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The Colts Take A Spin On The Quarterback Wheel Of Fortune

The franchise has pinned its hopes on Carson Wentz bouncing back from a bankrupt 2020 to once again become a franchise signal-caller.

Wentz throwing a pass for his former team in 2017.Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Colts have their quarterback!

Taking their second straight spin on the NFL’s Quarterback Purgatory Wheel, the team’s front office finally completed late last week their long-anticipated trade to acquire former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. The beleaguered North Dakota State product, benched at the end of a catastrophic 2020 season helming a calamitous Eagles team, will get a much-needed change of scenery while the Colts get their third starter in as many years.

The reactions to the move have varied from upset (“Wentz is cooked”) to indifferent (“Never hope! Our existence ended post-Peyton! There is NO FUTURE!”) to borderline delusional (just Google “Wentz and Dan Orlovsky” and you’ll see what I mean), but I’m trying to avoid extremes. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. For a quarterback whose pendulum has already swung wildly in just five NFL seasons, however, determining what that in-between might be is a challenge in its own right.

As you’ve no doubt heard 5,837,140,913,782 times the last few days, Carson Wentz was once an MVP favorite in 2017. That season, he tossed 33 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions and led the NFL in QBR before a suffering season-ending knee injury in Week 14. Also, Frank Reich was his offensive coordinator in Philadelphia (Did you guys know about this??! Did you hear about this?!?). So, naturally, a reunion would yield the same results, yes? Well… eh… a lot of stuff has happened since then!

That “stuff” includes Wentz’s campaign last season, which if we’re comparing it to actual campaigns, mirrors Jeb Bush’s 2016 Presidential run. Unfortunately, Wentz was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the league in 2020: 28th in QBR, 27th in EPA, and 36th in DVOA (please clap). Even if you don’t want “NERRRRD!” stats, he was 34th in completion percentage, led the league in interceptions (15), and was 2nd in fumbles (10). Oof.

Still, that’s not all on Wentz. Philly was ravaged by injuries all season, notably to their offensive line, a key area for any quarterback. His pass-catchers – an extremely generous description, given the caliber of the players in question – were among the league leaders in drops in each of the last two seasons. It’s also clear that Wentz and the organization had a rapid falling out after the team drafted eventual starter Jalen Hurts, likely impacting his on-field play and the Eagles’ overall ineptitude. 

Since everything in Philly was a big fat fail in 2020, should we scrap that season as an extreme outlier? We certainly can! But, here’s the thing about outliers – you have to treat them equally at both extremes. If 2020 was an outlier for Wentz, surely his 2017 pre-injury performance was, too. Although he put together decent seasons in 2018 and 2019, Wentz has never come close to regaining that MVP form. His traditional stats from those two years look solid, with a 47 to 14 TD-INT ratio (that stat will please the handful of “But but but Jacoby Brissett Was Good!” folks), 7,000+ yards total, and the two best single-season completion percentages of his career (69.6% and 63.9%). His metrics were more middle-of-the-road (12th and 11th in QBR, 14th and 17th in DYAR, and 13th and 20th in DVOA), but whatever, he was fine.

And fine is the key word here. For all the talk about Wentz either elevating the Colts as a Super Bowl contender or being completely cooked, the far more likely outcome is that Wentz is just fine, which might have been the best the Colts could hope for this offseason. It was unlikely they’d be able to jump from 21st overall and get ahead of a cavalcade of quarterback-hungry teams, who will all be itching to take their shot at a well-regarded prospect group in the upcoming Draft. And the veteran options were all risky, to say the least. It was either going to be Wentz, a former #2 pick, who at least was once pretty good, or a former #2 pick who has never been good (Marcus Mariota), a former #3 pick who has never been good (Sam Darnold), or, shit, I don’t know… Ryan Fitzpatrick? The other names that were thrown around in the rumor mill – Derek Carr, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson – ranged from unavailable to unrealistic.

Carson Wentz was probably the best that the Colts were going to do. His contract is digestible, especially for an organization that had $40 million tied into their QB room a season ago. And the trade compensation – a conditional second-rounder next year (could turn into a first-rounder, based on snaps and whether or not the Colts make the playoffs) and a third-rounder this year – isn’t too heavy a price to pay. It’s not nothing, but a year after salvaging an aging Philip Rivers from an awful 2019, there are reasons to be optimistic that Frank Reich can shine up Wentz’s unimpressive finish in Philly. 

But, again, that doesn’t make Carson Wentz THE GUY™. If Wentz can replicate his 2018 and 2019 seasons, then I think the Colts will be just fine. However, I’m not confident that most fans will be good with that. Alex Smith has spent his entire career being just fine, which has led to two different teams choosing to replace him, only to immediately make the Super Bowl after doing so. Hell, the Indiana Pacers’ entire existence has been “just fine.”

Understandably, there is a “just fine” fatigue among sports fans in Indianapolis. And as those same fans have undoubtedly learned by now, finding a franchise quarterback takes time and… well, luck (no pun intended). And as unlikely as it might seem, it is still possible that the Colts get really lucky and Wentz proves that 2017 wasn’t an outlier, making this deal a masterstroke of brilliance for Chris Ballard & Co..

Even a return to the middle for him would net a continued string of playoff appearances for this talented Colts roster. For a fanbase once accustomed to rolling out of bed and securing 12-plus win seasons and annual championship aspirations under Peyton Manning, however, “just fine” might not be enough to make Carson Wentz anything more than a bridge to this franchise’s next spin of the wheel.

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