a Jaguars team that had just been routed by 40 points a week earlier by a team Indianapolis had already defeated. The Colts weren't supposed to lose this game.
And yet, they did, with their quarterback struggling mightily in his most important game with the team, completing 17 of 29 passes for 185 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Carson Wentz was sacked six times, and Indianapolis fell behind by as many as 23 before making the final score a little more respectable, but no less heartbreaking at 26-11.
Irsay's tarmac pledge included a promise to Colts fans: "Anyone walking into the 56th Street complex this year will be walking in with all chips in. Period."
"If you don't want to put all your chips in on the table for winning and excellence, then don't walk into the building," Irsay continued.
The demand seemed to be directed at Wentz, who wilted under the pressure of a win-and-in Week 18 scenario. Irsay clarified his comments this week, explaining if he'd meant the message for Wentz, he'd have said it to him himself.
"It wasn't directed at him," Irsay said. "If I was directing it at him, I would've named him … I don't worry about his feelings. If I was directing it at Carson, I would have told Carson face-to-face.
"If anyone wants to know where I stand, they can come ask me," he continued. "I don't deal with kid gloves in this league, not at this level. If I'm directing something at you, believe me, you're going to know it because it's gonna be one-on-one and I'm going to be looking at you face-to-face."
Irsay has plenty of opportunity to deliver such a message to a quarterback whose acquisition has cost the Colts a first-round pick. But such communication still doesn't answer the most important question regarding Indianapolis' immediate future: Do the Colts still believe Wentz can be the one to take them to the playoffs?
Reich was captured attempting to build up Wentz's confidence during HBO's Hard Knocks: In Season, which followed a Colts team that many had tabbed as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the latter portion of the season. Thanks to a run of eight wins in 10 games, Indianapolis had turned around a once-ugly season and seemed destined for something greater than a vacation after Week 18. But two straight losses to close the campaign sent the Colts to the offseason quicker than most anyone expected, and many of the fingers directing blame pointed toward Wentz.
Is a change ahead at quarterback? Not yet, at least not according to what Irsay is willing to reveal at this point, which isn't much beyond a guarantee the organization is "evaluating every area" with the goal of making "the right adjustments for what's best for our football team."
What might be best for the Colts is another fresh start under center after Wentz's tumultuous season offered peeks of promise but too often forced Indianapolis to acknowledge it was better off relying on running back Jonathan Taylor than Wentz. Such a strategy wasn't possible after falling behind by multiple scores in Week 18, leading to the Colts' downfall.
If he's going to make a change at quarterback, it's safe to assume Irsay will deliver the news to Wentz's face. And if they're going to stick with Wentz, we can bank on Irsay delivering a stern message of expectation to Wentz, too.
As Ballard said the day after the loss when recalling his message to Wentz, make the layups. Ballard and Reich might need to turn their layups into slam dunks if they hope to finish in a better situation than they did in 2021 -- with or without Wentz.