After Andrew Luck announced his stunning decision to retire last August, the Indianapolis Colts rallied around Jacoby Brissett.
General manager Chris Ballard praised Brissett’s leadership and ability to lift up his teammates. Head coach Frank Reich praised Brissett’s development. Teammates said good things.
Brissett proceeded to complete nearly 61 percent of his passes for nearly 2,942 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions, and were it not for a midseason knee injury that hampered his play down the stretch, there’s a solid chance Indianapolis would have finished better than 7-9. The post-injury drop-off was evident in a comparison of Brissett’s 5-2 start before the injury and 2-5 record afterward.
Now, nearly nine months later, the Colts are heading into the 2020 campaign with a much different quarterbacks room, one that makes it fair to wonder about the 27-year-old’s future with the organization.
Colts’ crowded quarterbacks room
In March, Indianapolis signed 38-year-old veteran Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million deal that surprised some given Ballard’s penchant for building through the draft in lieu of splurging in free agency.
Reich and Rivers go way back, so while Rivers’ play fell off during his 20-interception 2019 season, Reich, one of the game’s sharpest offensive minds, deserves the benefit of the doubt on this. Rivers will start for the Colts, and he will be good this year behind one of the game’s best young offensive lines.
But the Colts’ draft selection of Washington’s Jacob Eason, once the top prep quarterback in the country, raised eyebrows. Reich said Eason, picked in Round 4, had the best arm talent in the draft. It’s an assertion one scout who spoke to Yahoo Sports agreed with on the condition Eason gets to sit and watch a veteran starter for a while. Eason will get that with Rivers.
What about Brissett?
He’s under contract for only one more year, and a team that trades for him will be acquiring roughly only $7 million in salary. The price might be appetizing but there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming desire for the Colts to deal him, which was revealed when the straight-shooting Ballard was asked after the draft if Brissett will be the backup in 2020.
“Yeah, because we think he’s a starter in the league,” Ballard said. “I mean Jacoby is continuing to get better and he will continue to get better. Everything Jacoby stands for is what we believe in. He’s a great teammate, he works his tail off and he’s performed.
“I know Jacoby has taken some hits but some of them are unfair and look, maybe some of them were unfair by me, too. I might not have used the right words at times. I think y’all understand how I feel about this young man. But he’s a special kid. He is a valuable member of the Colts. We’re lucky to have Jacoby Brissett.”
Colts aren’t bluffing on Brissett’s 2020 value
Ballard is right. Even though a cynic might assume he is simply trying to drive up the price on a Brissett trade, Ballard’s words also reflect what GMs might say if they were trying to explain why they need to keep a benched quarterback around as a backup for a season they’ve effectively gone all in. Ballard is entering his fourth year at the helm in Indianapolis, and in the NFL, that means it’s time to win. That’s why they traded the 13th overall pick in a strong draft for an established star in 26-year-old defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
That’s also why they didn’t trade an established backup to safeguard against a potential injury to their 38-year-old quarterback, a misfortune that would ruin their season. Rivers has been famously durable, starting all 16 games for 14 consecutive seasons, but as it stands, if Rivers were to get hurt, and the Colts were to trade Brissett, they’d be forced to turn the keys over to Chad Kelly, who hasn’t thrown one pass in an NFL game, or Eason, a rookie.
For a team trying to win a Super Bowl, doing either is a complete nonstarter, since no rookie quarterback has ever — I repeat, ever — won a Super Bowl.
Even Eason understands his role. During his introductory news conference with the Colts, he mentioned four separate times that he’s excited to learn from Rivers and Brissett, and he was deferential to both.
“I think it’s an outstanding opportunity for me to go in and learn,” Eason said. “I’m going to take that and do the best I can to study Philip and study Jacoby and also improve my own game.”
Ballard, meanwhile, also sought to temper expectations over the strong-armed Eason.
“Well, he’s got talent, but there is a long way to go — he still hasn’t even put on a Colts uniform,” Ballard said. “Like any of them, they’ve got to earn it. Right now he is competing with Chad Kelly. Philip Rivers and Jacoby are our first two and Jacob and Chad are competing for the three-spot. Let’s slow our roll a little bit in terms of tagging this guy as the next messiah walking into town. He was a fourth-round pick. We didn’t move up to the first pick of the draft. Jacob’s got talent. He’s got to work, and he’s got to earn it.”
One other thing to consider here: Although the Colts risk letting Brissett walk at the end of 2020 for at best a compensatory draft pick, it’s also still unclear how much damage the coronavirus shutdown will do to the 2020 season. If a quarterback for any team were to get sick, he’d almost certainly get quarantined for two weeks, making a solid backup at the position a necessity for any team with Super Bowl dreams.
The Colts have that in Brissett, someone who has worked under Reich for two-plus seasons, knows the scheme and still has competitive upside. That’s an enormous advantage, one that — barring an unforeseen “Godfather” trade offer — the Colts would be wise to hold on to in 2020.
Besides, who says Brissett can’t help this team in 2020, even if Rivers doesn’t get hurt? During a conference call with reporters in late March, Reich complimented Brissett’s ability to execute run-pass option plays, and even suggested that Brissett could see the field for five to seven plays per game.
“Even though he’s not the starter, there’s nothing saying Jacoby still can’t play,” Reich said. “We think Jacoby has some unique gifts in that way. Everybody knows who Jacoby is — he is not Lamar Jackson as far as speed — but Jacoby is tough to bring down.
“[Offensive coordinator] Nick [Sirianni] and I have already been talking about this, about what does it look like if he plays five or seven plays a game? We’re certainly talking about that, open to that and will keep all options open. Whatever we have to do to win.”
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