INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The State of the Franchise invariably became the State of the Franchise’s Quarterback Situation.
In an extensive autopsy on the Indianapolis Colts’ 7-9 season – it lasted more than an hour and included 74 questions, 21 about quarterbacks – general manager Chris Ballard took full blame for the franchise missing the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
“All of it starts with me,” he said Thursday.
While addressing the team’s handling of kicking icon Adam Vinatieri (no regrets); left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who’s contemplating retirement (love to have him back, but no clue if that happens); the possibility of re-signing tight end Eric Ebron (“We’ll probably move on”); and the overall status of the roster (“I’m pissed at myself for not giving our coaching staff enough depth during the season because we had a real opportunity to do some pretty cool things”), Ballard always found himself yanked back to one topic.
So let’s take them in order.
First, Andrew Luck, who sent shockwaves through the franchise and the NFL landscape by announcing his retirement Aug. 24. Has the team, or will the team, at least approach Luck to determine if he’s still as committed to retirement?
“Look, Andrew’s retired,” Ballard said. “Do I talk to Andrew? Yes, I do. Haven’t talked to him here in a few weeks. I’m sure he’s busy being a father.
“But Andrew is retired. I think we all need to accept that. That’s where he’s at. He’s retired.”
That brings us to the man who saw his role with the Colts dramatically change on that franchise-altering August evening: Jacoby Brissett. From reliable backup to the face of the Colts.
The 2019 season forever will be remembered for the Colts starting 5-2 and finishing 2-7. And for Brissett being more than good enough in the first seven games (14 touchdowns, three interceptions, a 99.7 rating) and not nearly good enough in his final seven starts (four TDs, three interceptions, a 75.1 rating).
The overriding thrust of most QB-centric questions: is Brissett the guy? Will he be the Colts’ starting QB in the 2020 season opener.
Ballard paused, and smiled.
“I thought Andrew was going to be our starting quarterback last season,” he said. “So I’ll say this: right now, yes, Jacoby is our starting quarterback.”
Yes, things change.
As expected, Ballard tossed his support in Brissett’s direction, but made it clear nothing is chiseled in stone. One thing to keep in mind is Ballard signed Brissett to a one-year extension last season that paid his QB $30 million through next season, but in reality was a two-year audition.
“I think the jury is still out,” Ballard said. “That’s why we did the short-term deal with Jacoby. One, to give us some security that we had a player we knew, we liked and could go forward with. But also, two, to give us time to figure out if he is the guy or not.”
“Jacoby did a lot of good things,” Ballard said. “He also did some things that I think he would tell you he needs to get better at. But it’s a constant evaluation.
“I don’t want to just gloss over. I don’t want to just look at the second half of the season. Jacoby did some good things. I think as a whole, our passing game – not just the quarterback position – but our passing game has to improve. Unequivocally, that has to get better.”
One of Frank Reich’s primary goals heading into the season was fielding a top-5 running game. Mission virtually accomplished. The Colts finished No. 7 but were just 23 yards behind No. 5 Dallas. They rushed for 2,130 yards, the first time since 1994 they cracked the 2,000-yard mark.
But the passing game was atrocious. It ranked 30th in yards per game (194.3) and 25th in yards per attempt (6.5). Excluding the Pittsburgh game when he was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a sprained left knee, Brissett has passed for fewer than 200 yards in 14 of his 29 starts with the Colts.
“We have to be able to throw the football to win in this league,” Ballard said.
Speculation already has intensified regarding how the Colts get better at the position. How they get better than Jacoby Brissett.
Might they invest in a discarded veteran? Perhaps a Philip Rivers? Seriously doubt it.
The most likely avenue is adding competition through the April NFL Draft. Ballard holds nine picks overall, including No. 13 and No. 34. The draft seemingly holds several intriguing options, led off by LSU’s Joe Burrow, who’s projected to go 1st overall to Cincinnati. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is a wild card. He’s expected to announce Jan. 6 whether he’s entering the draft or returning to ‘Bama.
Ballard’s pre-draft evaluations always include quarterbacks.
“You never know when you’re going to be looking one in the face, so you just take him,” he said, adding the process also is beneficial “because you gotta play against them.
“Anytime we have a chance to acquire a player that makes us better, at any position, we’re going to do it. Any position.”
The biggest issue in evaluating a quarterback is not doing so out of a sense of desperation. Quarterbacks always seem to be overvalued in the draft because of the perceived need by a handful of teams.
“One of the biggest mistakes teams make is they force it,” Ballard said. “You can’t force the evaluation of a quarterback. Can’t do it. Because then what you do is talk yourself into a guy, and then you set your organization back four-five years (if you’re wrong).
“We’ll continue to evaluate the position. We would’ve done this no matter who the quarterback was. And if we felt like we found the guy we liked, who was a good fit for the Colts, we would’ve taken him and we’ll do the same thing moving forward.
“We’re not gonna force it just to bring (someone) in. It’s gotta be somebody who we think is real.”
And that brings us back to this: can Jacoby Brissett be real?
Ballard conceded the sprained left knee impacted Brissett for a couple of games and might have affected his throwing mechanics.
“But you still have to be able to produce at the end of the day,” he said. “He’s a young quarterback that’s played two seasons. I’m taking that one out in ’17 when he got the crap beat out of him. This is really his first season.
“I know we want guys to come in and light the league up right away, but sometimes they have to go through it and continue to rep it and see it. One or two years does not make a successful quarterback in this league.”
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