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Josh McDaniels’ decision to spurn Indianapolis makes Colts-Patriots a proper rivalry again

Or is Chris Ballard just a victim of wishful thinking?

NFL: Houston Texans at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

On Feb. 6, 2018, the Indianapolis Colts tweeted out an announcement. An announcement that turned out to be false.

The Colts had spent most of the month between the end of their 3-13 season and Super Bowl 52 holding one of the league’s worst-kept secrets; they were going to be the franchise to give Josh McDaniels his second chance as an NFL head coach. Indianapolis jumped at the opportunity to hire the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, reaching an unofficial agreement with McDaniels sometime around Jan. 15 — two days after the assistant coach led the Patriots to a Divisional Round win over the Titans.

But NFL teams can’t hire away coordinators from others who are still active in the playoffs, meaning any official contract would have to wait three weeks.

Those three weeks provided enough time to deal Indianapolis a 14th loss. Two days after his Pats lost the Super Bowl, the Colts finally made the official statement they were hiring McDaniels. Hours later, the deal was off. McDaniels, after a sit-down with head coach Bill Belichick, left his team’s facilities satisfied with his role on the Patriots’ staff.

Why didn’t Josh McDaniels take the Colts job?

There’s no official reason why McDaniels didn’t want to take the second head coaching job of his career, but there have been several reported factors that may have led to his famous flip flop. One had to do with relocating after spending the past six years in New England. From ESPN’s Adam Schefter:

But this wasn’t a decision about money. The truth is, McDaniels, 41, has been vacillating on this decision throughout the interview process, ever since meeting with the Colts on wild-card weekend. It is the reason a second meeting with Colts officials and team owner Jim Irsay was held. McDaniels was trying to get comfortable with the idea of taking his family out of New England and moving to Indianapolis, sources said.

Rumors also swirled around McDaniels reticence to take a rebuilding job with an injured quarterback as its centerpiece. The Patriots are the NFL’s most stable franchise, a team that’s won 14 of the last 15 AFC East championships. The Colts, on the other hand, have a depleted roster thanks to some serious mismanagement and a quarterback who, at the time of McDaniels’ decision, hadn’t thrown a football in more than a year.

Either way, the Patriots made a major push to keep their offensive coordinator in the fold after their Super Bowl 52 defeat. Part of that push, some reports suggest, was New England management’s residual bitterness over Deflategate, which we’ll address in a little bit.

How did the Colts recover?

That sent Indianapolis back to the drawing board, but all its old plans had been scrapped. Mike Vrabel, another rising candidate with ties to New England, had interviewed with the team in early January. By the time McDaniels gave his drawn-out “no,” Vrabel was head coach at Tennessee. Candidates Steve Wilks (Cardinals) and Pat Shurmur (Giants) also found jobs.

The Colts made the best of a disadvantageous situation by landing on the other offensive coordinator from Super Bowl 52 — the guy who won, Frank Reich. But Reich’s start has yet to turn the fortunes of a roster that might not be done bottoming out. Andrew Luck has returned to the lineup, and his progression from “no one knows if he can throw a football” to the 40-touchdown passer of old has been a slow and steady one.

Reich has carried the bold tendencies that made him exciting to watch in Philadelphia to his new job — but that gambler’s mentality has backfired through a 1-3 start. There’s still plenty of time for Reich to prove he’s the right man in Indianapolis, it’s just going to be tough to tell in 2018 since the Colts’ roster is, to put it nicely, uninspiring.

That’s all very bad for the Colts. But it’s very good for one of the millennium’s best rivalries.

The McDaniels spurning was the latest loss for an Indianapolis team that was once great — and would have been even greater if not for the existence of Belichick and Tom Brady. Between 2003 and 2015, a 13-season span that covers the aftermath of the Colts’ move from the AFC East to the newly formed AFC South — Indianapolis and New England met 17 times.

The bulk of those matchups were a function of each side’s dominance. Five of those games came in the playoffs. Another nine came following seasons where both teams earned division titles. Three of New England’s five Super Bowl titles came after besting Indianapolis in the postseason. Indianapolis’ lone NFL title came after rallying from a 21-3 deficit to stun the Pats in 2007’s AFC title game.

For a decade and change, Patriots-Colts was a reliable bellwether the league could circle on its calendar, a beacon of meaningful regular season play around which the NFL could build its primetime schedule. And that familiarity bred contempt.

First it was run-of-the-mill rivalry stuff. But then the Colts kicked off the NFL’s dumbest scandal by ratting out the Patriots for using under-inflated footballs during a 45-7 AFC Championship Game rout. New Englanders suddenly saw a fading Indianapolis team as the source of 544 days of drama (and a lost first-round pick. And, indirectly, the rise of Jimmy Garoppolo. And, much more indirectly, the arrival of wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. You know what? It’s a long story) for the Pats.

New England got some revenge in a 34-27 win in October 2015 that pushed its winning streak against Indy to seven games, but the feud on the field has been left to simmer since then. Colts general manager Chris Ballard, hired to extinguish the smoldering coal fire lit by former GM Ryan Grigson and still pouring noxious fumes into Lucas Oil Stadium, made it a point to mend the rift between the two teams. He even reached out to Belichick in an effort to build a relationship with the AFC East powerhouse.

But then the Colts sent out their premature tweet, Belichick lured McDaniels back from a lucrative opportunity in America’s most mall-shaped city, and Indianapolis was left as the last coach-less team through 2018’s offseason.

And Ballard was no longer interested in playing nice:

“I didn’t want the explanation. Either you’re in or you’re out,” Ballard said. “That’s his prerogative and that’s his choice. He chose not to be an Indianapolis Colt.

“The rivalry is back on.”

So how has McDaniels done against the other team he’s had personal issues with?

There’s good news for the Colts. McDaniels hasn’t been great in revenge games in his past. He was unceremoniously fired in the midst of a 5-17 stretch with the Denver Broncos in 2010 and failed to make the most of his return engagements with his former team. The Patriots are 5-3 against the Broncos since McDaniels’ return to the New England sideline, but two of those three losses came in the playoffs. All three defeats came during national broadcasts.

But those Broncos were powered by the greatest Colt of all time (apologies to Johnny Unitas and Adam Vinatieri). Peyton Manning, no stranger to a Patriots rivalry, was the quarterback who captained those statement-making wins. This year’s Indianapolis team will count on a still-recovering Andrew Luck, who is not only 0-5 against New England, but also lost those games by an average margin of 24.6 points.

Now Luck’s got a little extra motivation. When he looks at the Pats’ sideline, he’ll be staring at the coordinator who was supposed to be the architect of his revival in 2018. And if the rivalry is, in fact, “back on,” the Colts are going to need a win to prove it. They get their first chance Thursday night.