Loss of coaches won't slow Colts
Indianapolis had been preparing for Tom Moore, Howard Mudd to leave
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Big news of the day is the TV stuff I reported last night, with NFL Network and the league finally smoking the peace pipe with Comcast. Read the whole story here.
But in a football sense, the big news last week had to be the divorce between the Indianapolis Colts and two of the best assistant coaches of this era, offensive coordinator Tom Moore and offensive line coach Howard Mudd.
What you're about to read is not the same thing you've read in most places, because I don't totally buy what you've read in most places. You've read that Moore and Mudd were forced out by changes to the NFL's pension system. And while there is some truth to that, it's a complicated story that can't be summed up that easily.
"This,'' Indy GM Bill Polian told me over the weekend, "is about 1-percent related to changes in the pension system.''
Not exactly. But I'll get to the pension part in a couple of paragraphs. First, a few words about the amazing streak the Colts have been on. In today's football, imagine your quarterback, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach being the same for 11 years. Those three men, I believe, are the keystones to any offense in the NFL. The quarterback, obviously. The offensive coordinator because he has to work as one with the quarterback and has to be the one who designs and implements what teams are doing on offense every week. The line coach because he's the one designing schemes to keep the quarterback clean -- and, in the case of Mudd, because he and Peyton had such a Yin and Yang relationship and because Mudd figured ways to keep the pressure off Manning when the Colts weren't using high draft choices on offensive linemen.
The Colts have been thinking for the last couple of years that either Moore, 70, or Mudd, 67, would retire. They've been preparing for it. The new offensive coordinator, Clyde Christensen, has been the receivers coach for seven years; he'll formulate the game plan in concert with former quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, now the head coach, who has also been on staff for seven years. The new offensive line coach, former Bills tight end Pete Metzelaars, has been on staff for five years, working under Mudd as his apprentice. The successor-in-waiting for Mudd, Metzelaars coached the unit on the field during practice for three weeks in 2008 while Mudd was mostly in the office recovering from a knee replacement. The only relatively new kid on the block will be Frank Reich, who moves from offensive quality control coach to quarterback coach.
This isn't to diminish the losses of Moore and Mudd. It's certainly possible that the Indy offense will struggle to replace them. But with a quarterback who is more a coach on the field than any other quarterback in football, and with three replacement coaches who have been on staff for five years or more, and with a head coach who was on the other end of the ring-down phone for the previous seven years when Manning called upstairs, it's more likely that the Colts will figure a way to be as good on offense as they have been.
"I think these are two of the greatest assistant coaches of their time,'' said Polian. "But when you watch us this year, from a recognition standpoint, you won't be able to tell the difference. The idea of a succession plan has been in place for some time.''
Now about the pension plan. The NFL changed its longstanding pension plan for employees, including assistant coaches, in March. In doing so the NFL allowed teams to either stay in a league plan or, presumably for less money, join a plan for a lower benefit level that teams would find on their own. Nine teams up to now have chosen to do their own plans, including Dallas and New England. Indianapolis likely will not opt out. But even if the Colts stay in the league plan, Moore and Mudd could be affected because of previous teams that employed them, according to Polian.
This is where it gets complicated. Employees who retire and take their pension can take it in one of three ways. One is as a lump sum, which is most desirable because then retirees can take the entire pension and invest the benefits as they see fit. The benefits belong to them and their heirs as long as the money lasts. Two is as an annuity, with annual payouts until the retiree dies. Three is as an annuity with annual payouts until the retiree and his spouse both die.
Obviously, the older a coach is when he retires, the less his life expectancy is. In the cases of Moore and Mudd, both of whom have had recent health concerns, they obviously wanted a lump-sum payment. But neither club or league lawyers could assure them that they'd be able to take a lump-sum payment if they retired beyond this year. Not because of what the Colts would do with their pension plan. ("The Colts will fund our plan fully,'' said Polian.) But because of what their previous employers would do. Mudd worked previously with San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland and Kansas City. Moore worked for Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Detroit and New Orleans.
If any of those teams funded their pension plan at less than 80 percent of the minimum standard for pension plans, Moore and Mudd risked not being able to take their retirement pensions in a lump sum. San Francisco and New Orleans are likely to opt out of the league pension plan; Minnesota might. So even though the Colts are likely to fund, as Polian says, neither the Colts nor advisers to Moore and Mudd could guarantee that they'd be able to take the lump-sum payment.
"This has been going on since February,'' said Polian. "And the fact is we just couldn't answer whether they'd be able to take the lump-sum or whether they'd have to take the pro-rata portion of the pension in an annuity. We think they'd be able to take the lump-sum, but can I look at both of them and say, 'Everyone's going to fund and you'll be able to take a lump sum when you retire?' And the answer was no.''
So Mudd and Moore, sure they'd be able to get the lump-sum if they opted out before the clubs changed, decided to retire now and take the full benefit. As one retirement planner without direct knowledge of the NFL's system told me over the weekend, it could be the difference between getting $1.2 million and being finished with your pension, or taking $60,000 a year until both a retiree and his spouse died. Under this scenario, if a retired coach took the annuity and died after seven years and his wife after eight, they'd get a total of $480,000 from their pension, instead of a lump-sum payment of $1.2 million, which presumably they could grow into a larger nest egg through investments.
It's likely, Polian thinks, that both men would get their lump sums regardless of when they retired. But because the Colts couldn't tell them with certainty, they retired. Technically, it's because of the change in the pension system that Moore and Mudd did what they did. But Mudd has been a pro coach for 35 seasons. One of those years was for a team (San Francisco, 1977) that will likely opt out of the system. Is there any way on earth that a federal pension analyst would deny Mudd's attempt to take a lump-sum retirement payment if he worked one more year with the Colts, and in only one of the 36 years he worked in pro football did a team not fund its pension plan fully? Highly, highly doubtful. It's almost absurd to think Mudd would have gotten turned down trying to take his pension all at once. But because no one could tell him absolutely, he retired.
It's a strange, technical, ugly story. It's also one, in my opinion, that won't impact the Colts very much.
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