INDIANAPOLIS — When DeAndre Smith scans the room during offensive briefings, the Indianapolis Colts running backs coach realizes he’s in a class by himself.
“I read something that said, ‘The Colts have a pretty young team, but Smith is the breakaway,'” he recalls. “I guess I don’t even see myself that way. But when you start saying the age, I’m 54. I’m not old, but I’m a lot older than these guys. I have a 30 year old daughter. So it’s kind of crazy to think about.”
Not only is Smith the oldest member of Colts coach Shane Steichen’s offensive staff, he’s also a full decade older than the next-oldest staff member, Receivers coach Reggie Wayne. Aside from that couple — and quality control coach Brian Bratton, 40 — this group is made up of a group of 30-year-olds, including Steichen himself. At 38, he’s the third youngest head coach in the NFL.
And none of this happened by accident.
“I wanted to go this way in an offensive way,” said Steichen. “Young energy, youth, hungry. I wanted to build some sort of offensive culture out of a coaching staff, just be able to relate to the players, bring that energy, create that bond. Times are changing… We just want to bring that energy into this building every day.”
Steichen is the latest in a wave of younger head coaches to rise to the top spot on a team in recent years, a trend attributed in part to Sean McVay’s success with the Los Angeles Rams. In some cases, young coaches choose assistants with significant experience to reinforce their staff.
But Steichen has deliberately chosen a younger group because he thinks it fits well with the lab approach he wants to push with his offense staff. To this end, according to coaches, there has been quite a lot of innovation. That includes some influence from within the collegiate ranks, where several of the offensive assistants – like Smith – have worked in recent years.
“There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of creativity, there’s a lot of new ideas,” said offense coach Tony Sporano Jr., 36. “Guys aren’t afraid to speak their mind and be part of a collaboration, which I think is great. “
Most of last year’s defensive staff were carried over after Steichen was hired in February and are largely made up of experienced personnel. But on offense, where the Colts have an almost entirely new set of coaches, the makeup couldn’t be more different.
Wayne particularly liked Steichen’s approach of encouraging the offensive team to speak up while also providing important input for the coaches. Steichen made it clear early on that the former All-Pro receiver would have a real voice on his team, and Wayne liked the opportunity to help shape the team’s offensive direction. It also helped solidify his decision to return for his second season as coach after a disastrous start to the profession in 2022 when offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and head coach Frank Reich were fired midseason.
“I still had work to do,” said Wayne, who successfully campaigned for former North Carolina receiver Josh Downs’ selection in the third round.
Despite the youth movement, the Colts were still picky. Several employees said Steichen conducted thorough interviews before landing their respective jobs. Steichen also resisted the temptation to mainly hire his professional friends, as is often the case. Even Wayne, despite his impressive performances as a player and his connections in the dressing room, didn’t get his blessing.
“I had to turn in my resume and do my interviews and stuff and show that I was worthy of coming back for another year,” he said.
Sparano, who has been an assistant offense coach for the past six seasons, had a similar experience.
“It was incredibly detailed,” Sparano said of his interview process. “Everything from philosophy, techniques, scheme, what the mentality of the room would be like, things that were philosophically important to me to obviously see if we matched up. It was quite rightly a very detailed process.”
Before hiring Sparano, Steichen said the Colts interviewed “five or six candidates.” The interviewing process with all these people took six to seven hours.”
Another area where Steichen was a bit unconventional was the addition of coaches from different philosophical backgrounds. While Steichen has had some overlap with Smith and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (38) in earlier career stints, he has no past with other key members of his team. Tight end coach Tom Manning (39), quarterbacks coach Cam Turner (35), Wayne and Sparano had never worked with Steichen.
“It’s kind of a unique offering,” Turner said.
Sparano added, “I think it’s great to be able to sit together in the same room and work together on how we’ve done things. It’s made us all better.”
Steichen recognizes his youth. For that reason, at the NFL’s annual meeting in March, he made a point of visiting veteran coaches like Andy Reid and Pete Carroll and picking the heads of the two Super Bowl winners.
But Steichen cares deeply about the young workforce he has assembled and sees it as an advantage for his team.
Unless that changes, Smith will apparently have to get used to being the old man in the room.