INDIANAPOLIS – No matter how it’s broken down and analyzed, Philip Rivers is here for one reason: Jacoby Brissett wasn’t good enough in 2019.
Not start-to-finish good enough to convince the Indianapolis Colts he, not Rivers or someone else, was the answer at the most consequential position.
Brissett was demoted in mid-March after Frank Reich did a deep-dive on the last few seasons in Rivers’ Hall of Fame-worthy career with the Chargers and Chris Ballard signed him to a one-year, $25 million free-agent contract. He wanted nothing to do with how we got to this point.
“I think that’s a question for Frank and Chris,’’ Brissett said in a Friday Zoom conference call. “I still believe in myself. I know I’m a starter in this league. I know I can play at a very high level. I did it last year.’’
The Colts and Rivers aren’t looking at their relationship as a one-year fling. If Rivers performs as expected at age 38, he’ll be re-signed next offseason. And presumably waiting in the wings is Jacob Eason, a fourth-round pick in the April draft.
So, where does that leave Brissett? He’s 27 and has started 32 games in four seasons, the last three with the Colts. More to the point, he’s in the final year of his two-year, $30 million extension and will be a free agent at the end of 2020.
“I know I’ll be a starter in this league one day, again, wherever that may be,’’ Brissett said, his confidence bubbling to the surface.
The only way that happens this season is if something befalls Rivers: injury, subpar performance, COVID-19. On the injury issue, Rivers isn’t impervious but has started 224 consecutive games. That’s the second-longest streak by a QB in NFL history (Brett Favre, 297).
That means Brissett must transition from Colts’ starter to backup for the second time in three seasons. A recap of his roller-coaster career in Indy: starting the final 15 games of ’17 after Andrew Luck’s shoulder injury persisted and Scott Tolzien was ineffective in the opener, throwing four passes in ’18 as Luck returned, and being thrust into the starter’s role last season when Luck retired two weeks before the opener.
“To constantly do what I do,’’ Brissett said. “To get better each time I step on the field.’’
Reich’s plans for his QB2 seem to include more than must holding a clipboard and offering input and encouragement. He’s talked of having a package each game that features a handful of possible plays for Brissett.
“I don’t ever recall doing that,’’ Brissett said, “but hey, whatever we need to do to win. He’s mentioned it to me.
“Gotta be ready for everything.’’
That certainly was the case as Brissett and the Colts closed a disappointing 2019. After a 5-2 start that include an upset of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, things went off the rails. Brissett sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in a week 9 loss at Pittsburgh, and it was downhill – individually and collectively – from there. The Colts lost seven of their final nine, finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
The injury clearly impacted Brissett’s efficiency and productivity, although he never leaned on that as an excuse. He generated a 99.7 passer rating with 14 TDs, three interceptions and a 64.8 completion rate prior to the knee injury. The numbers after the MCL: a 75.1 rating, four TDs, three interceptions, 56.4 percent completion rate.
Intent on upgrading the position, the Colts were quick to pounce once the Chargers released Rivers. They kept Brissett in the loop as the interest picked up steam.
“When the time was right I called Jacoby and told him, ‘Hey, this looks like this may happen,’’’ Reich said earlier this year. “We talked it through.
“Obviously Jacoby wasn’t happy about it. He wasn’t happy about it, but he’s a great teammate. He’s a great leader.’’
“Of course I was surprised, but it’s the NFL,’’ he said. “There are really no surprises, so yeah.’’
He added “it’s been a weird offseason for everybody with what’s going on. We’re finally getting back in the building, getting the hang of everything.
“Of course it’s been a little awkward.’’
Working with Rivers has “been fine,’’ Brissett said. “I mean, N.C. State grad, QBU, so it has been fine. The competition is still there. It’s a process and still trying to learn as much as I can.
“He’s been in the game for a while, so definitely try to soak up some knowledge.’’
The Rivers-Brissett relationship took root during the offseason Zoom meetings and with frequent texts. There undoubtedly were a few awkward moments, and Rivers assumed Brissett had to get past some initial disappointment from the demotion.
“I certainly don’t want to speak out of line or out of turn here,’’ Rivers said. “I imagine there was (disappointment) just knowing the type of guy he is. He’s a competitor. He wants to be great. You would hope so, you know?
“He’s been a pro, a true pro. I don’t think it is one of those deals where he’s going, ‘All right, I’m going to take a backseat.’ He’s competing like crazy.
“When we get to practice, he is going to be trying to get after it. So it will be healthy competition and also we’ll pull for each other like crazy.’’
Throughout his first interaction with the media since Rivers’ arrival, Brissett’s confidence was apparent. It was mentioned he’s been teammates with several top-level QBs: Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and now Philip Rivers.
“Yeah,’’ he said with a smile, “they have, too.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.