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The Colts Are Running Out of Time to Get the Quarterback Position Right

After trading away Carson Wentz, Indianapolis will have its fifth starting quarterback in as many seasons. A failure to get aggressive under center is costing a talented roster its Super Bowl window.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s January 14, and Colts general manager Chris Ballard is speaking to beat reporters at his end-of-season press conference. Once again, a reporter has asked him whether the team might draft a quarterback in the first round. Ballard, ever the honest and thoughtful speaker, gives this answer:

“All of you go back and look at first-round quarterbacks drafted over the last 10 years. It is not an exact—I mean, everybody just thinks you take one and you’re gonna fix the problem.”

Ballard is right! Of the 30 quarterbacks selected in the first round from 2010 to 2019, 18 had a losing record through their first three seasons of starting.

Winning Percentages for First-Round QBs, 2010-19

QB Draft Pick Number Wins Losses Starts Winning Percentage
QB Draft Pick Number Wins Losses Starts Winning Percentage
Lamar Jackson 2018 32 30 7 37 81.1%
Patrick Mahomes 2017 10 24 7 31 77.4%
Andrew Luck 2012 1 33 15 48 68.8%
Josh Allen 2018 7 28 15 43 65.1%
Deshaun Watson 2017 12 24 13 37 64.9%
Jared Goff 2016 1 24 14 38 63.2%
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 32 17 11 28 60.7%
Carson Wentz 2016 2 23 17 40 57.5%
Tim Tebow 2010 25 8 6 14 57.1%
Mitchell Trubisky 2017 2 23 18 41 56.1%
Cam Newton 2011 1 25 23 48 52.1%
Baker Mayfield 2018 1 23 22 45 51.1%
Kyler Murray 2019 1 22 23 45 48.9%
Ryan Tannehill 2012 8 23 25 48 47.9%
Marcus Mariota 2015 2 20 22 42 47.6%
Jake Locker 2011 8 8 10 18 44.4%
Christan Ponder 2011 12 14 20 34 41.2%
Robert Griffin III 2012 2 14 21 35 40.0%
Jameis Winston 2015 1 18 27 45 40.0%
EJ Manuel 2013 16 6 10 16 37.5%
Sam Bradford 2010 1 15 26 41 36.6%
Sam Darnold 2018 3 13 25 38 34.2%
Daniel Jones 2019 6 8 18 26 30.8%
Brandon Weeden 2012 22 5 15 20 25.0%
Johnny Manziel 2014 22 2 6 8 25.0%
Paxton Lynch 2016 26 1 3 4 25.0%
Blake Bortles 2014 3 11 34 45 24.4%
Dwayne Haskins 2019 15 3 10 13 23.1%
Josh Rosen 2018 10 3 13 16 18.8%
Blaine Gabbert 2011 10 5 22 27 18.5%

Some of those guys with losing records turned out OK. Ryan Tannehill began 23-25 as a starter but revitalized his career with the Titans; Kyler Murray is 22-23-1 right now, but we’d all agree he’s at least decent. And some of the early-season success stories fade down the stretch: Tim Tebow, Mitchell Trubisky, and Jared Goff were all early-career winners. In general, though, this gives us a good rough estimate of a team’s chance at getting a franchise passer in the first round of the draft; two out of every three first-round quarterbacks miss.

So Ballard preaches caution when addressing the quarterback position in the first round. “Taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit. But the second that guy doesn’t play well? I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building.”

We can look at that assertion, too! Eighteen quarterbacks from that sample started their careers with losing records through three seasons. Of the 18 general managers who made those picks, 12 lost their jobs within three seasons.

General Manager Outcomes for Losing First-Round QBs, 2010-19

QB Draft Pick Number GM Starts Winning Percentage GM Result
QB Draft Pick Number GM Starts Winning Percentage GM Result
Sam Bradford 2010 1 Billy Devaney 41 36.59% Fired after Y2
Jake Locker 2011 8 Mike Reinfeldt 18 44.44% Fired after Y1
Blaine Gabbert 2011 10 Gene Smith 27 18.52% Fired after Y2
Christan Ponder 2011 12 Rick Spielman 34 41.18% Employed thru Y10
Brandon Weeden 2012 22 Tom Heckert 20 25.00% Fired after Y1
Robert Griffin III 2012 2 Mike Shanahan 35 40.00% Fired after Y2
Ryan Tannehill 2012 8 Jeff Ireland 48 47.92% Fired after Y2
EJ Manuel 2013 16 Doug Whaley 16 37.50% Employed thru Y4
Johnny Manziel 2014 22 Ray Farmer 8 25.00% Fired after Y2
Blake Bortles 2014 3 Dave Caldwell 45 24.44% Fired after Y3 (Coughlin took over Football ops)
Marcus Mariota 2015 2 Ruston Webster 42 47.62% Fired after Y1
Jameis Winston 2015 1 Jason Licht 45 40.00% Still Employed
Paxton Lynch 2016 26 John Elway 4 25.00% Employed thru Y5
Sam Darnold 2018 3 Mike McCagnan 38 34.21% Fired after Y1
Josh Rosen 2018 10 Steve Keim 16 18.75% Still Employed
Dwayne Haskins 2019 15 Bruce Allen 13 23.08% Fired after Y1
Daniel Jones 2019 6 Dave Gettleman 26 30.77% Fired after Y3
Kyler Murray 2019 1 Steve Keim 45 48.89% Still Employed

Wildly enough, of the six who survived, we see some repeat winners. Rick Spielman had two chances with Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater, and still had enough clout to sign Kirk Cousins; Steve Keim immediately corrected his Josh Rosen mistake with Murray. Ballard’s argument is sound, surely—but there are also counterexamples in recent NFL history.

Either way, while Ballard’s argument itself is important, what matters a lot more is when he made this statement. This wasn’t January 14, 2022. It was 2021.

Last offseason, there was mounting pressure on Ballard to fix the Colts’ quarterback position. Indianapolis had seen four different starters in his first four seasons—Jacoby Brissett in 2017, Andrew Luck in 2018, Brissett again in 2019, and Philip Rivers in 2020—and while riding that carousel, Ballard had built a strong playoff roster in the competitive AFC. It felt like the Colts’ title window was open, especially with looming mega-extensions on the horizon for linebacker Darius Leonard and guard Quenton Nelson, two crowning jewels of Ballard’s strong draft classes.

But Ballard didn’t want to risk it all on a rookie quarterback. If he didn’t hit—and as noted above, the odds are that he wouldn’t—then Ballard would be run out of town.

So he and the Colts swung on Carson Wentz, believing that the struggling Eagles passer could rehabilitate his body and mindset. The idea was that in Indianapolis, where he’d be far from the vitriol of a fiery Philadelphia fan base, have time to fully recover from a nagging back issue, and be familiar with head coach Frank Reich’s offense, Wentz could return to his former self.

To be fair, Ballard wasn’t Indy’s big believer in Wentz. Reich was. In fact, Reich had been a driving influence in the last two quarterback acquisitions for Indianapolis, as the Colts had last snagged Rivers from the Chargers, where Reich had been his coach for three seasons. But Reich “stuck his neck out” for Wentz, as he admitted at the NFL combine last week, and was a “big part of the decision” to bring him to Indianapolis.

Wentz’s comfort with Reich and the Colts’ scheme produced decent enough results at first. Wentz had some strong games this year, pulled his turnover and sack numbers down, and had the Colts positioned for a playoff berth with two games remaining. The Week 17 loss to the Raiders on a last-second field goal was tough to swallow; the six-sack, two-turnover, 15-point loss to the 2-14 Jaguars in a win-and-in Week 18 game was even tougher.

But it wasn’t the play on the field that got Wentz traded away to the Washington Commanders on Wednesday; it’s how he handled it. The Athletic reported that Reich apologized to owner Jim Irsay for his insistence on acquiring Wentz, as the quarterback lacked whatever mental toughness or media skills the Colts’ brass believed a franchise quarterback required. “[Quarterback] is the most scrutinized position in sports,” Ballard said at the NFL combine. “I think learning to handle the criticism … if the criticism’s fair, we’ve gotta be able to look at that internally and accept that and grow from that.” Irsay said in a video he posted to his personal Twitter, “We have allowed—and I have allowed—doubt, fear, and a lack of faith to slip into our DNA, and it will not stand.”

Wentz’s failure in Indianapolis mirrors a common NFL draft problem: Teams’ inability to understand exactly how a player ticks or how he’ll respond to criticism. Front offices send their scouts out on weeks-long road trips, during which they ask the strength coaches, the professors, the stadium workers, the teammates: What’s this guy like? Before they commit to a franchise quarterback, they want to get as much color on his personality and background as they can. Yet teams still often fail to paint that picture, which is one of the draft’s many pitfalls.

So Ballard and the Colts sidestep the draft—but in favor of what alternative? The Colts missed on Wentz for non-football reasons, just as they might have missed on a first-round quarterback in last year’s draft for non-football reasons. The same pitfalls that exist in the draft can exist in the veteran market, as well.

And the same potential payoff that exists in the draft? The acquisition of a franchise quarterback? It can exist in the veteran market as well. But the Colts have been unwilling to take big swings in that market as well. NFL Network’s Peter Schrager reported earlier this week that Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was publicly on the trade market last year while still a Lion, was willing to go to Indianapolis.

“Was last year the year to be aggressive?” Schrager asked. It certainly was a year that could have rewarded aggressiveness—both in the Stafford market and in the NFL draft, where five quarterbacks went among the first 15 picks. This year, the veteran market had yet another gem—longtime Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who landed with the Broncos after reportedly rebuffing the Commanders and Eagles. Seattle seemingly wanted to take an offer that would send Wilson out of conference, which made Denver a natural landing spot. So far, we haven’t heard any rumors that the Colts made a move for Wilson. Now, they’re left with the dregs of the veteran market, which 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo currently headlines, or the 2022 NFL draft, in which they don’t have a first-round pick because they traded it for Wentz.

But it’s not just that 2021 was the year to be aggressive—it’s that every year is the year to be aggressive. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and in a hypercompetitive league in which winning championships essentially necessitates quality quarterback play, Ballard and the Colts have been far more focused on the fragility of their eggs than the tastiness of their omelet. Taking a rookie quarterback who doesn’t play well may get Ballard run out of the building—but refusing to ever take that leap will get him run out of the same building as well, just a little bit slower and with a few more mediocre seasons to cushion the fall.

Ballard and the Colts are poised to exercise caution at quarterback once again. Garoppolo makes a ton of sense for a team whose veteran quarterback couldn’t handle drama and criticism—he has been at the center of drama and criticism for years, has always been loved by the San Francisco locker room, and has multiple bounceback performances on his résumé. He also has postseason experience and success, which the Colts need desperately. In Ballard’s five seasons at the helm, Indianapolis has one playoff win, and it was in the 2018 season.

So the Colts may send a day two pick for Garoppolo, and run on that treadmill for another season. But that likely means that, come 2023, they’ll be looking at their sixth starting quarterback in six years. Leonard, who already has his mega-extension, will be a year older; Nelson, who still needs to fully recover from a foot injury that hampered his 2021 play, will also command a big contract. Don’t look now, but the Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor extensions aren’t far down the road, either.

The longer that Ballard and the Colts wait, the more aggressive they’ll have to be with that eventual swing at a star quarterback. The next time a truly great veteran quarterback becomes available, the future must be mortgaged; the next time the Colts’ first-round pick is within range of a potential star, the swing must be taken. Hitching your wagon to the wrong horse can get you fired, yes—but if no horse is ever selected, the wagon never goes anywhere.