Philip Rivers’ retirement sharpens Colts’ pursuit of QB of the future

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Philip Rivers #17 of the Indianapolis Colts speaks with coaches during the second half of a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Philip Rivers’ decision to retire after 17 Hall of Fame-caliber seasons doesn’t alter the Indianapolis Colts’ overriding offseason objective.

And that’s finding a long-term answer at quarterback.

Rivers announcement, though, certainly adds a degree of urgency to that objective. No longer might he, even at 39, offer yet another one-year bridge to whomever comes next.

Now, the whomever is paramount.

Let’s get one thing straight. Rivers’ decision didn’t take general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich by total surprise. Each met with Rivers shortly after the Colts’ season ended with the 27-24 wild-card playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. Both parties agreed a cooling-off period was necessary before any career-affecting or franchise-altering decision would be made.

But Ballard and Reich had to know retirement was a very real possibility. In his exit meeting with Ballard, Rivers mentioned he wasn’t 100% certain he wanted to return for an 18th season and 2nd in Indy.

The fact Rivers’ decision came so quickly is a clear indication he was leaning heavily in that direction. That reminds me something Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy was fond of saying.

If you’re thinking about retiring, you’re already retired.

Now that Rivers has taken his name out of the mix, where do the Colts go?

The only quarterback under contract for 2021 is Jacob Eason, and last year’s fourth-round pick didn’t step on the field as a rookie. Shoot, he took limited reps in practice, although those increased over the final month as Rivers dealt with a toe injury that routinely saw him held out of Wednesday practices.

Ballard always has been reserved whenever talk has turned to Eason. He loves the big arm, athletic ability and work ethic, but does he consider Eason a viable backup in ’21?

“I’m not ready to say I’m comfortable with it yet,’’ Ballard said. “I just don’t know enough. We liked him when we drafted him. We think he’s really talented.

“It doesn’t take long to see his talent. Now we’ve just to see him play.’’

So at best, Eason is the Colts’ QB2 next season.

As Ballard talked about QB1 possibilities moving forward, he was quick to mention Jacoby Brissett, whose contract expires in March.

“I don’t want to discount Jacoby,’’ he said. “We still like Jacoby Brissett and think he’s a good player. Let’s don’t completely take Jacoby out of the mix.’’

The problem with that: the Colts decided Brissett wasn’t good enough after 2019 and brought in Rivers with the one-year, $25 million contract. No one questions Brissett’s leadership qualities – in the locker room, on the field, in the community – but the offense was limited with him under center.

Why should anyone expect a different Brissett in ’21? At his point in his career – 28, five seasons, 49 games, 32 starts – he is who he is.

Listen to the noise on social platforms, and replacing Rivers won’t be a problem.

Trade for Houston’s Deshaun Watson. He’s totally disgusted with how management is running the franchise, and it’s been reported some inside the organization believe Watson has played his final game in Houston. Maybe the Texans do the unthinkably and part ways with a top-5 QB, but they won’t allow him to stay in the AFC South. Deal with it.

Trade for Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold or even Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons We could be talked into Stafford and Ryan – they, like Rivers, would represent short-terms fixes – but Wentz scares the bejesus out of us. He looks broken. Darnold is 13-25 as a starter, but how much of that is a reflection of the Jets as an organization instead of an indictment of Darnold?

And by the way, there is no indication the Eagles, Falcons, Jets and/or Lions plan on reloading at QB. At least not yet.

Dallas’ Dak Prescott? Jerry Jones isn’t letting him go anywhere when he recovers from his season-ending ankle surgery.

That brings us to the most likely path to the quarterback of the future: April’s draft. The Colts hold the 21st overall pick and that’s probably on the wrong side of the line of demarcation in landing one of the top quarterbacks.

Might there be a viable option at No. 21?

“I doubt it,’’ Ballard said. “It’s a good class (but) they all get pushed up now. Little bit of luck has to come in play.’’

It’s still early in the mock draft universe, but Dane Brugler of The Athletic has fourth QBs going in the top-8: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, No. 1 to Jacksonville; BYU’s Zach Wilson, No. 2 to the Jets; Ohio State’s Justin Fields, No. 4 to Atlanta; North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, No, 8 to Carolina. He projects Alabama’s Mac Jones to Pittsburgh at No. 24.

If the Jets and Falcons bring in young talent, might they decide to unload Darnold, 23, and Ryan, 35?

Pro Football Focus’ top 100 Board is QB-heavy: Lawrence (1), Wilson (2), Fields (3), Lance (10). There’s a noticeable gap to Jones (30) and Florida’s Kyle Trask (44).

Also, how will Ballard and Reich evaluate the crop of QBs? Are they willing to stand pat and take the best available at No. 21? Or if they truly covet a prospect, how much are they willing to invest to move up and get him?

Obviously, the higher up Ballard moves, the steeper the cost.

“We’ll figure it out. That’s our jobs,’’ he said. “I promise you we get the importance of the quarterback position.’’

One of the keys to success in the NFL is stability at quarterback, and that once again will be lacking in Indy. The last time the Colts had the same starting QB in consecutive season openers: Andrew Luck in 2015-16.

They’ll have a different starting QB for a fourth straight season, unless they opt to go with Brissett: Luck in 2018, Brissett in ’19, Rivers last season and a TBD in September.

Ballard made it clear he and his scouting staff evaluate every quarterback in the league every year, and do their due diligence on draft prospects. You have to be prepared for every scenario.

The Colts’ position in the first round of the draft makes it problematic, if they stand pat.

“The difference between just taking one and taking the right one is the key in our minds,’’ Ballard said. “We’ll explore it. We’ll go from A-to-Z on it. I promise you, that position never leaves my mind and it’s something that we want to get fixed, but also there’s got to be a little bit of timing and luck come into play when you get it.’’

Essentially, the stars had to align for the Colts to be in position for their last two franchise quarterbacks. They were a league-worst 3-13 in 1997 and were rewarded with the 1st overall pick. Welcome to Indy, Peyton Manning. They were a league-worst 2-14 in 2011 and again had the 1st overall pick. Welcome to Indy, Andrew Luck.

“Look, you think about when you’ve got two of the greatest quarterbacks in this franchise’s history since it’s been in Indy – Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck,’’ Ballard said. “And it took the first pick in the draft. Well, I can promise you this: we hit the first pick in the draft, we’re not going to be having these press conferences with me. It’s going to be somebody else.’’

If a team uses its first-round pick to secure its quarterback of the future, it must be right. Missing on that guy potentially sets a franchise back a half-dozen years.

“Just go back and look at first-round quarterbacks drafted over the last 10 years,’’ Ballard said. “It is not an exact (science). Everybody just thinks you take one and you’re going to fix the problem.

“Look, taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t play well, I’m going to be the first one run out of the building.

“We’re going to have to find a way to fix the problem and find a long-term solution as we go along.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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