INDIANAPOLIS – For a franchise that has experienced the euphoria of prolonged stability and productivity at the most influential position, the past several seasons have tested everyone’s ability to adjust on the run, and remain competitive in the quarterback-driven NFL.
Remember Peyton Manning starting 208 consecutive regular-season games over 13 seasons after being selected with the 1st overall pick in the 1998 draft?
Remember Andrew Luck being under center for the first 51 games of his career after succeeding Manning as the 1st overall pick in ’12?
Those were 16-plus seasons with two quarterbacks under center.
And now this.
When the Indianapolis Colts wade into 2021 with high expectations – Sept. 12 against the Seattle Seahawks at Lucas Oil Stadium – they’ll follow the lead of a fifth different opening-day starting quarterback.
For those keeping track at home, that’s tied for the longest streak of instability since the franchise relocated to Indy in 1984. From 1991-95, the Colts rolled out Jeff George, Mark Herrmann, Jack Trudeau, Craig Erickson and Jim Harbaugh.
In case you’ve lost track, Carson Wentz, acquired in a February trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, follows Philip Rivers (2020), Jacoby Brissett (’19), Andrew Luck (’18) and Scott Tolzien (’17). The Colts haven’t had the same opening-day starter since Luck from 2012-16.
Maybe it’s a coincidence they’ve lost their last seven openers.
When players report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 27 for the opening of training camp – they’re on the practice field the first time July 28 – there’s no bigger storyline than the one residing behind center Ryan Kelly.
Here’s a look:
- Starter: Carson Wentz.
- Backup: Jacob Eason.
- Depth: Sam Ehlinger, Jalen Morton.
Is Wentz the answer?
He’d better be. And we’re not necessarily talking about what general manager Chris Ballard gave up to acquire Wentz from the Eagles: a 2021 third-round draft pick and a conditional ’22 pick that elevates to a first-rounder if he’s what the Colts hope he is.
Ballard and coach Frank Reich were forced to look for yet another starting QB when Philip Rivers retired in January. They briefly considered Matthew Stafford, but the price was too steep. A draft teeming with intriguing prospects was an option, but the Colts’ draft positioning (21st overall) and the number of teams ahead of them searching for a franchise quarterback made that avenue highly problematic.
So, Carson Wentz.
Owner Jim Irsay was bullish on the acquisition from the outset.
“I can’t emphasis how strongly I feel that Carson is the man for the job for the Colts at this time,’’ he said.
The Colts acquired the final four years of Wentz’s contract; the next two are guaranteed at roughly $47 million.
Let’s be clear about this: Irsay, Ballard and Reich don’t view Wentz as a short-term fix. He’s just 28, was the 2nd overall pick in 2016 and in ’17 was playing at an MVP level before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
“After looking at this game for 50 years and seeing guys come and go at that key position, I really think he can be that guy that is the centerpiece and the guy that is going to be around with these teams that we put together for the next decade that give the Colts a chance for greatness,’’ Irsay said.
Thus far, there’s been nothing to temper the franchise’s optimism.
By all accounts, Wentz has been embraced by his new teammates and displayed leadership qualities during the Colts’ abbreviated and low-tempo offseason workouts.
“You can just feel his presence on the field,’’ said Reich, who aided Wentz’s strong first two seasons as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. “He’s a dominant, physical specimen.’’
Running back Nyheim Hines was struck by Wentz’ one-on-one approach.
“He’s trying to personally get to know everyone,’’ he said. “It makes you want to play for him.’’
But again, can Wentz regain the form that had his career arc ascending from 2016-19? In his first four seasons, he completed 63.8% of his passes with 97 touchdowns and 35 interceptions.
Or was last season a truer indication of him? His season and that of the Eagles unraveled into an unmitigated disaster. Wentz suffered 15 interceptions and 50 sacks – both league highs and career highs – despite missing the last four games after being benched in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts.
“There’s a lot of things I wish I could have back or done differently, but at the end of the day last year came and went and it’s behind us,’’ Wentz said.
“There was a lot of things that just didn’t fall into place . . . you learn from it, you leave ‘em behind you and you get better from it.’’
There’s no question being reunited with Reich should aid in Wentz’s bounce-back effort, and Wentz has had a few throwing sessions with his new receiver corps. Also, he’s been working with quarterback guru Adam Dedeaux to sharpen his fundamentals and throwing mechanics.
“(He’s) motivated to change a narrative that has been out there about him and his ability,’’ Dedeaux told Zach Hicks of SI.Com. “Mentally, just in a much better headspace.’’
Wentz also should be in a better NFL space.
In five seasons in Philly, he had zero 1,000-yard rushers. Now, he has two (Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack). Wentz also had just one receiver crack the 1,000-yard barrier – tight end Zach Ertz. T.Y. Hilton has five 1,000-yard seasons on his resume, although none since 2018.
Wentz also was sacked 179 times in 68 starts with the Eagles. The Colts’ pass protection ranked 3rd in fewest sacks per pass attempt last season and 1st in 2018, yielding just 39 in those two seasons.
The pieces appear to be in place.
The back plan
Eason enters camp as No. 2 on the depth chart, followed by Ehlinger and Morton. The overriding concern? None has taken a snap in an NFL game.
The coaching staff is high on Eason’s potential. The 2020 fourth-round draft pick possesses size (6-6, 231 pounds) and a strong right arm. But he largely remains an unknown after an aberrant rookie season: the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all offseason work as well as the four preseason games. Eason was on the active roster every week last season, but never stepped on the field.
“Jacob is in the (backup) position right now,’’ Reich said, “but this is a prove-it league, right? There will be competition . . . everybody will get a chance.’’
The Colts selected Ehlinger in round 6 of the April draft and have spoke glowingly about the “it’’ factor he possesses. That’s critical for the position. In January, the team signed Morton. The Prairie View A&M product participated in the Green Bay Packers’ offseason program and training camp last season.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.