The Evolution of Ryan Grigson, the NFL's Most Unconventional GM

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistSeptember 15, 2015

Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson during the NFL team's football training camp in Anderson, Ind., Saturday, July 26, 2014.  (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Van Halen is blasting through the enormous Klipsch speakers. The big plates are clanging and banging in the Colts weight room. Beneath a loaded barbell, general manager Ryan Grigson finds a moment of clarity. That's often where he finds one.

Why did he change course this offseason and remind us that gray is one of the Colts' colors, signing four free agents who are on the wrong side of 30?

Andrew Luck, that's why.

Grigson's blood is pumping now, and his thoughts are too. The Colts have three straight 11-win seasons since drafting Luck. They've gone one round further in the playoffs each year. They were one game away from the Super Bowl before a crushing 45-7 loss to the Patriots in January's conference championship game.

How do they take that big next step?

The Klipsch speakers break the inner dialogue. Jump…go ahead, jump.

"Yeah, you want to build around the draft," said Grigson, whose policy prior to this year had been to acquire only players 28 and under. "But 12 is special. When you have someone like him, you have to build on the fly. You are in win-now mode, because look what he did the first year.

"You can't say, 'We have to take our foot off the gas, Andrew.' Or say, 'We aren't going to take swings in free agency because we are on this fixed blueprint.' Or say, 'We are going to have to take our lumps this year even though we won 11 last year.' That makes no sense to me. Our situation is unique."

Yes it is. And that is part of why Grigson's name gets mentioned a lot on sports talk radio these days. The headlines say things like "Grigson's Free Pass is Over" and "Super Bowl or Bust for Colts."

His style is unconventional. His previous forays into free agency have been spotty. He whiffed on LaRon Landry, Ricky Jean Francois and Gosder Cherilus. The fact that Luck fell from the heavens is sometimes held against Grigson. But the memory should not be so short as to forget that some suggested he draft Robert Griffin III instead of Luck.

Grigson has a .673 winning percentage as GM, and a 2012 NFL Executive of the Year Award, so Luck hardly has been his only extra-bagger. Five of the seven Colts in the Pro Bowl last season were acquired by Grigson. Luck and T.Y. Hilton were draft picks, cornerback Vontae Davis was acquired in a trade, and safety Mike Adams and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson were signed as free agents.

Seventeen of 48 ESPN experts picked the Colts to win the AFC this season. Grigson gets it.

"When you are this close, it's the allure of winning it all," Grigson said. "You don't want to wait. I'm not the most patient person in the world. When you have the quarterback we do and the weapons we have and you have made significant strides every year, I get why Joe Fan is excited. They see the growth and the potential.

"We just have to take one more step. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to get the coaches what they need to get over the top."

Grigson and the coaches provide a dramatic subplot. The Colts offered Chuck Pagano a one-year contract extension in the offseason. He declined and is in the final year of his deal. Grigson is signed through the 2016 season. The relationship between general manager and head coach subsequently has been questioned.

WTHR's Bob Kravitz, who is as plugged in to the Colts as anyone, has written of a "growing disconnect" between Grigson and Pagano. The Indianapolis Star cited sources saying Grigson has told his head coach who to play. ESPN reported there was organizational conflict over the decision to cut veteran Josh Chapman. Fox's Jay Glazer on Sunday reported Pagano is "fighting for his job."

Grigson, Pagano and owner Jim Irsay all dispute the idea the relationship between general manager and head coach is on the rocks.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

From Pagano: "That's why I don't read. I don't think we'd be where we are today if the relationship wasn't good. You aren't going to have 36 wins otherwise. It just wouldn't work."

From Grigson: "You can't believe what you hear. We are so transparent with each other. Today, we were going over the depth chart. It's a partnership. It's got to be give and take, otherwise it doesn't work. You have your disagreements, but you work through them like family does. There are going to be times when you disagree, you might stew. But you can't live like that because you can't survive in this league when things are like that. We work at that every day."

This may not be Camelot, but this is not the 2014 49ers either. It is evident Grigson and Pagano have genuine respect for one another. Grigson calls Pagano a "passionate coach who gets players to run through a brick wall for him." He talks up Pagano's player development skills and cites him as a reason players from other teams want to join the Colts. Pagano, meanwhile, praises Grigson for "turning over every stone" in the scouting process.

Standing over Grigson and Pagano is Irsay. He has high expectations—and ultimate authority over the future of his general manager and head coach. After the Colts were upset by the Bills 27-14 Sunday, Irsay addressed the situation to local reporters.

"I don't look at it that way at all," he said. "Whenever these guys are in coaching, as players, everyone has to win. I mean that's a given. I don't look at it like he's coaching for his job or anything like that. I don't see the dynamic being anything different than any other year in the past, to be honest with you."

In the fall of 2015, just three years into the Grigson regime, this organization has been brought to a full boil. Something big has to happen. And soon.

When Grigson was interviewing for his job with Irsay, he toured the Colts facility. His biggest takeaway: The weight room was a problem. It was outdated, with insufficient equipment and only one squat rack. So his first official request of Irsay was to build a new weight room. Grigson's players, to say nothing of Grigson, would be spending a lot of time there.

AJ Mast/Associated Press

Lifting can relieve stress, and when you are the general manager of these Colts, there is stress to be relieved.

Many general managers do things the way they do because it's the way they have always done it. Grigson isn't like that. He will analyze every situation and ask if there is a better way.

At the scouting combine last March, agent Drew Rosenhaus asked Grigson about a contract extension for T.Y. Hilton. Grigson told Rosenhaus the team had a policy of not extending contracts. Rosenhaus explained in detail why he thought an extension would make sense for Hilton. Grigson listened, and he told Rosenhaus he would discuss it with Irsay. On Aug. 13, the Colts announced they signed Hilton to a five-year, $65 million extension.

"That says a lot about him," Rosenhaus said. "I get the feeling Ryan is not afraid to walk in his own path, or do things differently. I don't think he's a follower. He has a lot of guts."

Those guts were evident when Grigson initiated Deflategate by pointing a finger at the Patriots. And some would say the guts also were evident when he banked on aging, big-name free agents Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Trent Cole and Todd Herremans.

Grigson acknowledges that by signing older free agents, he has asked to be dealt in on a game in which the house wins more than it loses. But he likes his odds in part because he gambled on players with character.

Gore is an interesting acquisition. Toughness and football character define him. After the Colts signed Gore, Grigson's phone lit up with about a dozen unsolicited endorsements of Gore from people who knew him well.

Grigson's other major running back acquisition, Trent Richardson, did not garner the same kind of respect. Grigson traded a first-round pick to the Browns for Richardson, the third pick of the 2012 draft, in September 2013. In nearly two years with the Colts, Richardson averaged 3.1 yards per carry and never had a 100-yard rushing game. He was waived in March and subsequently was signed and released by the Raiders.

Asked what he learned from the Richardson saga, Grigson said, "I don't want to touch that one. I told him when I cut him that I have no ill will. I thought he could have done a lot of things better as a pro, but I want him to succeed. He was a heck of a player. You don't want to ever see someone not realize their potential or play at a level that God didn't intend him to."

The Colts are in a different stage of development than they were two years ago. "Sometimes you have to hold a guy's hand and pick him up every morning at the Candlewood Suites to make sure he is at his meetings on time," Grigson said. "But young guys who have talent but are knuckleheads beat up your culture; they wear your coaches down. We're at a point now where we feel the culture is strong enough and we don't have to have those types of guys anymore."

At 6'6", 305 pounds, Grigson is a mountain of a man. Colts strength and conditioning coach Roger Marandino will tell you that despite Grigson's size, the GM is powerful enough to do multiple sets of eight to 10 pull-ups. Grigson also regularly pumps out eight to 10 reps of 315 pounds on the bench press with a fairly close grip.

"He possesses a level of strength that is on par with some of our players," Marandino said.

Unfortunately, Grigson couldn't use that strength to help the Colts stop the run last year. They allowed 4.3 yards per carry, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. In the Colts' 45-7 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, LeGarrette Blount trampled the Colts for 148 yards and three touchdowns. Blount had run for 166 yards and four TDs against the Colts in the playoffs the previous year.

Grigson overhauled the defense this year, adding as many as eight players (free agents Cole, Kendall Langford and Dwight Lowery, trade pickup Sio Moore and draft picks Clayton Geathers, Henry Anderson, David Parry and D'Joun Smith) who should play a lot or start at some point. Additionally, the team is counting on six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Robert Mathis to provide big plays in his return from an Achilles tear.

Many expected the Colts would use the 29th pick of the draft on a defensive lineman. Even Grigson acknowledges the team's primary needs were on the defensive and offensive lines. But he makes no apologies for making a selection that could be considered counterintuitive.

In February, Grigson was watching college tape of Phillip Dorsett. He was so enthralled with the Miami receiver that he sent a clip of Dorsett to Irsay. He didn't do that with any other player through the entire draft process.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

"You just don't pass on true blue speed," he said. "He is a true blue speed guy who isn't just a straight-line, fast guy."

Dorsett muffed a couple of punts in his debut Sunday, but still Grigson has no remorse about taking the highest-rated player on the Colts board instead of reaching for a lineman.

When Grigson was a mullet-wearing offensive tackle at Purdue clearing holes for Mike Alstott, he was voted the top-conditioned athlete on the team two straight years. He could bench-press 450 pounds in those days.

The Cincinnati Bengals noticed and selected him in the sixth round of the 1995 draft. In camp that year, Grigson immediately stood out. But he stood out more in the meeting room than on the field.

"Rain Man," they called him.

"We'd be watching film, getting ready for preseason games," said Paul Alexander, who coached Grigson and remains the Bengals offensive line coach. "I wouldn't know who some third-string guy on another team was, and I'd say, 'Who's 42?' This was before everyone had iPads and so much information. Grigson would say, 'Oh, that's Joe Schmoe. He's from Ohio Wesleyan. He didn't go to the combine because he's only 6'1". But he ran a 4.68 40 and he did 37 reps in the bench press.' He would do that with every guy. He used to get those old Athlon Football magazines and read them cover to cover."

The Bengals waived Grigson at the end of camp. He was claimed by the Lions but never played a down in the NFL. When a back injury convinced him he was finished as a player, he called Alexander.

A framed letter typed on Bengals letterhead written January 28, 1998, hangs in Grigson's home office.

It reads, in part:

To Whom It May Concern;

I've known Ryan Grigson since I scouted him in college. I was so impressed with him, especially his intangibles, that we drafted him that year. Unfortunately, an injury ended what I considered would be a promising NFL career.

I volunteered to write this letter on Ryan's behalf because he is truly one of the most unique individuals I have met in my lifetime. He is hard working and has a passion for football. Since I have known Ryan, football has been his life.

Ryan is a personnel junkie. In our group meetings, he was the personnel expert. He knew about every player on the film.

It's not a surprise that Ryan was the Captain of Purdue's team. Ryan, if given the opportunity, will have a long and distinguished career in our League in personnel.


Paul Alexander

Grigson became a pro scout for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League. Then he coached offensive line for one year at McPherson College in Kansas. Next stop was Buffalo, where he served as player personnel coordinator for the Arena League's Destroyers.

By the time he was hired as a national scout by the St. Louis Rams in 1999, Grigson was already forming some strong scouting philosophies.

"I remember standing at Arena League games thinking, 'That guy should be in the NFL,'" Grigson said. "Or in NAIA, 'This guy should be in a camp.' You can find players at all different places if they have certain traits. That's why we have so many guys with different backgrounds on this team. My foundation is a non-discriminatory approach."

To Grigson's critics, his first draft choice had the appropriate name: Luck. But his supporters point out his first transaction was not influenced by the horseshoe that symbolizes his team. Six days after Grigson was hired, he signed a CFL linebacker. Since then, Jerrell Freeman has started 45 games for the Colts and made more than 370 tackles.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Freeman was the first of many Grigson Colts who came from non-traditional backgrounds. The Colts have signed multiple players from the CFL, as well as players from the Arena Football League, the Indoor Football League, the United Football League, the Fall Experimental Football League and the Super Rugby league.

Some coaches would resent being forced to deal with raw athletes. Pagano encourages Grigson to find them.

"You look back at all the great dynasties," Pagano said. "The Packers in the '60s, the Steelers in the '70s, the Niners in the '80s. They all had things in common. One of them was being innovative. You have to think outside of the box a little. That's where Ryan and his staff do a great job."

Working out with passion builds strength, and it also can reveal character. After his senior season, Grigson bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times for NFL teams. Recently, at the end of a workout with Marandino, the 43-year-old bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times.

It was a testament to Grigson's drive and relentlessness.

Grigson still can remember seeing his father Jeffrey Grigson lifting heavy weights in his basement while wearing work boots and a tool belt. Dad was a former Marine and a construction worker. He died of brain cancer when Grigson was nine.

In his teen years, Grigson lost his way a bit, as kids sometimes do. Then, as a sophomore at Purdue, he took a blow to his stomach while playing football that led to pancreatitis, kidney failure and pneumonia. He spent five weeks in the hospital—three in intensive care. He lost 30 pounds, and doctors told his mother Juanita Grigson Price they feared he would die.

He didn't, but he did emerge from the hospital a different man. His Catholic faith deepened, and his priorities changed. The lessons his Polish grandmother Frances Rokita had been trying to teach him since he was a toddler finally took root.

Grigson calls his grandmother, who is 92 and still a strong influence in his life, a "prayer warrior" and says he wouldn't be where he is without her. As a wedding gift, she gave him a book about Padre Pio, who bore the five wounds of Christ and later was recognized as a saint.

During the period he worked for the Eagles, Grigson made regular visits to the National Centre for Padre Pio in Barto, Pennsylvania. A scout on the Eagles staff, Anthony Patch, was battling the same kind of brain cancer that took the life of Grigson's father. Together, Grigson and Patch made many pilgrimages to the shrine. Eight years later, Patch's battle goes on.

So high stakes, Grigson has come to understand, are relative.

"My faith is what has helped me through my experience here," he said. "I don't ever feel I need to operate from a position of fear."

After spending so much of his life building strength in so many ways, Grigson feels prepared, very prepared, to carry the weight of whatever lies ahead.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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