INDIANAPOLIS – It took time for the franchise quarterback to realize punting wasn’t always a bad option. He spent his first several seasons coming to grips with that inner debate that rages inside every quarterback.
During the first five seasons of Peyton Manning’s Hall of Fame career, there were 138 touchdown passes, including an NFL-high 33 in 2000, but there also were 100 interceptions. His 28 in 1998 remain a league record for a rookie, and he endured 23 in ’01 that included a ridiculous six returned for touchdowns.
But then, clarity.
Over the next four seasons, Manning delivered 137 TDs while suffering just 39 interceptions. Consider his interception total from 2003-06: 10, 10, 10, 9. Credit Manning for maturing as a player and decision maker and heeding the advice of coach Tony Dungy and position coach Jim Caldwell.
Remain aggressive, they urged, but understand sometimes the defense wins and occasionally a punt isn’t such a bad thing.
Risk vs. reward.
When does the situation demand aggression and when is caution the better option? It’s a difficult balancing act that requires constant attention and severely punishes every misstep.
Carson Wentz smiled when he considered that fine line quarterbacks must navigate.
“Still been walking that one out my whole career trying every day to figure out how to toe the line of being aggressive, trying to be a playmaker, trying to make things happen, but being smart,’’ he said Wednesday.
His next step on that journey comes Sunday when he makes his debut as the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive catalyst against the Seattle Seahawks in Lucas Oil Stadium.
There are a number of intriguing storylines heading into the opener: the veracity of the Jonathan Taylor-led running game, the viability of the injury-impacted offensive line, whether the DeForest Buckner/Darius Leonard-led defense will be one of the NFL’s best, whether the Colts are able to win their first opener since 2013.
But all pale when stacked up against the second phase of Carson Wentz’s NFL journey.
Can he do his job, and resist the urge to do too much? Will he trust that running game and offensive line and defense?
Can he put his error-plagued 2020 behind him? The 15 interceptions and 50 sacks, both career- and league-highs even though he was benched for the final four games of the Philadelphia Eagles’ disastrous season? He also fumbled 10 times, losing four.
No sooner had general manager Chris Ballard finalized the trade with the Eagles in February that reunited Reich and Wentz than Reich began stressing the absolute need for Wentz to trust the supporting cast that would surround him.
In fact, those discussions took place in 2016-17 when Reich was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator and Wentz their starting quarterback.
“It’s something we’re always talking about and discussing. Coaches are always reminding me and all those things,’’ Wentz said. “So, it’s a healthy balance, a healthy conversation every time.’’
Do your job, Reich stresses, no more.
Just be the quarterback of this team.
Believe in the quality of the team around you.
Don’t try to do too much.
That topic has been revisited frequently.
“I don’t think you assume anything,’’ Reich said Wednesday. “I think you stress it, especially with a guy like Carson. He’s got a super-aggressive mindset and he’s capable of making plays down the field with his feet, in a lot of different ways.
“But the good thing about Carson is he’s not just a big, physical specimen who can do all that stuff. He has a really sharp mind, so we can run the offense with rhythm and timing. That’s really what we want to focus on and let that big-time stuff that he is physically capable of doing, we’ll have plenty of time for that to show up.’’
Again, it’s that risk vs. reward debate that must be handled correctly. There’s a time and place for squeezing a pass into tight coverage. And there’s a time to check it down, throw it away or absorb a sack.
“And that’s a fine line,’’ Reich agreed. “That’s what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Only he can pull that trigger.
“We talk about two sides to the same coin. On one side is your instincts and your ability, so we want you to use that. But on the other side of the same coin is discipline. We want you to run the offense, stick with the plan, but that would be foolish just to say, ‘We’re going to be so hyper-disciplined we’re not going to allow you to do what you can do.’’’
It’s easy for Wentz’s 2020 to completely overshadow what came before it. In the three previous seasons, there were just 21 interceptions – seven each season – and 81 touchdowns.
Ask any offensive play caller and a 2.5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is considered a very good year for a quarterback; 3:1 enters the great neighborhood.
For his career, Wentz is at 2.26:1 (113 touchdowns, 50 interceptions). We’re not talking about Jameis Winston.
Wentz’s 2.1% interception rate, by the way, is the 8th-lowest in NFL history. It’s just behind Russell Wilson (1.9%), Derek Carr (1.9%) and Tom Brady (1.8%).
Manning carried a 2.7% into retirement, with Philip Rivers at 2.6% and Andrew Luck at 2.5%.
Even so, there’s always work to be done.
“It’s really every week you kind of look yourself in the mirror, watch the tape and say, ‘Where (could) I have done better? Where should I have been more aggressive?’’’ Wentz said. “It’s a fluid process of learning and always trying to get better with it.
“Every game you walk away you’re like, ‘Yeah, that was probably dumb. Probably should have canned that one or got rid of that one.’ Other times it’s a play that could have been there. So, it’s a balancing act. It’s toeing the line and it’s never going to be perfect.
“I’m going to be toeing the line my entire career. There’s going to be times it works out, there’s going to be times I have to kick myself and move on. I’ll be toeing that line my whole career, but hopefully there’s a lot more big plays and positive things that come from it.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.