Very little went to plan for the Indianapolis Colts last season, beginning with Andrew Luck’s jaw-dropping preseason retirement and ending with the team losing seven of its last nine games and missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. It wasn’t exactly the type of campaign GM Chris Ballard thought he’d get by teaming Luck with the best offensive line and defense he had ever played with.
Luck’s retirement is the kind of gut punch that can set a franchise back years, but Ballard did his best to recover and keep the team’s playoff chances alive. He handed backup Jacoby Brissett a two-year, $30 million extension, giving one of the league’s premier second fiddles a chance to prove he was ready for the lead chair. But after a 5-2 start to the season, in which Brissett threw 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions, he injured his left knee in Week 9, and the Colts never looked the same. Brissett threw for more than 200 yards in just two of his final seven games and completed only four touchdown passes.
Seemingly everyone in the Colts organization loves Brissett, the former Patriots backup who was traded to Indy in 2017. But it came as little surprise that Ballard was noncommittal when asked about Brissett’s status as the team’s quarterback of the future.
“The jury’s still out,” Ballard told reporters at his season’s exit press conference in January. “That’s why we did the short-term deal with Jacoby. One, to give us some security that we had a player we knew we liked and could go forward with, but also, two, to give us time to figure out if he is the guy or not.”
The jury reached a verdict on Tuesday. The Colts signed longtime Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million contract, effectively ending Brissett’s days as the Colts’ QB1 and signifying Ballard’s belief that Rivers is the man to get the Colts back into the playoffs after a 7-9 season.
At 38, Rivers is still four years younger than that dude on the Buccaneers, but he also has a child who’s only five years younger than Kyler Murray (just saying). Indianapolis had a chance to take a young quarterback with the no. 13 pick in the 2020 draft, but elected to flip it to San Francisco instead for defensive tackle and general havoc-wreaker DeForest Buckner, adding an anchor up front to a stout defense that already features Darius Leonard and Justin Houston. While the Colts were drafting too low to snag one of this year’s top quarterback prospects like LSU’s Joe Burrow or Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, there was a chance someone like Oregon’s Justin Herbert or Utah State’s Jordan Love would have been available at no. 13. Ballard ultimately decided that adding Rivers under center and Buckner on defense was a better move for a team built to win now.
Despite making an abundance of sense on paper, Rivers strangely feels like a bit of a settle for the Colts, who had the cap room and draft picks to land a long-term quarterback this offseason. Rivers will be reuniting with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, both of whom worked with Rivers in San Diego, giving the offensive brain trust plenty of continuity. But he also only presses the snooze button for what could turn into a recurring nightmare for Ballard. Having to find a quarterback every offseason isn’t for the faint of heart. And not every offseason features as many available candidates as this year, whether in the draft, free agency, or via trade.
The Colts are intimately familiar with Rivers’s ceiling; Reich and Sirianni witnessed his prime from the sidelines. There’s little chance that a quarterback who’s turning 39 this December will have a career year, but there’s a good chance Rivers will rebound playing behind the best offensive line of his career and with a host of young weapons like wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and running back Marlon Mack. With a system he knows and familiar voices in his ear, Rivers should improve on last season’s numbers (23 TDs, 20 INTs, 4,615 yards on 66.0 percent completion percentage). Those numbers don’t jump off the page—the interceptions are particularly worrisome—but they would bring some pop to an offense that ranked third to last in passing yards per game last season.
The Colts could still go out and draft a young quarterback next month. With two second-round picks (34th and 44th overall), Ballard could select a sleeper to pair with Rivers or possibly scoop up a big name that falls to him. But with Brissett also under contract for next season, the Colts may roll with the veteran duo and just plan on addressing their long-term quarterback situation next season.
Ballard already lived out every GM’s fantasy: having a once-in-a-generation quarterback on his roster. Chances are, cruel as they may be, he realizes the odds are against it ever happening again. By signing Rivers, Ballard and the Colts are making an admission. They’re betting the rest of their team is Super Bowl–caliber and that they need only a slight upgrade at quarterback to get over the top. Rather than roll the dice in the draft, Ballard made it clear he doesn’t think he needs Luck to win a Super Bowl—just a bolo.