By Robert Weintraub
It's a great week to be an Indianapolis Colts fan, and even better time to be general manager Ryan Grigson. The "Boy Genius" (he's 41, by the way) has built a team that just went to San Francisco and physically beat down a Super Bowl contender (or so we thought). Basically, the Colts did to the Niners what another San Francisco icon, Dirty Harry, did to the serial killer suspect Scorpio back in the day.
Shiny new acquisition Trent Richardson scored a touchdown on his first carry as a Colt. Sure, he only managed 35 yards on 13 carries, and looked no more able to blast through small creases in the line and opponent's tackles than he did in Cleveland. And yes, it was the other new guy, Ahmad Bradshaw, who did most of the hard work. But Trent did OK in pass protection, and at least helped lend an aura of newly found toughness the Colts have lacked since the days of Bubba Smith and Mike Curtis.
All in all, Grigson deserved to partake in a celebratory glass or two of fine Napa white on the flight back east.
But that's today, and this is the NFL, where reputations are re-evaluated every Monday morning. Last week at this time, the 2012 Executive of the Year was wondering where the all the plaudits had gone.
Through two games, the Colts were a lifeless bunch, barely scraping past the Raiders before losing at home to Miami. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck was taking another beating, after getting sandblasted throughout 2012. All this after the Colts well overspent the market on offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and cornerback Greg Toler. Then there was the mystifying four-year, $16 million deal proffered to defensive end Erik Walden, a player so pedestrian many Packers fans wanted to see released in 2012.
The draft wasn't any better. After hitting the lottery and the right to draft Luck, Grigson's follow-up last spring wasn't rekindling memories of the mid-1970s Steelers picks. First-round defensive end Bjoern Werner struggled in preseason and has yet to have an impact, failing to even push Walden for snaps. The only memorable moment from the rest of the class thus far has been sixth-rounder John Boyett getting wasted during the preseason. The young safety was too drunk to be allowed access to a nightclub and when he fussed about it, the men in blue came to simmer him down. Boyett yelled, "You can't arrest me, I'm a Colts player!" and threatened a lieutenant with a jaw breaking. After this charming episode, Boyett was released.
So in this context, it was small wonder Grigson was so willing to roll the dice and trade tomorrow for the hope of right now. Because when you have a reputation for prodigy, being merely ordinary can't cut it. Part of this deal was the "Boy Genius" having a midlife crisis, and not settling for picking up the mediocre likes of a Willis McGahee off the waiver wire. That wouldn't light up the sky in the proper manner. And not having a first-rounder next year is one less potential bust, which would also reflect badly on Grigson. Finding a stud in the bottom half of the first round is tricky work. It's much easier to pick up a guy others thought was great, too. "See, it wasn't just us!"
Ironically, the trade was a contradiction amounting to nothing more than a conservative stroll out on a brittle limb.
"Trent isn't even near his ceiling," Grigson told the Indianapolis Star, an organization almost as eager for Richardson to be the Edge James to Luck's Peyton Manning as the Colts are. "We're talking about the third pick in the draft, and that's not because he's a ham-and-egger."
Grigson better hope Richardson turns out to be Eggs Benedict. Because this is his legacy, right here.
Turns out, Grigson has had an eye on the 'Bama back for a while. According to Mike Holmgren, the man who drafted Richardson a year ago (and someone who knows a fair bit about the importance of a good breakfast), Grigson turned down an offer from the Big Show of Cleveland's entire draft for Luck. But he added that "if something crazy happened" (presumably a murder-suicide involving Luck and RG3), Grigson was ready to take Richardson first overall.
Holmgren, unsurprisingly, feels it was his former employers in Cleveland who erred by dealing Richardson, not Grigson. Given that the new regime essentially just crapped all over Holmgren's scouting acumen, he has an agenda in Richardson's success as well.
"I struggled with it," Holmgren told a Seattle radio station. "How do you make your team better by trading your best player? He's the best offensive player. He's a valuable, valuable guy.
"Philosophically," Holmgren added, "if I am the coach and someone came in anywhere and [made that trade], I'd say 'OK, fire me, or I'm going to quit. Or we're going to both go into the owner and talk about this and then we'll see who's still standing."
First and foremost, of course, Grigson's work will be judged by Indy's record, and the team's playoff success or failure. This is the NFL after all; the ultimate results-based business.
But shortly beyond that will be the success or failure of the Richardson deal. Grigson's main problem is that unless the Colts take the Lombardi Trophy back to Indiana, the offseason will inevitably center around a simple fact -- Indy can't restock the roster with a first-round pick next spring. Fair or not, that's the nature of the beast, and if the Colts are in dire need at a certain position -- say, an offensive lineman to blow open some holes for Richardson -- and the franchise can't draft a top prospect because the Browns own their pick, there will be angry fans in Indy.
And they will be looking at just how big a role Richardson played this season in blue and white. Unfortunately, the bar is very high. Even an invaluable star like Atlanta's Julio Jones still hears questions about whether the colossal haul the Falcons gave up to draft him was worth it, given the lack of depth on the roster. First-round picks aren't always the manna from heaven they are portrayed as being, but they represent hope, and that's what fans require even more than the Red Zone Channel, especially in that nine-month chasm between seasons.
"We have a commitment to win," Grigson told the Star. "That's how we roll."
Maybe. But Grigson also has a commitment to his public perception, and a devout belief he can do it better than anyone else. That's how he rolls. He better hope the Colts not only win, but do so with Richardson in a primary role. Because the fans, the media, the entire league will be watching closely.
That's how we roll.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.