Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement announcement Saturday night flipped the NFL world on its head and threw expectations for an ascending Colts franchise into a tailspin. A team that spent most of the offseason looking like a sneaky Super Bowl contender suddenly, well, does not; without Luck, one bookmaker moved the team’s win total over/under from 9.5 to 6.5, and another dropped their Super Bowl odds from 12-1 to 30-1. It’s a quarterback-driven league, after all, and Indianapolis just lost its four-time Pro Bowl passer two weeks before the regular season kicks off.
But while the news was both astonishing and gut-wrenching for fans and the Colts alike, Indianapolis isn’t going to just concede a lost season. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett is the proverbial next man up for a team that’s among the league’s best equipped to mitigate the loss of its starter; Luck’s retirement is a major blow for the Colts’ Super Bowl aspirations—there’s no way around that—but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for a squad that’s balanced enough to compete in a wide-open AFC field. It may look a little different than what we were expecting, but the Colts offense under Brissett could surprise in 2019.
Colts head coach Frank Reich has gone down a somewhat similar road before. Late in the 2017 season, the then–Eagles offensive coordinator saw his team’s starter (and MVP contender) Carson Wentz go down with a torn ACL. Reich, along with head coach Doug Pederson, quickly devised a modified scheme—heavy on play-action and RPOs—that accentuated the skill set of the team’s backup quarterback, Nick Foles. Reich dug into his bag of tricks and worked collaboratively with the veteran signal-caller to draw up plays and design throws Foles was most comfortable executing. Instead of cratering, the Eagles offense flourished under Foles, and the rest, as they say, is history: The veteran backup led Philly on an improbable postseason run that culminated with Foles as the MVP of a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.
Now, we’d be getting ahead of ourselves to say that Reich is going to quickly turn Brissett into a clutch, big-play playoff god like Foles, but we can expect the savvy play-caller to implement a scheme that emphasizes Brissett’s skill set and doesn’t force him to carry the entire team on his shoulders. Plus, it doesn’t have to be all that different from what Reich designed for Luck last year: Reich helped facilitate Luck’s renaissance in 2018 by ditching long-developing, deep-drop passing plays in favor of three- and five-step drops and quick-hitting throws that targeted pass catchers in the short and intermediate zones. The idea was to protect Luck and his surgically repaired shoulder by getting the ball out of his hands quickly and efficiently, and it worked like a charm. Among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts last year, Luck finished seventh in fastest average time to throw—2.63 seconds, just a hair slower than Tom Brady and Philip Rivers—and was sacked just 18 times. Luck notched a career-high 98.7 passer rating and career-low sack rate (2.7), and the Colts finished 10th in overall offensive DVOA (and fifth in weighted offensive DVOA, which assigns more value to late-season performance), scoring 27.1 points per game, good for fifth most leaguewide.
But how big of a hit will that offensive efficiency take in going from Luck to Brissett? Some may look at Brissett’s underwhelming 13-touchdown, seven-interception line, 81.7 passer rating, and 4-11 record as the team’s fill-in starter in 2017 and start daydreaming about the Colts’ spot in the Tua Tagovailoa sweepstakes. But it’d be unfair and in many ways misleading to only look at Brissett’s performance from ’17. The former Patriot was put in an incredibly tough situation that year; he was traded to the Colts a week before the season started and forced to learn a brand-new system on the fly. He also played behind an incredibly porous offensive line and in a Rob Chudzinski–designed scheme that struggled to provide him quick-pass options to protect him in the pocket. Brissett ranked sixth slowest in average time to throw (2.89 seconds), and the Colts finished dead last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate (10 percent) while giving up a league-high 56 sacks.
This year, Brissett will be playing behind an elite offensive line that finished second in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate (4.1 percent) and that returns all five starters. Perhaps more importantly, he’ll be playing in Reich’s quick-release passing scheme, a system that should help him avoid many of the sack woes we saw in 2017. Preseason football comes with all the boilerplate caveats, but in Brissett’s two games this month against the Bills and Browns, he showcased the ability to drop back and quickly get the ball out to his playmakers underneath on hitch routes or crossers.
That type of decisiveness will be crucial, and it doesn’t hurt Brissett’s cause that the team’s offensive skill-position arsenal is on the rise. T.Y. Hilton remains an all-around playmaker; free agent Devin Funchess has been an early favorite for Brissett over the middle of the field; and Brissett’s already built plenty of chemistry this preseason with the team’s top tight end duo of Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron.
Add in ascending second-year pro Deon Cain (who has impressed in training camp and preseason work) and rookie Parris Campbell—who should provide Brissett with an explosive playmaking option on screens, sweeps, slants, and digs in the short area—and Brissett has a dynamic group of pass catchers with a wide range of skill sets. That’s before even mentioning running backs Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines, both of whom should factor in the air attack out of the backfield.
But while Reich’s offensive design will focus on taking pressure off Brissett and allowing him to be a point guard of the scheme, he’s still going to have to prove he’s capable of stepping up in big situations, ignoring pressure and delivering a strike downfield. He flashed that ability at times back in 2017―his 107 passer rating on deep passes ranked fourth leaguewide, per PFF―and he’s given us a few more glimpses of that playmaking ability this preseason. On both of these plays, he avoided pressure, kept his eyes downfield, stepped up into the pocket, and pushed the ball downfield.
Brissett isn’t Andrew Luck. No one, as GM Chris Ballard said Saturday night, is expecting him to be. But as far as fall-back options go for when disaster strikes at the most important position in sports, the 26-year-old is uniquely positioned for success. Brissett has a full season of live-fire experience under his belt. He has been mentored by Bill Parcells. He’s studied under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. He’s renowned for his leadership ability. And he’s spent the past year-plus learning Reich’s offense in case the day ever came when he’d be called upon to start. Brissett still has plenty to prove as a passer, but surrounded by a strong supporting cast on both sides of the ball, he has the talent and skill set to keep the Colts’ playoff hopes alive in 2019.