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Ryan Grigson has Indianapolis Colts targeting Super Bowl 50

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The Colts have gone 11-5 in all three seasons under Ryan Grigson's watch. (Darron Cummings/AP)


As a former standout offensive lineman at Purdue who spent a year with the Detroit Lions before beginning his career as a tireless talent evaluator, Ryan Grigson has dealt with his share of slippery edge rushers. Yet on the first day of free agency, when confronted with the possibility that two-time Pro Bowl DE/OLB Trent Cole might leave the Indianapolis Colts' training facility without a contract agreement, the NFL's most physically imposing general manager didn't hesitate to engage in a shameless bit of holding.

"So much was going on in and out of our building, and I was walking to our cap specialist's office when I bumped into Trent Cole," Grigson recalled last week, a few days after completing an aggressive player-acquisition effort that has helped make the Colts a trendy Super Bowl 50 pick, albeit 10 1/2 months before the fact. "He was on the phone and shrugging his shoulders at me while walking towards the door.

"So I grabbed him. I told a couple of guys not to let him leave the building. I called his agent back and we closed the deal. It's not time to play hardball when you have a pass rusher walking out your door -- let alone when it's 'The Hunter.' I just wasn't letting him leave, no matter what. And we go from one minute of despair and potential loss to closing the deal, and everyone's hugging, including you and the player."

If the Colts went away meekly in last January's AFC Championship Game, a 45-7 defeat to the New England Patriots that will be best remembered for the deflated-ball investigation which Grigson helped initiate, their approach to the offseason has been about as subtle as the start of the Indy 500.

In addition to landing Cole, an 11th-year player who'd spent his entire career with the Eagles, the Colts brought in a pair of decorated offensive veterans, ex-49ers halfback Frank Gore and former Texans receiver Andre Johnson. Grigson's frenzied free-agent haul also included another ex-Philly player, 11th-year offensive lineman Todd Herremans, and former Rams defensive lineman Kendall Langford.

On Friday, Grigson made a move to reinforce the team's suspect run defense, signing former Broncos inside linebacker Nate Irving to a three-year deal. If Grigson is spotted in the Biltmore pool with one of his six children during the NFL Annual Meeting, which runs Sunday through Wednesday at the venerable Phoenix resort, his peers will probably assume he's got a waterproof phone in the pocket of his board shorts.

"They are looking to win the Super Bowl -- right now," Herremans said last week. "The players they brought in are immediate impact players."

Grigson isn't merely trying to close the gap on the Patriots in the wake of their dramatic Super Bowl XLIX victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Having presided over three playoff appearances and a trio of 11-5 regular seasons since taking over as GM in January of 2012, with a steady progression of postseason achievement, he's openly gunning for the sport's biggest prize.

"The directive I get from my owner (Jim Irsay) -- and all of the motivation driving my decisions -- is to win it all," Grigson said. "He wants to win the Super Bowl, and that is my mission. That's why I'll keep searching for players, whether it's a big-name free agent or a guy from the CFL or some small college. I'll be looking under every rock, and trying to find a way to make us better.

Positional breakdowns

"And maybe you try that much harder when you still have that 45-7 taste in your mouth."

Not surprisingly, the 6-foot-6 Grigson, who still lifts weights with a vengeance and says he gets "worried something's wrong with me if I dip below 300 (pounds)," has an appetite for destruction, literally and figuratively. In the words of one fellow personnel executive, "Other than family, he loves two things in this world -- scouting and eating, not necessarily in that order."

Since arriving in Indy after successful scouting and front-office stints with the Rams and Eagles, Grigson has changed his recipe for success. Taking over a Colts team that had staggered to a 2-14 record without ailing future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who would be released shortly after Grigson was hired, the rookie GM preached youth at all costs.

Grigson was football's answer to former '60s activist Jack Weinberg, who coined the iconic phrase "Never trust anyone over 30."

Said Grigson: "I didn't want anyone over 28. And then last year, I told (safety) Mike Adams, who was playing well for us, 'You know what? We might need to start signing everybody who's over 33.' I kinda got worn down by some of the youth -- some of the knuckleheads who weren't all in, who don't make the commitment. You get tired of it. Those are the guys who are gonna bring the team down. We've had guys we've had to get rid of, because they weren't with the program. You know that saying, 'People fire themselves'? It's the same thing with football teams."

Though Grigson didn't name names, it's not hard to surmise that he likely regards recently released running back Trent Richardson as part of this group. Richardson, who has since signed with the Oakland Raiders, represents the biggest swing-and miss of Grigson's career.

Early in the 2013 season, Grigson sent a first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns to acquire the former Alabama back, who was the third overall selection of the 2012 draft. Richardson averaged just 2.9 yards a carry during his 14 games with the Colts in 2013 and 3.3 last season, playing just one snap over the team's three playoff games.

"Yeah, you beat yourself up," Grigson conceded. "You put the organization in a bad position. But it won't make us gun-shy, I promise you that."

Besides, for all the grief Grigson gets for the Richardson trade -- and, from some quarters, for the misperception that the Colts "lack talent" aside from star quarterback Andrew Luck -- he has done a swift and exceptional job of rebuilding on the fly.

In addition to drafting Luck first overall in 2012, Grigson landed productive tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the second and third rounds, as well as an explosive receiver later in Round 3: T.Y. Hilton, a relative unknown from Florida International who has caught 82 passes in each of the past two seasons. A few months after that draft, Grigson sent a second-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for cornerback Vontae Davis, who has burgeoned into a Pro Bowl performer.

After the Colts went 11-5 in 2012 and earned an unlikely playoff berth -- despite the fact that rookie head coach Chuck Pagano missed most of the season while undergoing treatment for leukemia -- Grigson was voted the NFL's Executive of the Year by The Sporting News.

If the early success went to Grigson's head, he did a good job of disguising it. "He's a refreshingly down-to-earth and real individual," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said of Grigson. "He's extremely easy to communicate with, and is not the type that thinks he has all the answers."

It's tough to question Grigson's 2014 draft, which produced promising players like starting guard Jack Mewhort, speed receiver Donte Moncrief and outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome.

Yet unlike another GM whose team lost a conference title game in January, the Packers' Ted Thompson, Grigson isn't content merely to build through the draft -- and with free agency approaching, he targeted tried-and-true performers. Stung by a pair of defeats to the Patriots, including the AFC championship blowout, as well as lopsided regular-season losses to the Cowboys and Steelers, Grigson felt a desperate desire to make his team tougher, both physically and mentally.

"Teams have (outmuscled us) repeatedly, and it's a hard pill to swallow," Grigson said. "We need to go into these backyard brawls and be able to step up to that challenge -- and I need to be able to find players who will step up to that challenge.

"Trent, Gore, Johnson -- they know that mindset. They know that window's closing for them, and they're not gonna put up with much BS from young guys who don't quite get it. And they'll bring a vibe that permeates through every orifice of our organization: 'We're going to the mountaintop, and if you don't get on board, you're gonna get left behind.' "

In Grigson's eyes, having a "magnet" like Luck served as a prime recruiting tool. He also relied on his familiarity with Cole and Herremans, two 2005 mid-round draft picks he'd scouted while with the Eagles, and on some good fortune when it came to Gore and Johnson, who are friends and former University of Miami teammates.

During the NFL's three-day negotiating window that preceded free agency, there was a report that Gore had decided to sign with the Eagles. The physical running back ended up changing his mind, however, electing to make his first visit to Indy, where he would sign a three-year deal worth $12 million -- slightly more than the Eagles had offered. Johnson, released by the Texans the previous day, flew with Gore from Miami to Indianapolis on Irsay's private plane.

"It doesn't hurt you in negotiations having Frank and Andre in at the same time, when one is telling the other, 'You've got to be a Colt,' " Grigson said. "That couldn't have worked out any better. At the end of the day, at 4 o'clock (Eastern Time) on (the first day of free agency), the player can sign wherever he wants. You can negotiate in that window, but it doesn't mean he's gonna sign with you. Guys have a change of heart."

As he worked to get deals done with Gore and Johnson, Grigson was simultaneously hunting down 'The Hunter,' ultimately grabbing Cole in the hallway and issuing his "Don't let him leave the building" directive.

"What are the chances I'm going to get a pass rusher as good as Trent at No. 29, a guy who's still a killer coming off the edge," Grigson reasoned, referring to the Colts' first-round drafting position. "Especially one I know and scouted."

He felt similarly about Herremans, a highly intelligent and versatile lineman whom he first encountered at a 2005 Division II all-star game in Kingsville, Texas. That was classic Grigson, who has a knack for finding productive players (such as starting inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, a former member of the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders) in the least conspicuous places.

"He didn't go to the combine," Grigson said of Herremans, who played collegiately at Saginaw Valley State. "I saw him at the Cactus Bowl. Back then there was no digitized video being shared; you had to catch them when you could. Other than the Cactus Bowl, the only exposure I had was some tape of his game against Michigan Tech.

"But I saw enough: he was 6-6, 326 pounds, and had a crazy-high Wonderlic. I remember the report I wrote: 'His technical flaws were a byproduct of him trying to body-slam everyone, because he was so much bigger and stronger.' "

If Herremans and his fellow signees help the Colts win a championship, Grigson's peers might soon be saying the same thing about him.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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