Philip Rivers’ option in Colts’ run game? ‘Last’

Indianapolis Colts

Philip Rivers #17 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball against the Minnesota Vikings at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS – At the last possible second, the last option was the best option.

It was Philip Rivers noticing Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith creeping up and finally blitzing from his left.

It was the Indianapolis Colts’ non-fleet-of-foot quarterback ditching the called play and tucking the football rather than handing off to Jordan Wilkins and risking a blow-up play by Smith.

“It was more just to avoid a disaster,’’ he said. “I didn’t want him to hit us right at the exchange and have a fumble or something.’’

It was Rivers finding the back of All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and getting something out of nothing.

“Just turned it into a QB run there,’’ he explained on a Wednesday Zoom conference call. “I actually stayed on my feet longer than I expected.’’

Long enough for a 3-yard run.

“Shoot, I’ll take those,’’ he said with a smile. “I don’t have many of those.’’

Rivers wasn’t being gosh-darned-shoot humble. He was speaking the truth.

At a time when mobile quarterbacks are sweeping across the NFL landscape – Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Kyle Murray, Cam Newton, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson come to mind – Rivers is nearly as one-dimensional as it gets. He’s authored a Hall of Fame-worthy career with his right arm and funky delivery, not his legs.

The Colts’ offensive roster is built with a smash-mouth mentality. The line sets the tone with three first-round picks – Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson – and second-rounder Braden Smith. That enhances Frank Reich’s commitment to featuring Marlon Mack before his season-ending Achilles injury and rookie Jonathan Taylor, Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines moving forward.

Rivers was asked where he ranked on the Colts as a running threat.

He laughed.

“Last,’’ he said. “Of all the guys that touch the ball, last.’’

The question wasn’t meant to belittle Rivers, but point out he’ll offer little help with his legs if the Colts are going to repeat as a top-7 running team.

In 2019, seven of the top-10 were buttressed by a QB that offered at least 228 yards on rushes or scrambles. That included Jackson’s 1,206 yards for Baltimore’s No. 1-ranked run game – an NFL single-season record for a QB – and Jacoby Brissett’s 228 for the Colts’ No. 7-ranked group.

Rivers’ single-season best: 102 yards in 2014. Since then, he’s rushed, scrambled or taken a knee 84 times for 93 yards in 83 games. With a long of 12.

In 230 career games, he’s picked up 615 yards on 370 attempts.

Rivers took exception when it was mentioned most good running teams have been able to rely on a mobile quarterback to boost their output.

“Some of the good running teams the quarterbacks aren’t involved,’’ he said. “Shoot, the time here, the Colts ran it pretty well when Peyton was here. I don’t remember him running too much. They ran it well in New England the last 20 years and I know Tom didn’t run it much. I don’t think Drew runs much either.’’

Rivers knows his stuff, at least in those instances.

Manning rushed for 722 yards in 208 games with the Colts, and Brees has 754 in 277 games with the New Orleans Saints. Brady needed 20 years and 285 games to amass 1,037 yards in New England.

For perspective, consider Jackson, the Ravens’ dual threat, has more rushing yards in his 33 games (2,000) than Manning and Brady have (1,713) in 553 combined games.

“There’s a lot of different ways to run it,’’ Rivers said. “Thankfully with our backs and the guys up front, we can run it the traditional way.’’

Quality over quantity

One of the overriding strengths of Reich’s offense is its ability to adapt on a week-to-week basis, and that’s been the case in the first two weeks.

In the opening loss at Jacksonville, the passing game was clicking early so Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni stuck with it. By game’s end, Rivers had attempted 46 passes. The Colts ran just 22 times. The offensive yield: 445 yards.

The script was flipped in Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings: 25 Rivers’ passes, 40 rushing attempts, 354 yards.

“It is a sign that we’re versatile,’’ Reich said. “It is a sign that we’re reacting to what’s given.’’

Reich has no problem occasionally relying more on Rivers than his running game, in large part because of the desire to produce explosive plays in the pass game. But that comes with inherent risks.

“There are more negative things that can happen when you throw it – the percentages, interceptions, sacks, all that kind of stuff,’’ he said. “There is a cost of those explosive plays.

“That’s one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is just because you can throw it for 400 yards doesn’t mean it’s the best equation for winning. You have to find that balance.’’

History tells us the more a quarterback throws, the less success he has. And vice versa. That’s especially true with Rivers.

His teams are 14-42 (.250) when he attempts at least 40 passes, but a stunning 40-4 (.909) when he throws 25 or fewer passes. The latter winning percentage is the NFL’s best since the 1970 merger.

A few other historical samplings:

  • Brees: 44-69 (.389) with 40-plus, 18-10 (.643) with 25-fewer.
  • Ben Roethlisberger: 22-35-1 (.388) with 40-plus, 48-5 (.906) with 25-fewer.
  • Manning: 43-40 (.518) with 40-plus, 18-8 (.692) with 25-fewer.
  • Aaron Rodgers: 18-27-1 (.402) with 40-plus, 13-6 (.684) with 25-fewer.

And then there’s the aberration. Brady is 51-27 (.654) with 40-plus, and 23-7 (.767) with 25-fewer.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

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