Last January, Colts GM Chris Ballard was asked about selecting a quarterback in the 2021 NFL draft.
“Taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit,” Ballard told reporters. “But the second that guy doesn’t play well, I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building. … The difference between just taking one and taking the right one is the key in our minds.
“I promise you, that position never leaves my mind.”
Within the next month, the Colts traded for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and the Rams traded for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Both teams hoped that their new QBs would be the cherry on top of their Super Bowl Sunday. A year later, the Rams are indeed Super Bowl champions, but the Colts are getting their just desserts.
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported last week that the Colts might cut or trade Wentz before March 18 to save the team $13 million—not to mention saving their fans the headache of watching Wentz for another season.
“Right now, it looks bleak [for Wentz returning],” Mortensen said. “So, for Carson Wentz and the Colts, it looks like it was a one-year marriage that went wrong.”
Getting rid of Wentz would be the mouthwash to cover up the disgusting aftertaste of this past season. With two games remaining in the regular season, the Colts had a 97 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight. But they lost both games, finishing 9-8 and missing out on the final AFC wild-card spot.
Even entering Week 18, all Indianapolis needed to do to make the postseason was beat the lowly Jaguars. But Wentz melted like a snow cone in molten lava, turning the ball over twice, taking six sacks, and earning an ESPN quarterback rating of 4.3 (out of 100). The Colts lost to the Jaguars by 15 points in a game Indy was favored to win by 14. Colts owner Jim Irsay described the collapse as “an epic shortfall that stunned and shocked and appalled us all.”
Not only did the Colts miss the playoffs, but Philadelphia made the playoffs and collected the Colts’ first-round pick in this year’s draft. The Colts dealt those picks for Wentz to be their savior. Instead, he might be their scapegoat.
If the team does get rid of Wentz, it’ll be looking for its fifth starting quarterback in the past five seasons. Amid the chaotic circumstances of Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement in 2019, the team has churned through quarterbacks like Hollywood has gone through Spider-Man leads: Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Wentz, and now perhaps another quarterback in 2022. (Maybe the Colts should sign Tom Holland.)
Without a legit quarterback, Indy’s excellent roster will wither on the vine. The Colts had a league-leading seven Pro Bowlers this season and have the bones of a Super Bowl team. Jonathan Taylor might be the league’s best running back. Receiver Michael Pittman Jr. is a prime breakout candidate entering this year. Their offensive line is one of the best in the league, including All-Pro Quenton Nelson at left guard and Braden Smith at right tackle. On defense, inside linebacker Darius Leonard, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, and cornerback Kenny Moore II are fantastic anchors at each level of the defense. Ironically, this is the exact inverse of the problem this team had for most of the last decade. In Luck’s formative years, the Colts had an elite quarterback held down by a bad roster. Now they have an elite roster but cannot fill the quarterback position.
That makes the Colts quite similar to the 2019 Buccaneers or 2020 Rams. Each of those teams made big upgrades at quarterback and won Super Bowls. Indy should be sniffing around the league to see how it can get a Stafford-esque impact quarterback, but the reality is it will be much harder for the Colts to upgrade because Wentz was the upgrade—and it didn’t work. Quarterbacks are like phones: Once you get an upgrade, you don’t expect to have to upgrade again one year later. And if you do, it’s going to come at a big cost.
Thanks to the Wentz trade, Indy doesn’t have a first-rounder in this year’s draft. That makes it harder to draft a quarterback or trade for a veteran. Forget Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson. At best, the Colts’ QB options include trading for Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, or San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo. But Wentz’s sin this season was wilting in big moments, and it’s not like any of those three quarterbacks are known for their clutchness. The free-agency market looks even worse. Jameis Winston or Cam Newton will hardly deliver the consistency the Colts seek. Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota aren’t the guys for a team seeking a Super Bowl. The Colts might be right where the Eagles were: stuck with Wentz.
Perhaps that scenario is not as dire as it seems. For all the criticism, Wentz threw 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last season. He had the second-fewest turnovers in his career despite playing 17 games. And while two of his worst performances all season came in the final two weeks of the season—the two losses that eliminated Indy from the postseason—those games were immediately after Wentz tested positive for COVID-19. Could the emotional disappointment of such a stunning collapse cloud the fact that Wentz may have made real improvements this season?
While the numbers tell one story, everyone who watched the Colts play this season knows what they saw. Wentz’s numbers do not do justice to how infuriating and confounding his play can be—something that Eagles fans learned well and Colts fans figured out quickly. After a 1-4 start, it became clear that Wentz was not going to run head coach Frank Reich’s offense effectively, so the team leaned on the running game and Taylor, who averaged more than 120 rushing yards and more than a touchdown per game from Week 6 on. Taylor’s ridiculous success hid how limited Wentz was as a passer. Even in Wentz’s shrunken role, he maintained his knack for inexplicably bad decisions. Against the Titans on Halloween, Wentz gave perhaps the most horrifying play of his entire career: a left-handed pick-six while trying to avoid a safety. Somehow the play looks worse than it sounds.
When that game went to overtime, Wentz launched a ball into triple coverage for an interception that effectively ended the game.
In January, Ballard implored Wentz to “make the layups.” That’s a polite way of saying “take the freaking checkdown sometimes, dude.” Almost every NFL quarterback must learn this the hard way. College quarterbacks often succeed by making aggressive throws, but those same throws lead to mistakes in the NFL. Successful pro quarterbacks learn how to tone down their aggressiveness enough to limit turnovers, but not enough to lose who they are.
Wentz has never found that balance. At 29 years old, he still suffers from Big Man on Campus Syndrome. Playing high school football in North Dakota and then quarterbacking FCS school North Dakota State, Wentz was always the best player on the field. He could win playing hero ball. When he got to the NFL, he was immediately successful. As the Eagles starter, Wentz nearly won the MVP in 2017 largely because he was enormously successful at extending plays and making magic happen on third down. Wentz tore his ACL that season, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles, and Wentz has never been the same.
Rather than being humbled by the NFL, Wentz’s hero-ball instincts were reinforced. He’s the guy at the gym who made five 3-pointers in his first pick-up basketball game and now just jacks up terrible shots instead of going to the rim. This instinct got even worse as the Eagles faced a ludicrous number of injuries to their offensive line and receiving corps for two straight years in 2019 and 2020. With all the injuries, Wentz’s hero ball seemed like Philadelphia’s best (or only) strategy. But it also might have broken him.
In Wentz’s final season with the Eagles in 2020, he ended up tying for the league lead in interceptions (15) and leading the league in sacks (50) despite playing just 12 games. After accounting for sacks, interceptions, and touchdowns, Wentz’s average pass gained less than 4 yards—dead last in the NFL among starters, behind benched Washington starter Dwayne Haskins. And despite all the injuries around him, you’d be hard-pressed to find Eagles fans willing to defend him. Every time Wentz needs to do less, he does more. As my colleague Kevin Clark has said, Carson Wentz loves to say, “It’s Carson Wentz time.”
The Colts made the bet that they could fix Wentz’s broken instincts. Reich, Indy’s head coach, was Wentz’s offensive coordinator in Philadelphia during that 2017 season when Wentz was at his best. Ballard bet that Reich could help Wentz regain his form—as well as Wentz’s confidence—based on their past success and strong bond over their Christian faith. But if it doesn’t work for Wentz as the starter in Indy, it might not work for him anywhere. If Reich doesn’t have the stomach for more Carson Wentz time, who will?
Even if the Colts and Ballard do move on to a new quarterback—be it Garoppolo, Cousins, a free agent, or a rookie quarterback—that doesn’t mean the quarterback position is going to leave Ballard’s mind. As more teams become intrigued by L.A.’s strategy of adding a quarterback as the last ingredient to a Super Bowl team like a cherry on top of a sundae, they’d be wise to remember how Indy’s season ended on the regular season’s final Sunday. If you’re going to get someone, make sure they are the right one.