INDIANAPOLIS -- Chris Ballard knew of Brian Decker, but didn’t know him. When Ballard was the Kansas City Chiefs' director of football operations, he read about Decker in an ESPN The Magazine feature in 2016. Ballard then asked good friend Joe Banner, whom Decker worked for with the Cleveland Browns briefly in 2014, about what made the up-and-comer so special.
"A lot of draft picks are missed on the intangibles," Banner said. "I’m not talking about people getting in trouble, more of how driven are you to be great, what kind of work ethic do you have? I told Chris that Brian developed a very impressive and compelling system on how to do that in the military. I thought it would be very applicable to the NFL in trying to produce better batting averages and drafts by zeroing in on the guys who had the intangibles that you need. It’s really his incredible way of evaluating people in the nonperformance areas that lead to the effectiveness of their performance."
That's all Ballard needed to hear. He picked up the phone and cold-called Decker, who served in two separate stints in Iraq during his 22-year career in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
“I told him that I wanted to meet and pick his brain,” Ballard said. “The more we visited, the more I saw we were very much alike. I knew he would be a really good teammate.”
There was a catch, though. Ballard wasn’t in the position to hire Decker. But their conversations planted the seed that he wanted Decker on his staff when he became an NFL general manager.
Ballard was hired by the Colts in January 2017. He brought in Decker after the draft that spring, hoping he'd be a trendsetter in the NFL when it comes to evaluating players.
“A lot of people will say [they’ll stay in touch], but few will follow up on that,” said Decker, who said he turned down other jobs that would have paid him more. “We kept in touch and one thing led to another. He got the job. I trusted Chris, hands down. I genuinely trusted him.”
Decker is not a coach, nor a scout. He doesn't look at film to evaluate what kind of football player a person is. Decker's job dives deeper.
He's responsible for doing a thorough investigation of all draft prospects, trying to unearth as much as possible about each player. He also works closely with the scouts to help them weed out players who don’t belong on the franchise “bus.” Nothing is off-limits. They want every detail about every player.
It’s a five-step process for Decker.
Does this player have a favorable developmental profile?
Does he have a profile that supports handling pressure and adversity?
Does he have a good learning and decision-making profile?
Is he a character risk and, if so, what can we do to help this player be who he needs to be?
Is he a fit?
Decker then gives Ballard, head coach Frank Reich and the rest of the coaching staff and front office his findings. Decker interviewed more than 160 players from last month’s draft during the Senior Bowl, combine and pro days.
"The misses I've had in my career, when I look back, most the time it's character."Colts GM Chris Ballard
The offseason days are long for Decker. They usually start at around 6 a.m. and sometimes don’t end until 8 or 9 p.m., six to seven days a week. Decker’s goal is to be able to talk to 300 players by next year’s draft and help the team's scouts have an even better success rate than they've had in the past.
“I taught our scouts our methods,” he said. “They can apply the same things. It’s all about getting quality information. How do you know you’re gathering quality information? And how do you use that information to make good assessments? I try to, as much as I can, share some of that. It’s not their job to do that, because they already do a lot. But they are the front-line soldiers.”
Decker's job doesn't stop after the roster is assembled. During the season, he travels to all the games, is on the field during practice and the games, and is in the locker room and weight room building relationships and checking on players to make sure they don't need anything. Decker also meets with Reich, the training staff and even the team chefs to make sure the players' diets are in order.
"It was not an easy transition because people are so guarded with their information," Ballard said. "Brian had to work his ass off to gain trust by people in the building. That was not easy. I trusted him right away."
How did Decker, 47, qualify for a job like this when the extent of his football career was playing cornerback at his high school in Kentucky?
His military background.
What Decker does with the Colts is similar to what he did when he was picked to run the Special Forces assessment and selection program in North Carolina in 2011. His goal was to find and evaluate those who embraced challenges, were leaders and could shine as a Green Beret.
The Colts have put a premium on finding players with the right fit and right character. Ballard inherited a team in the winter of 2017 that lacked locker-room leaders.
“The misses I’ve had in my career, when I look back, most the time it’s character,” Ballard said. “I’ve missed something in the character. That’s why I’ve been so strong-driven here.”
Decker’s first year in that role couldn’t have gone any better. The Colts had what many considered the league's best draft class in 2018, led by All-Pro rookies Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson. Last year’s locker room was a close-knit group, which was vital to helping the Colts overcome a 1-5 start to the season to finish 10-6 and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
But Decker is not ready to call that draft class such a success just yet.
“I think it’s too soon to tell,” he said. “Ultimately, we’ll be judged farther down the line. How many of these guys go on to sign second contracts with us? How many of those guys turn out to be team captains?”
The Colts won’t be perfect in this approach. There will be players who don't pan out. That happens with every team. What the Colts hope will happen is there will be more successes than misses.
“Chris is trying to take information in time-period zero and predict in time periods 1, 2 and 3 where a player is going to be,” Decker said. “... “So, my thought is, after [Ballard] has watched the film and talked to people, he’s got questions. What I’m trying to do is not eliminate the uncertainty. But what if we can reduce that uncertainty by 5 percent? And then we can compound that 5 percent gain annually over the course of time? That becomes a competitive advantage.”