The Colts’ season-ending loss to the Jaguars stirred up big questions, about Carson Wentz in particular. In this issue:
- Reading between the lines makes it clear Wentz is on thin ice
- But do the Colts have any legit alternatives?
- Plus, where the wind is blowing on HC/GM vacancies
The Big Picture: What Alternatives Do The Colts Have At QB?
As recently as Christmas Day, the Colts were on top of the world. They had just beaten the Arizona Cardinals in one of QB Carson Wentz’s best games of the season, seemingly vindicating the price of the first-round pick they were about to send to the Eagles. At 9-6 and winners of six of their past seven, they looked like a team no one wanted to play in the postseason.
Of course you know what happened. There were back-to-back ugly losses to end the season, including an embarrassing 26-11 blowout against a miserable Jaguars team whose fans were engaged in a “clown out” to protest the retention of interim GM Trent Baalke. The Colts finished the 2021 season 9-8, out of the playoffs and in a lot of ways, right back where they were at this time a year ago with questions about the quarterback position.
Listen to GMs and coaches give canned answers to the press long enough, and you start to pick up on the subtle clues about how they really feel. Here’s what Colts HC Frank Reich had to say at the end of the season about Wentz.
“We loved the team we had this year, we knew everyone we brought in this year, we expected to play winning football,” Reich said, via Joel A. Erickson. “Next year’s roster will be next year’s roster. I don’t want to open it up about one player and then start talking about all of them.”
Here’s Colts GM Chris Ballard on the same topic.
“When we made the decision to make a move on Carson, at the time of the decision, we felt good about it,” said Ballard. “And I still don’t regret it… I won’t make a comment on who’s going to be here and who’s not going to be here. That’s not fair. We got on a roll there and were playing really good ball until the final two weeks of the season…We have processes in place. I’m not going to overreact. But I’m pissed. We embarrassed ourselves. We need to find a long-term answer at left tackle. But it’s got to be the right guy to be the long-term answer.”
“As I sit here right now, yes, I want Philip Rivers to be my starting quarterback next year… I think Philip still has a lot of good football (left).”
Big difference. Reich and Ballard sound a lot like Rams HC Sean McVay and GM Les Snead last year just before they traded Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. McVay qualified a statement about Goff being their quarterback with “right now” and refused to rule out a competition with John Wolford. Snead said a week later Goff was a Ram “at this moment” and it was “too early to speculate” on his future with the team beyond that. He was traded days later.
Ballard is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Snead in how the two men go about team-building. He’s been as methodical as Snead has been aggressive. But what’s abundantly clear from his and Reich’s comments is that Wentz is not on firm standing heading into 2022.
On the surface, Wentz’s stats look fine. He finished the year with 27 passing touchdowns to only seven interceptions, completed 62.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,563 yards. His QBR was 11th in the NFL, while his completion percentage, yards per attempts (6.9), touchdown percentage (5.2) and interception percentage (1.4) were all pretty much in line with his career averages.
But dig a little deeper and you see the struggles. While Wentz had only seven picks, he had 18 total turnover-worthy plays, as tracked by Pro Football Focus. That was tied for 17th out of 43 passers with at least 100 attempts. But the difference of 11 between actual turnovers and TWPs was tied for seventh-most of that same group, meaning Wentz got lucky more than most other quarterbacks.
He also only topped 200 passing yards twice over the final eight games. The Colts were riding Jonathan Taylor during a lot of that span and not leaning as much on the passing game, it’s true. But when they did turn to Wentz in 2021, he often came up small. He had absolutely backbreaking interceptions in the second loss to the Titans. He completed just five of 12 passes and tossed a pick in a win against the Patriots. And in a must-win against the hapless Jaguars, who had given up 50 to the Patriots the week before, Wentz completed under 60 percent of his passes with just one touchdown, 185 yards and an interception.
And remember, this was about an average year for Wentz. Reich deserves credit for getting more out of Wentz than the broken player we saw in 2020. But he still looks a lot more like the limited quarterback we saw in 2018 and 2019 than the MVP candidate he oversaw in 2017. Maybe there’s more juice to be squeezed with more time in the system. Maybe this is just who Wentz is now.
Where that leaves the Colts is with a quarterback who’s probably good enough to start but a couple of tiers below the elite level required to consistently contend. It’s not impossible to win with that type of player. It does decrease your margin for error, though. And the Colts had very little of that this year between injuries on the offensive line, a 1-4 start to the season and weaknesses at defensive end, cornerback and left tackle. A 2-5 record in one-score games also indicates some bad luck.
Finding an upgrade from Wentz will be a challenge though. Unlike in 2020 when Indianapolis landed Rivers in free agency, the pickings project to be slim this offseason. There’s Marcus Mariota, who was brought in to push Derek Carr in Las Vegas but ended up staying as a backup. Perhaps the Saints find a better alternative to Jameis Winston, but he brings a lot of the same problems Wentz does. Bills QB Mitchell Trubisky has some sleeper appeal in league circles but he’s hardly a surefire upgrade. Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Teddy Bridgewater are bridge options at best.
The draft offers the allure of the unknown but it’s not seen as a strong class. The Colts don’t have their first-round pick anyway after giving it up to acquire Wentz. A second-round pick is probably better used on bolstering tackle, corner or receiver instead of on what statistically is likely to be a backup quarterback.
So the only clear way to improve on Wentz for 2022 is by trading for a big-name veteran. The Texans obviously won’t trade Deshaun Watson inside the AFC South. Perhaps Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson could be in play, but it feels like Indianapolis won’t have the draft capital necessary to seriously compete in those sweepstakes.
That already leaves the Colts looking down a tier or two at guys like Carr, Falcons QB Matt Ryan, Vikings QB Kirk Cousins or 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. It’s no guarantee any of the first three are available, but it’s at least a possibility. The Falcons need cap space and a long-term answer. The Vikings and Raiders will have entirely new regimes and that kind of turnover tends to trickle down. It’s worth noting the Colts did reportedly inquire about a trade for Carr at one point last offseason before being shot down.
Out of that bunch, it’s surest that Garoppolo shakes free as San Francisco moves on to Trey Lance, and he ought to be fairly attainable for the Colts. There’s a chance the 49ers end up having to cut Garoppolo because he’s due $24.2 million in base salary in 2022, but if there is a trade market, it probably won’t be much more than a third-round pick.
The real question is if Garoppolo is better than Wentz. They’re very different quarterbacks, though funny enough both are plagued by durability and decision-making concerns. Wentz is more physically talented but Garoppolo is more efficient from play to play. If you stacked up all the quarterbacks against each other, both would probably be in the neighborhood of 20th-best. Given Reich’s familiarity with Wentz, it’s hard to see him preferring Garoppolo.
Other options that the Colts might discuss would be a young quarterback who ends up being displaced or abandoned from another team, either as a replacement or competition for Wentz. Someone like Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa, Giants QB Daniel Jones or Browns QB Baker Mayfield might be appealing if they had a high pre-draft eval. It’s not clear if the Colts really liked Jordan Love or if that was a smokescreen the Packers fell for. But if Green Bay recommits to Rodgers, perhaps Love is an option.
And while he’s not a young player, we can’t mention alternatives and not touch on Nick Foles. As long as Wentz is on the roster, it’s probably not in the cards given their history. And at this point, Foles has shown he’s not really a Week 1 starting option. Perhaps as a backup if the Colts elect to move on from Wentz completely.
As far as that goes, I think the Colts might have some challenges if they looked to trade Wentz. There wasn’t an extensive market for him last year. The Bears were really the only other team that was seriously linked to Wentz and it’s not clear how much of that was driven by the Eagles trying to build up a market to shed him. He’s still due $22 million in 2022, and if Reich is bailing on him after just a year, it’s easy to see his market around the league bottoming out even if there are teams like the Panthers who are desperate for help at the position.
There are no easy solutions here for the Colts. That’s the reality of quarterback purgatory, where you’re not good enough to seriously contend but not bad enough for a clear shot at an upgrade. In hindsight, the Colts should have pushed much harder to trade for Matthew Stafford or use that first-round pick to trade up for a rookie in one of the best classes in years.
Now, they have to roll the dice — either on Wentz being better than he was this past year or on a shot in the dark on someone else.
This Week In Football
- Last week was all about change in the NFL with the start of several coaching and GM searches for franchises looking for a fresh start. This week, the theme is “sticking with” as a number of teams seem to have evaluated things and decided not to make major changes — for now. Perhaps the biggest headline in that group is Seattle. Seahawks HC Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider emerged from their meeting with owner Jody Allen secure and locked in for 2022. The status of QB Russell Wilson has yet to be determined, but unlike a few weeks ago when the prevailing opinion was that Wilson would escalate his discontent from last offseason after a 7-10 season in 2021, things remain unclear. Wilson still appears to be weighing his options, and returning to Seattle appears to be much more likely than anyone thought a month ago.
- The only thing slated to change right now in Seattle is the defense, as the Seahawks fired DC Ken Norton after a couple of underachieving seasons. Norton was an original member of the Legion of Boom coaching staff and two of the replacement candidates Seattle has interviewed, Broncos DC Ed Donatell and Bears DC Sean Desai, have roots in the Vic Fangio system. Could Seattle be moving even further away from the predominantly Cover 3 defense they’ve played the past decade? Worth watching.
- After firing HC Brian Flores, the Dolphins now seem to be engaged in an effort to pin any doubt about the future of QB Tua Tagovailoa on his shoulders, squashing any Deshaun Watson trade speculation and affirming Tagovailoa as the guy for 2022. Perhaps they’re serious about that, time will tell. But painting Flores as the only one in Miami who wanted Tagovailoa is revisionist history. Even if owner Stephen Ross wasn’t a part-time driver of the Watson bandwagon like some reports indicated, he was at least willing to sign off on a deal at the deadline had Watson been able to settle.
- The Eagles are another team publicly backing their young quarterback, reiterating their commitment to Jalen Hurts for the 2022 season. Hurts flashed at times this year and showed progress again, something he’s done every year since his first at Alabama. But the way the season ended unceremoniously in the playoffs raised questions again, especially because the Eagles have three first-round picks as ammunition to upgrade this offseason. Right now it appears they’ll use those picks to build up the rest of the team for Hurts or whoever the next quarterback is. But if they have a chance to trade for a clear upgrade, will they stand firm to their commitment to Hurts and pass it up? It’s fair to have doubts about that.
- The Steelers also claim they’re sticking with someone on their roster at quarterback in 2022. Publicly and privately, the indication seems to be that the Steelers will go into 2022 planning to start whoever wins the competition between Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins and a rookie quarterback. Rudolph is the favorite for Week 1 given his experience, while the Steelers beat seems to think there’s no chance of a splashy trade or signing. Pittsburgh is one of the most traditional organizations in the league, and it seems like they’re taking a traditional approach to finding a successor for Ben Roethlisberger. Then again, remember when Jarrett Stidham was going to replace Tom Brady?
- One potentially major change that could be in store for the 2022 offseason is brewing in Atlanta. In a season where he was supposed to ascend to the clear No. 1 option for the Falcons, WR Calvin Ridley instead played just five games, leaving the team in Week 8 to focus on his mental health. He hasn’t come back, and it seems like a real possibility Ridley is traded this offseason. There are few details about what’s going on with Ridley. He missed OTAs with a foot issue and had multiple absences for personal reasons before leaving the team. Multiple reporters have used the phrase “fresh start” in regards to Ridley and Atlanta. There’s a lot more to this story that we don’t know yet.
- A persistent rumor leading up to the Cowboys’ playoff game was that with how highly regarded Cowboys assistants Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore are by owner Jerry Jones, and with how much interest those two are garnering from other teams around the league, Dallas could jettison HC Mike McCarthy to keep Quinn and/or Moore if things went poorly. It was not completely without precedent, as the Cowboys did something similar to keep Jason Garrett years ago. Well things did indeed go poorly for McCarthy and the Cowboys against the 49ers. Yet there’s no indication that McCarthy is on any kind of hot seat. The owner’s son said he’s “absolutely” expected to return.
- The hiring cycle spins on. Here’s the latest on every team:
- After Las Vegas’ season ended, the Raiders went ahead and fired GM Mike Mayock. In the end, there was enough of his draft record to go off of to make a decision, even if he didn’t have the final say for most of his tenure. While there has been no final word, with Mayock gone it would seem the odds of interim HC Rich Bisaccia staying are lower. A few big names have been connected to the job, including Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels.
- Jacksonville was the only team to take advantage of the early two-week window to get a jump on interviews. They’re also not hiring a new GM. So it makes sense that it looks like they’re winding things down and could be the first to hire a new coach. There’s at least one finalist so far in Colts DC Matt Eberflus. One person who it appears it won’t be: Alabama OC Bill O’Brien, despite being the rumored top choice of the GM.
- The Giants appear to have narrowed things down to three finalists for their GM vacancy: Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen, Chiefs director of player personnel Ryan Poles and 49ers assistant GM Adam Peters. A selection should come very soon, at which point the new guy will move full speed ahead on hiring the next head coach. Brian Flores or Bills OC Brian Daboll seem to have the most buzz. (UPDATE: The Giants hired Schoen to be their next general manager)
- The Dolphins’ search has been comparatively quiet, but there’s quite a bit of buzz linking Daboll to Miami as well given his history with Tagovailoa in college. They’re set to wrap up interviews at the end of this week and the next step probably will be second interviews with finalists.
- Nothing is ever normal with this current Texans regime, and so far that’s been the case with their head coach search. Houston has the most eclectic mix of interviews so far, including longtime NFL veteran and current Florida Atlantic WR coach Hines Ward, a second interview in as many years with retired QB Josh McCown and Chargers OC Joe Lombardi. The real apple of their eye is believed to be Flores, however, given the obvious Patriots connections with GM Nick Caserio and EVP Jack Easterby.
- Chicago is moving its way through an extraordinarily lengthy interview list that included 15 candidates before Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds pulled out of the running. In what’s kind of a curious move, they also already have a second interview set up with Eberflus, suggesting he’s a finalist for the head coaching job for the Bears as well as the Jaguars. The Bears have been connected to Flores as well.
- The Vikings have completed their first round of interviews for their GM vacancy, according to what’s been reported. That would suggest the second round will begin next week with a new GM perhaps finalized by the end of next week. The head coaching search is running concurrently and the Vikings are toward the end of that list as well.
- Denver is wrapping up the first round of interviews with coaching candidates this week. There continues to be a ton of smoke around Dan Quinn as the favorite to be hired there.
Nickels & Dimes
Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…
Kliff Kingsbury has a history of second-half slumps dating back to his first year at Texas Tech.
His teams have been good in their first 7 games but then fall off.
The Cardinals are 15-5-1 in games 1-7 under Kingsbury but 8-18 the rest of the season.
At TTU: 27-15 then 8-25 pic.twitter.com/HNiDgEW8Ep
— Josh Weinfuss (@joshweinfuss) December 28, 2021
At this point with Kliff Kingsbury, there’s a clear trend. The Cardinals have improved in every season since he took over, so he deserves a fourth season. But there’s an obvious question has to answer next season to feel safe about his job…
Yes, the Giants had a lot of injuries to key players this year. But, so did other teams that either made the playoffs or were still in the hunt Week 18.
— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) January 12, 2022
Joe Judge may have been dealt a bad hand. He still wasn’t a good card player…
— Dave Rappoccio (@DrawPlayDave) January 12, 2022
Sometimes it’s really obvious how some of these decisions teams make are going to work out…
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) January 8, 2022
I am going to literally die of laughter if the Colts, with their 7 Pro Bowlers and “MVP candidate”, lose to the Jaguars in front of a stadium full of clowns to miss the playoffs.
— Mike Herndon (@MikeMiracles) January 9, 2022
Just to really punch home the absurdity of how Indianapolis’ season ended…
I hope the Vikings hire 49ers OC Mike McDaniel, simply for the press conference vibes pic.twitter.com/y221Gv4qPT
— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) January 12, 2022
Discovered Mike McDaniel along with most of NFL twitter thanks to videos like these and was similarly enchanted. I’m 27, so obviously I’m going to relate more to McDaniel than an NFL owner might. And entertaining /= good NFL coach. Hard not to be intrigued, though…
NFL passing yards per game (244.1) dipped below 250 for only the second time since 2013. 👀
Passes short of the sticks hit an all-time high since 2007 at 53.1%, creating the largest dependency on YAC in that span (47%). 👀
ADOT (8.2) was at an all-time low since 2007. 👀
— Dwain McFarland (@dwainmcfarland) January 12, 2022
Two-high defensive shells were all the rage and temporarily put a cap on some of the game’s best quarterbacks this season. It’ll be interesting to see how the league evolves next…
This piece by the Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue on Rams RB Cam Akers’ rehab from a torn Achilles is really worth digging into. Achilles have been a career-killer for backs in the past. While Akers’ rehab went “perfectly,” there are other aspects that should provide more hope to the outlook for someone like Jaguars RB James Robinson…
Rams VP of football Tony Pastoors not getting calls on GM openings is a mystery to me. Looking at names on roster you’d think Rams had crazy cap space; reality was they stuck him with two sh*t dead contracts and an NFL-wide cap deficit and said “fix it we want everybody” lol
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 20, 2022
Jourdan brings up another great point. There’s a lot more to being a good GM than scouting players, in fact it’s arguably not even the most important part of the job. Yet that’s the top criteria most observers use to assess these hires. Guys like Saints cap whiz Khai Harley or Browns VP of football ops Kwesi Adofo-Mensah deserve more buzz. Instead…
The NFL makes so much money, none of this is vital to their survival. Entertainment supersedes winning. Unless they had to do a better job of winning and acquiring talent to survive and thrive financially, they don’t see the process as fundamentally broken
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) January 19, 2022
There’s little incentive for that to change…