Photo by Tony Valainis
THE CARSON WENTZ Era in Indianapolis is over, and calling it an “era” is probably a stretch. Wentz bookended a solid-to-good middle portion of the season with a winless start and a disastrous (and incompetent) finish. This drove the Colts to give up one year into what they originally hoped to be at least a two-year experiment. Questions about Wentz’s intangibles off the field and the leaks in his play on it—temporarily masked in December by Jonathan Taylor’s heroics and one game-clinching drive in Arizona, which appeared to have put the Colts into the playoffs—led to a dam-bursting final two weeks as the team’s magical carriage turned into a *makes gigantic fart noise*. While that capitulation wasn’t all on Wentz, he was completely powerless to stop the 2021 Colts’ absolute dissolution.
When a visibly angry Jim Irsay wrote Wentz’s epitaph during an impromptu video in front of a private jet, the writing was on the wall. So, for the fifth straight season, the Colts will have a new starting quarterback in September (hooray!). But no one—not even the Colts—seems to have any idea who that might be! The quarterback “plan” for this offseason, if you even want to call it that, seems to have started and ended with “get rid of Carson Wentz.” Three seasons since Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement, the Colts’ plans have centered around a popular but ineffective Jacoby Brissett (2019), Philip Rivers’s retirement tour (2020), and trying to turn the awkward red-haired dude from Frank Reich’s church picnic into a franchise savior (2021). All of that has resulted in a middling 27-22 record, zero playoff wins, and another attempt this spring at finding a long-term solution to escape their stay in dreaded NFL QB Purgatory.
Looking at the decision individually, dumping Wentz is perfectly defensible. However, assessing the next step and gazing upon the current available NFL quarterback landscape is just as depressing as looking out your car window on I-65 at the barren landscape between here and Chicago. So, how do Chris Ballard & Co. proceed with their second third fourth try? Here, a super-not-serious look at some of their potential QB targets:
PROS: Handsome, accurate, good leadership qualities
CONS: Cost, constant health issues, defined ceiling
Ah, Jimmy G. He certainly looks the part, and having made two deep postseason runs in three years is a darling of the QB Winz crowd. Garoppolo was so good, in fact, that his team decided they needed to trade three draft picks to acquire his eventual replacement last year! Despite that fact, he fended off Trey Lance this past season and had the Niners within a dropped interception of another Super Bowl appearance, even if he was dragged to that point by his teammates with three subpar postseason efforts. I’d be lying if I said Garoppolo is super exciting, but he’s accurate and reliable when it comes to the easy throws, something the Colts were vocal about when it came to their critiques of Wentz. With an accurate and reliable QB1 in Rivers in 2020, the Colts were one of the best Yards After Catch teams in the league (sixth). Last year, they were dead last in that category, partly due to a mediocre WR room, but mainly because they had a quarterback that was incapable of hitting singles. While he’s not a home-run hitter as a thrower, Garoppolo at least cranks out base hits and provides a solid floor that he rarely falls beneath.
The two most worrisome things about making Jimmy G your guy are cost and durability. If a league-average Wentz season (‘But what about his super hollow TD-INT ratio???’) netted two third-rounders and got Washington to agree to eat $28 million, you can imagine what the cost for Garoppolo will be. Any trade package likely starts with at least the Colts’ 2023 first-round pick and will need to include at least another Day 2 pick and/or a player. That’s a hefty price for acquiring a guy who isn’t right now—and likely won’t ever be—considered a top-tier quarterback. He’s also had injury issues with his knees, ankles, and hand, and is coming off shoulder surgery that will keep him out until at least training camp. After going through everything in the second half of Andrew Luck’s career, do the Colts really want to play the “Will he be ready for the season?” game with Jimmy?
PROS: A dynamic, franchise-type quarterback (if you’re just looking at him as a football player)
CONS: Well … uh … do a Google search!
Watson is a really difficult candidate to assess because of all the off-field baggage he carries, regardless of how you feel about him not facing criminal charges for sexual assault and misconduct. He still faces possible reprimand from the NFL, but we all know he’s going to play for somebody in 2022, and it’s doubtful that team will be Houston. Even without the 2021 season, Watson was coming off his best-ever campaign in 2020, despite having his franchise crumbling around him. If you’re just looking at him as a football player, Watson is an absolute star. If you’re looking at him as a person, well, that’s much murkier because we’ll likely never know the truth about the allegations. The two things that make Watson an extremely unlikely fit for the Colts: 1) The Texans would be completely insane to trade him within the division (there’s a reason why the Colts are 25-to-1 to land him, according to BetOnline.ag), and 2) Could Indy really sell bringing Watson here? The Honest-to-Goodness Indianapolis Colts have always marketed themselves as GOOD players and GOOD guys (just like the Pacers), so would they be willing to deal with the clouds that float over Watson’s head to escape NFL QB purgatory? “All Chips In,” right? Am I going to end all of these blurbs with questions? Are you actually still reading this?
PROS: Durability, has the intangibles the Colts are looking for, good to very good player
CONS: Cost (likely), he’s 31 and is as good right now as he’s ever going to be
Phew, you’re still here. Let’s continue. What if Watson factors into this decision because the Raiders end up nabbing him? That would make Carr expendable for Vegas, who has always seemed to treat their eight-year starter like the girlfriend you keep around just because, man, you’re just too lazy and insecure to have to be single and date again, amirite?
While maybe not a luxury vehicle, Carr is the Honda Accord of NFL quarterbacks. He has started 127 of a possible 129 games since being drafted in 2014. That’s excellent gas mileage, especially in this economy! In just the last four seasons, he’s completed over 68 percent of his passes, averaging over 4,000 yards per year, consistently ranking in the back of the top 10 in most metrics (DVOA, DYAR, EPA, etc). He’s never quite replicated his MVP-level season in 2016, but unlike Wentz, that season compared to the rest of his resume wasn’t a total outlier. Like Garoppolo, he’ll require an expensive trade package and he’d also likely start next season as the seventh or eighth best quarterback in the AFC power rankings, but he’s by far the safest of these options. The only box he doesn’t check off is ELITE, but with where the Colts currently sit, having the best quarterback in the AFC South again (assuming Watson gets dealt) and then hoping to get lucky in a single-elimination playoff doesn’t sound like the worst plan in the world.
PROS: Athletic, mobile, wouldn’t cost anything but money (free agent)
CONS: Hasn’t started a game in two seasons. Oh, and he has never actually been good!
Mariota has complemented Derek Carr well as a Raiders backup the last two years, but thanks to Carr’s reliability/durability, Mariota has only actually thrown 30 passes since he was benched by Tennessee midway through the 2019 season. The biggest indictment of Mariota may be the fact that the Titans immediately took off without him, overcoming a 2-4 start to reach the AFC Championship Game in 2019 and claiming AFC South championships in each of the last two seasons with Ryan Tannehill. Mariota’s most intriguing skill is his athleticism, which, despite him being a subpar passer, could add some interesting wrinkles for Frank Reich’s offense.
PROS: He’s just fine!
CONS: He’s just fine!
While the Colts are looking for their fifth starting quarterback in five years, Bridgewater is looking for his sixth team in that same timeframe (it’s true—look it up!). If you take a peek at Bridgewater’s numbers, they all seem fine, but that’s been the exact problem in his career: He’s just fine. He’s been just fine enough for his last two teams to actively try to upgrade at his position, with Denver (Russell Wilson) seeming to have much more success than Carolina (Sam Darnold, lol) in doing so. If the Colts are merely looking for a bridge just to get them to 2023, Bridgewater would be a solid choice. He won’t be cheap, but he’s coming off his best season as a pro and has 63 starts under his belt, and he’d be a much less volatile presence under center.
(Editor’s Note: Shortly after this article was published, it was announced the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed a two-year deal with Trubisky.)
PROS: Not Carson Wentz, I guess. *shrugs*
CONS: Um, is he an NFL-caliber starter?
Trubisky seems to have rebuilt some of his broken image in Buffalo after leaving Chicago last summer as the latest Bears’ QB bust. Forever known as The Guy Who Got Drafted Before Patrick Mahomes, Trubisky provided little downfield passing and battled accuracy issues (sound familiar?) throughout four mediocre seasons in Chicago. However, he just spent a year with the same Bills staff that helped develop Josh Allen into a superstar and is primed to get a second chance somewhere in 2022. Maybe he was held back by Matt Nagy, but maybe he’s just the latest in a string of high-pick QB busts (Sam Darnold, Blake Bortles, etc.) who never shed that label, even after a change of scenery. It’s rare that the light magically turns on for QB washouts, especially soon-to-be 28-year-old ones, so Trubisky doesn’t appear to be worth banking on.
[Insert Rookie QB here]
PROS: A rookie gives you hope. Hope is a good thing. No good thing ever dies!
CONS: Never hope.
This group of Malik Willis (Liberty), Kenny Pickett (Pitt), Desmond Ridder (UC), Carson Strong (Nevada), and Sam Howell (North Carolina) is universally regarded as a weak quarterback class, and without the luxury of a first-round pick, it’s going to be difficult for the Colts to get the best or second-best from a “meh” group. There are a small handful of non-first steals over the last decade or so (like Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, or a couple of guys on this list, Carr and Garoppolo). But, generally speaking, that Powerball ticket usually gets tossed in the garbage. It’s far more likely you’d end up with a Geno Smith or Ryan Mallett than a Russ or Dak. It’s certainly possible that the third-, fourth-, or fifth-highest regarded quarterback prospect in an unremarkable class becomes a franchise guy, but the odds of that happening are astonishingly slim.
While Jim Irsay has usually let his braintrust do their jobs, he certainly appeared to grab the wheel and steer the divorce from Carson Wentz. Will he stay in the driver’s seat for the next big decision? With $70 million in cap space and some trade pieces (Can I interest anyone in a transcendent guard? Anyone? He’s a really great guard!), the Colts have the ability to make a splash, if they choose. But, with the trade targets being non-elite vets (Carr, Garoppolo), a free agent pool full of guys who flamed out elsewhere (Mariota, Trubisky), and a lightly regarded draft class filled with unknowns, there is no obvious solution to get back to real contention.
Since Andrew Luck’s departure, the Colts’ quarterback choices have ranged from Band-Aids to boondoggles, and while they haven’t yet bottomed out, it’s far past time for the franchise to get back on course. If they fail again, be prepared for another question-filled Indianapolis Monthly piece in March of 2023. The next time, we might be talking about other vacancies to fill besides just quarterback.