Recapping the 2019 Colts: Quarterback

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 22: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts passes the ball in the third quarter of the game against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,” Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.”

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.”

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to improve. We’ve got to evaluate everything we’re doing within our program and we’ve got to find the answers.”

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Quarterbacks.

  • Starter: Jacoby Brissett.
  • Backups: Brian Hoyer, Chad Kelly.

The good: For seven weeks, Brissett was more than good enough. Remember the 5-2 record? The 99.7 passer rating? The 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio? The 64.8 percent completion rate? However, those efficiency-related stats clouded over a lingering issue. Generally, Brissett wasn’t being aggressive enough. He wasn’t pushing the football down the field. He was averaging a pedestrian 6.99 yards per attempt and 10.8 yards per completion.

“There was a lot of good stuff,” Reich said. “Does he need to get better? Yeah, he needs to get better . . . I need to get better, Quenton (Nelson) needs to get better, everybody needs to get better.”

Everything changed – for the worse – Nov. 3 in Pittsburgh. In the second quarter, Brissett sprained the MCL in his left knee when Cam Heyward pushed Nelson onto him. The sprained knee forced Brissett from the game – a 26-24 setback when Adam Vinatieri shanked a game-winning 43-yard field-goal attempt – and kept him out the following week in the stunning home loss to Miami.

For so long, there was little concern that Brissett couldn’t handle the pressure of replacing Andrew Luck. The Colts were atop the AFC South and poised for a push for a high playoff seeding.

Then, not so much.

“It’s almost like a tale of two seasons,” Ballard said. “At one point, the world is talking about him as an MVP. And then the next moment, they’re talking about wanting to run the kid out of town. I mean, it’s never as good as it seems and never as bad as it seems.”

The bad: And it seemed bad – was bad – after Brissett returned to the huddle. It’s risky to focus on raw numbers, but over the final seven weeks, he wasn’t good enough by any standard. He completed 56.4 percent of his passes and averaged just 185.3 passing yards per game. He had four TDs, three interceptions. His passer rating over that stretch was an unacceptable 75.1.

More concerning than the numbers, though, was the manner with which they were amassed. Brissett remained an indecisive QB – he never seems to trust his first instinct – but his accuracy was a mess. He was wild high, wild low, just wild. He completed less than 53 percent of his passes in each of the last four games, including a career-low 48 percent in the closing 38-20 blowout loss at Jacksonville.

Brissett never used the sprained knee as an excuse and initially Reich downplayed its possible impact on his QB’s declining performance. Finally, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and position coach Marcus Brady admitted the injury adversely affected Brissett’s throwing mechanics.

“That’s tough,” Ballard admitted. “You still gotta be able to still produce when you’re not 100 percent. Do I think it affected him some for a couple of weeks? Yes, I do. Long-term did it affect some of his mechanical issues? Maybe. Did he fall back into some old habits?

“He knows he’s got some things to work on this offseason. But you still have to be able to produce at the end of the day.”

And for his part, Brissett too often failed to do that.

The offseason: It’s not hyperbole to suggest this is a franchise-shaping offseason for Ballard, Reich and their support staffs. We make the argument the Colts aren’t that far away. Of course, there are areas that must be addressed: wideout, tight end, defensive line, cornerback. But let’s not dismiss the fact they beat three of the AFC’s Final 4 – Kansas City, Tennessee and Houston – and two came on the road.

The Colts were unable to come out of their death spiral because they were unable to make those handful of plays each game over the final two months. At the risk of over-simplifying things – special teams was a season-long concern – Jacoby Brissett was unable to make those handful of plays when the situation warranted.

Unfair? Perhaps. But the NFL is an unforgiving business, as is playing QB.

Two comments from Ballard tell us everything we need to know about where the Colts stand regarding Brissett.

Right now, yes, Jacoby Brissett is our starting quarterback.

And.

The jury is still out.

Hoyer isn’t the answer. Neither is Kelly.

It’s possible Ballard and Reich believe another offseason of work will make a major difference with Brissett. He’s 27, but has been a starter only two seasons. Can they make him more decisive with his reads and get him to trust his instincts? The lack of explosive plays was a season-long problem. Ballard referred to it as Brissett’s “check-down versus touchdown mentality.”

It’s worth reminding everyone Ballard signed Brissett to a one-year extension – worth roughly $30 million through 2020 – for the express purpose of giving the Colts enough time to determine what they had.

If they already have decided an upgrade is required, the options include a trade or free agency (neither is likely) or the NFL draft (very likely). The Colts hold the 13th overall pick and three of the top 44, so Ballard has sufficient ammunition if he opts to move up a few rungs to grab a QB not named Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa or perhaps Justin Herbert.

Ballard insisted he always evaluates the quarterback class, even when that’s not a pressing need. But he quickly added “one of the biggest mistakes teams make is they force it. You can’t force the evaluation of a quarterback. Can’t do it.

“We’re going to continue to evaluate the position. We would’ve done this no matter who the quarterback was. And if we felt like we found the guy we liked, who was a good fit for the Colts, we would’ve taken him, and we’ll do the same thing moving forward.”

The depth of the Colts’ commitment and trust in Jacoby Brissett will be revealed in how soon they select a quarterback in the April draft.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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