INDIANAPOLIS – The most influential position for the franchise once again demanded everyone’s attention.
What to do at QB1?
Philip Rivers was the topic of an extensive evaluation 12 months earlier and proved to be the short-term answer – shorter than anticipated, truth be told – and was instrumental in the Indianapolis Colts finishing with a 11-5 record and earning a wild-card playoff berth in 2020.
But it proved to be a one-and-done relationship. When Rivers announced his retirement in mid-January, the Colts again were thrust into reload mode.
There was the possibility of pursuing Detroit’s Matthew Stafford in a trade, but considering what the Los Angeles Rams gave up, the cost would have been prohibitive. Acquiring one of the top prospects in the draft would be difficult with the Colts sitting 21st in round 1.
Almost immediately, everyone’s attention centered on Carson Wentz. The Philadelphia Eagles were open to parting ways with their erstwhile franchise QB, and the Colts were more than a little interested.
The team’s power trio – owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard, coach Frank Reich – spent countless hours debating whether to pursue a player whose career arc had taken a drastic downturn in the span of four years. An MVP-level QB in 2017, Wentz was one of the NFL’s worst at his trade in ’20.
That’s why he was available, at age 28. There’s always a reason.
“We had some long conversations just really addressing that question: Why is he available?’’ Irsay said in March. “Is this some sort of trap for the franchise that might not be successful?
“You become very, very cautious and try to look in every direction to try to find the right answers to make sure that you feel the direction you are going in is one that actually set us up to have great success with this trade.
“I can’t emphasize how strongly I feel that Carson is the man for the job for the Colts at this time.’’
The significance of Reich’s input can’t be overstated. He was instrumental in Wentz’s early development in Philly and the 2017 season that remains the apex of Wentz’s career (33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 7.5 yards per attempt, a 101.9 rating).
Getting Irsay and Ballard on board with bringing in Rivers last offseason was relatively easy. They saw what Rivers, even at 39, could bring to Indy.
Wentz was a tougher sell. Finally, Reich convinced Irsay and Ballard the investment would be worth it. That included parting with a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 first-rounder if Wentz panned out, and assuming the final four years of Wentz’s contract.
At worst, Indy is on the hook for two years and roughly $47 million. However, the Colts are hoping Wentz is a longer-term answer.
“When you talk to Frank Reich and hear him talk about (Wentz), I couldn’t be more excited,’’ Irsay said.
Reich realizes what’s on the line: just the immediate and perhaps long-term direction of the franchise as well as his reputation. But he remains steadfast in his support of Wentz.
“You know how I feel about it. I think it is a collaborative effort, that we work with Carson,’’ he said Monday. “But yeah, you stick your neck out for players as a head coach or a GM or a scout or a coach. We all do. Obviously as a head coach sometimes you have a little bit more say than maybe a position coach.
“But that’s what you love about it. I love sticking my neck out for people I believe in. So yeah, I’m willing to put it on the line for players that you believe in and I believe in this team. I believe in Carson. I don’t mind being the point person on that.’’
Reich’s endorsement for Wentz remained firm despite the latest evidence that brought Wentz’s viability into question. He was part of the Eagles’ death spiral last season, and unable to pull them out of it. He suffered 15 interceptions and was sacked 50 times, both league highs, despite being benched for the final four games in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts. He completed 57.4% of his passes and averaged 6 yards per attempt, both career lows.
There was talk Wentz was “broken.’’
“I just cringe when I hear stuff like that,’’ Reich said. “Not that a player shouldn’t be accountable for poor play on the field and Carson has to answer to that and he has answered to it, and until you get out there and prove otherwise, that’s what you live with.
“I just know that playing the position of quarterback there are so many factors that go into it. We talk a lot about why the poor play last year? I’m just very confident that he has a team around him and I think the culture fit . . . I’m very confident we got the right player.’’
The Colts adjusted to Rivers’ addition without benefit of any offseason work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a lackluster start, he had 20 touchdowns and six interceptions and led Indy to an 8-3 record over the final 11 games.
Wentz’s transitions won’t be quite as restrictive. He’ll have the next two weeks to further acclimate himself to Reich’s offense and his new teammates, and undoubtedly find time over the subsequent eight weeks to arrange throwing sessions with his receiving corps.
Wentz already traveled to the West Coast to work with Michael Pittman Jr. and Dezmon Patmon. He’s had at least one pitch-and-catch session with T.Y. Hilton.
“That’s our team, that’s our guys,’’ Reich said. “They want to work. I credit our skill guys. They want to get to know Carson, right? Receivers aren’t stupid, right? In fact, they are very smart. They want to be here. They want Carson to feel comfortable throwing to them and Carson wants to learn their body language and talk through stuff.’’
“It’s been fun just having him around,’’ Hilton said. “He’s excited. Just getting to know him, embracing him and just spending time with him. Any time you get to do that with your quarterback, it makes him feel at home, it eases the way for him.’’
It’s not a stretch to believe Wentz’s arrival will provide a boost to Hilton’s career. The Colts’ four-time Pro Bowl wideout has seen his big-play options decline over the past few seasons. Hilton has averaged 15.4 yards per catch for his career, but a pedestrian 12.5 the last two seasons.
“We can’t give away too much,’’ Hilton said with a smile, “but it’s going to be fun.’’