Until Andrew Luck returns, Colts put trust in Scott Tolzien

Scott Tolzien

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In the quarterback-driven NFL, a bit of quarterback-related history will be made Sunday in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

It’s the Scott Tolzien-led Indianapolis Colts versus the Jared Goff-led Rams.

It’s the first time since the 1970 merger a season-opener has featured starting QBs who had previously started a game but have yet to notch a victory, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Tolzien, standing in for the rehabbing Andrew Luck, is 0-2-1. Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is 0-7. Sit back and enjoy.

Goff has endured on-the-job training since the Rams benched veteran Case Keenum midway through last season. The early returns on their franchise QB were tepid: 54.6 completion rate, 161 passing yards in five of seven starts, five touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 63.6 passer rating.

Yet it’s Goff, 22, who has the edge in on-field experience over Tolzien, who turned 30 Monday. He’s attempted (205-128) and completed (112-79) more passes for more yards (1,089-937) and TDs (5-2) than Tolzien.

Resumes aside, the Colts have put their trust in Tolzien to keep their season relevant until Luck is back under center. And since Luck remains in “training phase’’– general manager Chris Ballard’s description – on his return from January surgery on his right shoulder, it’s conceivable he could miss the bulk of September.

So, it’s Tolzien’s offense. For now. Until Luck returns. Or until Tolizen proves he’s not the man for the job and gives way to recently-acquired backup Jacoby Brissett.

Any QB competition won’t begin in earnest until Brissett, in his second season and 1-1 as a rookie starter, absorbs enough of the playbook.

“That’s why we brought him here,’’ Chuck Pagano said of Brissett. “He’s no different than anybody else. He’s going to have an opportunity to compete.’’ However, he quickly added, “Scott is the starter. Again, he’s got to produce.
“Everybody’s got to produce.’’

That begins against the Rams.

The Colts have tempted fate – and the odds – by opening the past three seasons 0-2. The last two contributed to them missing the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.

In an interview with Colts.com, Tolzien said it’s “an honor’’ to get the starting nod against the Rams, adding “at the same time, you’ve got to approach it as the starter all the time, no matter where you are on the depth chart. “We’ve all got to step up, myself included. It’s the greatest team sport in the world. It takes all 11 guys to be on task, and a lot of preparation goes into that. And that’s why this week, leading up to the game, is so important.’’

No one should expect Tolzien to suddenly morph from game-manager to game-breaker. An argument can be made the Colts opted to retain Tolzien over fan-favorite Stephen Morris because he was the safer option; less likely to make a mistake in a critical situation.

“That was a very difficult decision,’’ Ballard said, “but at the end of the day, Scott was more consistent over time and that’s why we made the decision.’’

During the preseason, the offense was livelier with Morris at the controls. Tolzien, meanwhile, directed 12 drives that included one touchdown, two field goals and seven punts.

Yet in Tolzien, the Colts trust.

“He’s smart, he understands the system, he’s got arm talent, he’s tough, he’s gritty, he’s a competitor, he’ll bounce back after a bad play,’’ Pagano said. “He’s going to manage the game.’’

Pagano conceded offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski took a conservative approach with Tolzien during the preseason. He averaged a modest 10.5 yards per completion, and that was inflated by three “chunk” plays: a 55-yard catch-and-run to Donte Moncrief, a 25-yarder to Kamar Aiken and a 20-yarder to Brandon Williams.

Most of the time, the Colts dinked-and-dunked with Tolzien, which might be an issue moving forward.

With Luck, it’s a vertical offense, one of the NFL’s most prolific going down the field. T.Y. Hilton led the league a year ago with 16 receptions that gained at least 25 yards. His 17 25-plus-yarders in 2014 also were a league-best.
While it’s no surprise the offense lacks its usual vibrancy without Luck, the numbers nonetheless are dramatic. Consider:

  • With Luck in 70 regular-season games, the Colts have averaged 368.95 total yards, 281.1 passing yards and 25.5 points. The offense has averaged 5.5 yards per play, 7.19 yards per pass attempt and 12.15 yards per completion.
  • In the 10 games without Luck, the averages dip to 291.8 yards per game, 212.7 passing yards and 18.3 points. The offense has averaged 4.6 yards per play, 5.8 yards per pass attempt and 9.8 yards per completion.
    Tolzien’s only start with the Colts came last season on Thanksgiving Night against Pittsburgh while Luck dealt with a concussion. He finished with 205 passing yards and one touchdown, and suffered two second-half interceptions when the Colts were in catch-up mode. But the offense averaged 4.9 yards per play and Tolzien a meager 5.7 yards per attempt. Red-zone failures – two drives stalled at the Steelers’ 1-yard line – contributed to a 28-7 loss.

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