Jim Ayello works for the Indianapolis Star as a beat writer for the Colts. He took the time to chat with The Big Lead about Andrew Luck's retirement coming a week after he started the gig, how Jacoby Brissett and Frank Reich led this team through the first month of the season, what improvements must be made, and more.
Liam McKeone: In your own words, describe your journey from when you first realized you wanted to be a sports journalist to where you are now as the Colts writer for the Indianapolis Star.
Jim Ayello: Non-traditional, I would say, just to start, because a lot of the sports journalists I've come across in my time in the industry have known what they've wanted to do for a long time. For me, it was kind of a... journey, a little bit. I started off actually going to college to get a business degree, then abandoned that and didn't know what I wanted to do. I ended up going back to community college and trying to figure out what I wanted to do and ended up joining the school newspaper there, and from that point kind of found my way into sports journalism. It was not something that I expected. I had always wanted to be involved and around sports in some way, but I wasn't sure writing was going to get me there. I eventually found my way to it.
I spent a couple years at community college doing that, then went to the University of Missouri. Even there, you work for the school paper there, my first job was in education. That's what I covered, local education. It took me a while to get to sports, but obviously once I got there I knew that was kind of the spot for me. But again, it keeps getting sidetracked. I didn't continue writing out of college. I went into newspaper design. I did some design and editing for a little while until I found out I was really bad at it. By that, I mean my boss told me I was really bad at it, and said I should try something else. She sent me to a different paper within the same family of newspapers and said I should try sportswriting again. So that's how I got back to it.
I started covering high school sports for a smaller paper in Indiana, did that for a while, then went to the Indianapolis Star as, again, a copy editor because I thought it would be a good way to get my foot in the door. I wanted to continue writing, but figured I'd get my foot in the door as a copy editor, back in the time when the Indy Star had copy editors. Unfortunately they're not there anymore. I started trying to write any time I could, so I inserted myself into the sports department even though I wasn't part of that. I just started asking if I could cover anything. I started writing fantasy football articles, even though I'm pretty sure they didn't want them. I did a little bit of that.
Then a sports producing job opened up, which is a lot of social media-focused stuff, pinning stories to the website and sort of organizing the web page. I took that job, and that came with a lot more writing responsibilities. I was able to go out and cover the Pacers, help out with the Colts, do a lot of other stuff. Eventually, I wrote enough that... There was actually an IndyCar job that opened up. I applied for that job and got it. I covered IndyCar for three years for the Star, all the while helping out with Pacers, helping out with Colts, doing as much as I could. Finally, when the Colts job opened up, I think I had shown enough to my bosses from my three years in IndyCar that they were willing to give me the Colts job and that I earned it. That's the long-winded story of how I got to be covering the Colts. I've only been doing it for a few months. It's been really interesting, obviously. I think it was seven or eight days in to the job that Andrew Luck retired, so I was thrown right into the fire on that. That was trial by fire and learning how to deal with everything. It's been kind of a whirlwind the first few months here.
McKeone: I can only imagine how much of a whirlwind it was, but we'll get to that. You've been on every side of the industry in your journey to get here. How does that experience help you now that you're a full-time writer?
Ayello: I think it helps me understand that a story is not over once I've written it and sent it to my editor. There's a lot of production within the story that comes with it. Videos, photographs, trying to embed other stuff in the story, recirculation. Having that understanding, coming from my background that I had, is very helpful and I hope-- endears might be a strong word-- but endears me to some of my coworkers, saying, 'Hey, I've been here before, I know what you have to do after I sent you the story, let me try to help out and do some of those things.'
As a sportswriter, coming with the background that I had, I'm trying to become more well-rounded. I'm trying to learn how to produce my own podcast, I'm trying to learn how to cover a bunch of different sports at one time. I feel like being versatile, especially in the sportswriting industry and kind of in the journalism industry that we're in now, being versatile is so key. You can be hyper-focused on one thing and be really good at it and for some people that works out really, really well. I admire those people. But for others, being versatile is a big asset. That's what I try to do in my years of journalism. Just be versatile, be able to do anything, and say yes to just about anything somebody asks you. That's always been my advice to young journalists. Just say yes and figure it out as you go.
McKeone: You're still in the early days of full-time beat writing for the Colts, but many of the journalists I've spoke to really valued their time covering high school sports and viewed it as formative for the journalist they've become. Do you feel the same way from your time on that beat?
Ayello: Oh, of course. I don't think there's any better training ground than covering high school. You're out every night, you have to establish relationships with people you've never met before, and you have to get comfortable in those settings. I can't imagine having a better training ground than when I was in college, covering high school and college sports, and of course my first sports writing job covering high school sports. You have to throw yourself in it. You have to be there every night, every day. It's one of those things where... I'm sure most journalists who are covering high school sports, they're not just covering one sport with one high school. It's four or five or 10 high schools and it's track and field, swimming, football basketball, baseball. You have to learn how to write with authority with all of those things. By the time you have a job where you are specialized, where you only need to cover just one thing, you're ready for that because you've done everything else.
McKeone: Was the goal always the Colts beat, or just a professional sports beat?
Ayello: You know, I guess it was a professional sports beat. I always wanted to cover professional sports. Covering IndyCar was my first step into that, and I really enjoyed that. I didn't have a big motorsports background when I did that, so that was another instance of just throwing myself in the fire and learning as I went. That was an interesting experience, only in that the two writers who had come before me in [that] job at the Indy Star had pretty much done it for the last 40 years. Two of them were very well-known, and then I was this guy who no one had ever heard of. To jump into that was very interesting, and then trying to earn respect in terms of, 'Hey, I might not know what I'm talking about now, but give me a couple months and I'll get there.' I hope that worked out.
I think I had earned the respect of the readers that way, and I felt like that was something I really liked doing, but the Colts job, covering the NFL, to me was... Yes, a dream, but it's one of those opportunities you just can't pass up. There aren't that many of those jobs. Covering the Colts, it's our biggest beat at the Indy Star, it's the most-read topic. To be able to climb up the ladder a little bit was too big an opportunity. I've loved covering football so far. I guess, when I had dreamed of it, I always imagined myself covering baseball. I was always a big baseball guy my whole life. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and was a huge White Sox fan. It was one of those things where that was one of the dreams, but I can't say that covering the NFL is at all a disappointment.
McKeone: You were on the job for a week before the biggest news in recent NFL history broke with the surprise retirement of Andrew Luck. What was that like for you?
Ayello: It was just two weeks of not sleeping. I think everybody that was there that night at the game, it was the third preseason game, everyone that was there has that story of seeing Adam Schefter's tweet. My first thought, like everybody else, was, 'Okay, I see the blue check mark, so how did Adam Schefter get hacked?' Once we figured out it was true, it was just a constant conversation... There's two Colts writers here, Joel A. Erickson is on the beat [with me]. We're relatively new together, he's been there for a year but he's covered the NFL for longer than that. This is his second year in Indianapolis. There were a lot of conversations between him and me and my editor and just trying to figure out ways we can cover this thoroughly, but also in different ways than everyone else. We tried as many different stories as we could. I think we published something in the upper ranges of 30, 40, 50 stories on Andrew Luck and this whole thing. There were probably 20 or 25 that we planned and tried and they just didn't go through, because people we reached out to didn't want to talk about it or couldn't talk about it, things like that.
For me, it was just about being high-effort. I'm not going to have the established relationships, I wasn't Luck's best friend by any means. He never met me, and he was never at training camp, so I hadn't even interviewed the guy. It was one of those things where we think about how we get at this without really being able to talk to Andrew Luck. It was all constant conversation and trying to be as thorough as possible... It was definitely interesting.
It's one of those things where you get into a new beat and you can walk in timidly, be a little bit scared. You don't want to put yourself out there yet, you just want to learn the ropes. I'm not saying that's how I would have done it, but I definitely would have tried to just observe and figure out what I can do. But I didn't get a chance to do that. It was really just, 'Here you go. Here's the story. Go at it.' I actually thought that was a pretty great way to get into the Colts, just because people were reading everything. They were consuming everything about Andrew Luck at that point. It was just, put out the best you can, as fast as you can, and once you're done with one thing, move on to the next. It was definitely an interesting way to be thrown into the Colts beat, but I honestly think it might've been one of the best things that could've happened.
McKeone: You certainly weren't scrapping for storylines to write about.
Ayello: Honestly. We had that, and then Adam Vinateri, the greatest kicker of all time, all of a sudden starts the season missing five kicks in two games. There was no shortage of storylines for the first three or four weeks of the season.
Five Big Things
McKeone: As someone who's been around the building throughout Luck's retirement, how did this team come together in the wake of the news?
Ayello: Surprisingly well. I think the media ended up being shook more than the team did, or at least for a longer time than the team did. The day of the Bears game, the team was kind of shaken. We saw them on Monday, they were a little bit shaken trying to figure it out, 12 is gone. But by Tuesday, it was kind of like, okay. Time to move on. Next man up. That's such a cliche and I hate it, but in the NFL it happens so often, and it's such a business mentality. 'This guy is hurt, he doesn't exist anymore, we're going to the next guy.' That's how it has to work. Then you have this other guy behind the scenes for a little while with Jacoby Brissett, who it turned out was a natural-born leader. The defense already loved him because of the way he ran the scout team last year and the offense already respected him because of the high effort he put in. They were ready to throw their allegiance behind him immediately. I'm not sure that would have happened with every backup quarterback in the NFL. They were ready to go right away.
I don't think you can underestimate the other aspect of this-- Frank Reich was a backup quarterback his entire NFL career, or almost his entire NFL career. He's been here before. He's had to step up in gigantic moments. Everybody remembers he's the author of the greatest playoff comeback of all time with the Buffalo Bills. He was also the author of the greatest comeback in college football history for a long time. He's been thrust into this awkward moments before. He knows how to deal with them. The other thing he had to deal with was the fact that he wasn't the first choice for this job. I think people kind of forget that sometimes. Chris Ballard picked Josh McDaniels for the Colts job. In a way, Reich was kind of the backup on this as well. He was just ready to step in.
These things just don't shake him anymore, which is interesting. To see a coach like that, a lot of people talk about a team taking on a coach's personality and persona, I think that's what happened with the Colts this year. They're off to an interesting start. They lost on Sunday to a Raider team they probably should have beaten. Yeah, 2-2, it's one of those things where the season maybe felt or looked lost when Luck retired, but I don't think that's the way it looks now.
McKeone: You mentioned the leadership of Brissett and Reich. What are their leadership styles?
Ayello: So Frank actually has this background where he was a pastor for a number of years. You can kind of see that in some of his speeches, the ones he really takes the time to plan. It's really interesting. He starts talking, and again I hate to use these cliches, but you can see why guys would want to run through a brick building for him. You understand that he's a very good speaker, very powerful speaker. We were talking to Justin Houston the other day. He's been around the NFL for so long, he's been through NFL coaches, he's seen some of the best and some of the worst. He talks about how Frank was one of those guys who earned his respect almost immediately. One of the reasons why was that he was a former player, he had been through a lot of these things before. Guys like Justin Houston, well-respected veterans in the NFL, immediately latch on to him as well as some of the younger guys. So that was very important.
Jacoby... it's kind of weird to say, but they all just really like him. One of the things we learned about Jacoby was that he's kind of been this natural-born leader since high school. In college, he was that guy. In the NFL, my colleague Joel Erickson did an interesting story on him, that Brady really took to Jacoby Brissett more than maybe some of his other backups. Jacoby was one of those guys who could make him laugh, but also would put in as much work as Tom needed him to [in order to] prepare for the game. A lot of the Patriots spoke very fondly of him from his time there, so it wasn't a real big surprise when he came to Indianapolis and this team immediately took to him. From what the players have said, he just doesn't have the feel of a normal backup quarterback. He never did. So when he stepped into the starting role, it almost felt natural.
McKeone: Switching to the on-field product, Brissett has been better than most expected, especially given the circumstances. What areas of his play have stood out to you in particular?
Ayello: He's been more accurate than we all expected. He was a little inaccurate in training camp, he was a little inaccurate during that debut season in 2017 when Luck was out with a shoulder injury. He missed some open throws. This year, he's not really doing that. You gotta give credit to Reich's system, he's a great playcaller, a great schemer, and has designed a lot of ways for his receivers to get open. But Jacoby's not missing. Entering last week, he was upwards of 70% in completion percentage. If you had watched him in training camp, that may have caught you by surprise.
The other thing that was a knock on Jacoby was that he took a lot of sacks, and this year he's not taking as many sacks. One, the offensive line is very good around him. Two, he's always been tough and able to shake off guys, but he's a bit more nimble in the pocket than any of us expected or remembered. He's not a hyper-athletic guy by any means-- I think Luck was probably a more athletic quarterback than he is-- but he's very aware in the pocket, very nimble in the pocket, kind of that escape-artist mentality. He reminds me a little bit of Ben Roethlisberger in that he can shake off smaller guys when they're blitzing and extend the play a little bit longer. He hasn't gotten quite that... Ben used to shake off guys, keep the play alive, then chuck the ball 60 yards downfield and we haven't seen that from Jacoby yet. But he has the ability to keep plays alive and wait for guys like T.Y. Hilton to run open. Those are the two biggest areas of surprise.
McKeone: One of the effects of Luck's retirement is that the defense is now a crucial unit that the team leans on for success. Who has stepped up in the first month from that unit?
Ayello: The defense, it looks like they might have an issue here with the defense. They've been gashed in the run game so far, and that's been among their biggest weaknesses which is a surprise. That's what Reich was talking about yesterday. Frank doesn't concede a lot of things that are bad about the team, but he said it kind of caught him off guard. They were sixth in the NFL in yards per carry last year, and right now they're 31st. It's been a bit of an issue. But in terms of guys who have stepped up, I think Anthony Walker is probably the guy you're looking for. He's always been a quality linebacker, very smart guy. Darius Leonard has missed two games in concussion protocol, and Walker had to slide over to his position. He's been very good. Is he an All-Pro like Leonard? Probably not, but he's a very, very solid linebacker and has been the kind of team leader the defense needs. If the defense rebounds, it'll be in large part due to Anthony's leadership.
McKeone: Other than the run defense, where do the Colts need to improve the most in order to successfully make a run at a playoff spot?
Ayello: Obviously, the run defense stepping up and being able to prevent teams from running all over them, which they were able to do last year. Entering the year, they said, 'Okay, if we can stop the run, the other thing we need to do is rush the passer.' That's why they added a guy like Justin Houston to the team, in order to rush the passer. For the first two weeks, it looked like it was working out. They had gotten to the quarterback, notched four sacks two weeks in a row. However, these last two weeks, they have one sack, and it was Derek Carr scrambling out of bounds for a zero yard gain. They've only had five quarterback pressures the past two games. In that area, they have to take a big step forward. They're going to play a lot of great quarterbacks. They're playing Patrick Mahomes on Sunday. If they're not getting pressure on Patrick Mahomes, he's going to rip them apart. We've already seen Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers throw for 300+ yards against them. Derek Carr didn't throw for 300 yards, but certainly didn't have any issues moving the ball up and down the field. That's the biggest area. They have to get to the quarterback, otherwise the rest of it will fall apart.
Five Little Things
McKeone: Favorite stadium in the NFL?
Ayello: I went as a fan, not as a beat reporter yet, but Kansas City. Arrowhead.
McKeone: Go-to spot to eat in Indianapolis?
Ayello: Cafe Patachou, I would say. They do a great breakfast.
McKeone: Favorite interviewee in your career so far?
Ayello: How about... Thaddeus Young. Great interview. Really, really smart guy, and if you get him on a topic he wants to go on, he'll talk for 10 minutes. Chicago media is very lucky to have him now.
McKeone: What's something you wish you knew back when you were first starting out?
Ayello: That not every story is going to be an award-winner. I still have a hard time letting go of stories when I don't think they're perfect, but I think I've gotten slightly better at that. Obviously, I don't write a perfect story anytime or ever, but it's one of those things... My wife, also a journalist, I think she came from a newsroom, they had up on the wall somewhere, "Sometimes done is better than good." I think we all have to remember that-- they don't all have to be masterpieces.
McKeone: What's something about this job that you feel like other people don't know or don't understand?
Ayello: We wait. A lot. It's a lot of waiting. It's like standing in line for a theme park sometimes. You're just sitting there, waiting for a coach, a player, you don't know what the heck they're doing, but you have to have the story and you have to have their voice in it. It's not even just being at the place. Sometimes it's a phone call and you're sitting, staring at your phone for two hours, thinking, "I need this guy to call me, or the story doesn't work." There's a lot of waiting around, and again, you try to use that time to be productive, but there's a lot of waiting around in sports journalism.