Chappell: Colts’ search for upgrade at quarterback could include Philip Rivers

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KANSAS CITY, MO – DECEMBER 29: Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers ran off the field following the 31-21 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Everyone said it was Tom Brady.

Everyone was wrong.

Now, everyone’s saying it’s Philip Rivers.

That’s the latest episode of:

Which Veteran/Aging Free Agent Quarterback Will Relocate to Indy and Lift the Quarterback-Needy Colts to the Playoffs and Beyond?

It wasn’t that long ago the starring role was reserved for Tom Brady. The six-time Super Bowl-winning QB with the New England Patriots can test his worth on the NFL’s free-agent market for the first time in mid-March, and oddsmakers listed Indy among the possible landing places.

DraftKings Sportsbook ranked the Colts behind only the Los Angeles Chargers if – and it remains a massive if – Brady opts to part ways with the Patriots and prove he can win more Lombardis without Bill Belichick.

But another week, and here we are.

Move aside Tom, make way for Philip Rivers.

Speculation gave way to reality Monday when the Chargers and Rivers announced they had agreed to part ways after 16 seasons.

“It became apparent that it would be best for Philip and the Chargers to turn the page on what has been a truly remarkable run,’’ general manager Tom Telesco said.

Added Rivers: “I’m not sure what the future holds, but my family and I look forward to seeing what God has planned for us next.’’

More than a few NFL-types at the national level were quick to link Rivers to the Colts, if he decided to play for a 17th season.

And in an interview with Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, Rivers made it clear he’s not ready to walk away.

“I do feel I have some emotional fire and passion still left,’’ he said. “And I think I have the ability left to play at a high level.

“Some people might disagree that I can still play. But I would say I definitely can do it. I can still do it physically.’’

Rivers wants to play for a contender and insisted if he can lock onto a viable team, it would be a two-year arrangement.

“I can say for certain that if I’m playing, it’s a two-year maximum,’’ Rivers told Farmer. “Whoever the suitors are, I think that would be their hope as well. Because you never know how it goes. Shoot, if we stink it up after one year, I’m probably done. If we play really good, they’ll probably want to go again.’’

In many cases, free agency is about connecting the dots.

When it came to Tom Brady possibly relocating to Indy, the history between the two seemed a bridge too far. We won’t bore you with a refresher course, but it includes inflated footballs, a suspension and so much more.

With Rivers, the dots leading from the Chargers to the Colts are impossible to ignore. In 2013, Frank Reich was his position coach. In 2014-15, Reich was the Chargers offensive coordinator. Nick Sirianni was on the Chargers staff from 2013-17, and was hands-on with Rivers as quarterbacks coach from 2014-15.

Also, Reich holds Rivers in high regard.

“Philip is an elite quarterback in this league,’’ he said prior to the Colts facing the Rivers-led Chargers in the season opener. “He has proven that year-in and year-out. He is a tough competitor. He is everything you want in a quarterback.

“He is elite – elite accuracy, elite toughness, playmaking.’’

So as the Colts are looking for an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett – they’ve made no secret of that – perhaps it’s Philip Rivers. It wouldn’t take him long to get comfortable with Reich’s offense. He’s more than receptive to pushing the football down the field – that’s one of Brissett’s main shortcomings – which would add the much-needed pop to the passing game.

Since we’re dealing with Rivers’ positives, he’s averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and 12.1 yards per completion over his 224-game career. He’s a 64.7 career passer, has thrown for at least 4,000 yards 11 times, including seven straight and tossed at least 20 touchdowns in his 14 seasons as a starter.

Durable? He’s started 224 straight games since settling under center in 2006.

Those are the stats that jump out, that might convince some Rivers is the answer to the Colts’ overriding offseason concern.

But making such a seismic shift requires more extensive vetting. The negatives include:

  • Rivers is a pup when compared with Brady, who turns 43 in August. But he’s still is 38.
  • Reich preaches ball security, which is why he was more than pleased with Brissett’s eight interceptions in 2019. Rivers, meanwhile, sprayed the field with 20. He would have led the NFL for a third time – 21 in ’16, 18 in ’14 – had it not been for Jameis Winston’s ridiculous 33-30 performance.
  • Rivers never possessed mobility, and he’s not gotten quicker or more elusive with age. He was sacked 34 times last season as the Chargers’ offensive line issues continued. For his career, Rivers has been sacked 442 times in his 224 starts – roughly twice a game. Hypothetically, he would benefit working behind a better line in Indy, but let’s not forget the number of sacks Brissett avoided with his strength and pocket movement.
  • Rivers experienced his down season in ’19 despite being surrounded by elite weapons. Wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark; Allen tied for third in the league with 104 catches; and running back Austin Ekeler caught 92 passes for 993 yards. The glaring deficiency was the Chargers’ running game finishing a disappointing 28th.

It’s worth noting Rivers would likely experience an upgrade on the ground. The Colts finished 7th, and Marlon Mack has yet to hit his stride.

Chris Ballard and Reich are not going to share their thoughts with anyone outside of the Farm Bureau Insurance complex regarding interest in Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater or any other free-agent-to-be QB.

But let’s not kid ourselves, they do their due diligence. And we believe their discussion on Rivers would be more than cursory.

If those discussions reach a certain level, Ballard would have to determine how much he would be willing to invest in a 38-year old QB who would represent nothing more than a bridge to someone else, someone younger. Rivers would have counted $23 million against the Chargers’ 2020 salary cap, and any deal with a new team probably would start in the $25 million-per-year range.

Also, it seems bringing in a Philip Rivers – or another veteran QB – would mean moving on from Brissett. The Colts gave Brissett a one-year extension last year that included a $7 million roster bonus that already is guaranteed. It appears jettisoning Brissett would leave $12.5 million in dead money.

And let’s not forget, turning to a veteran QB would not solve the Colts’ long-term issues at the position. Ballard still would have to find his QB of the future in April’s draft, or the 2021 draft.

All of these scenarios are a result of Brissett failing to play at an acceptable level last season. He gave Ballard no choice but to consider the various options.

“As a whole, our passing game – not just the quarterback position – but our passing game has to improve,’’ he said. “Unequivocally that has to get better. We have to be able to throw the football to win in this league.’’

Ballard added Brissett currently is the starter moving forward, but “the jury is still out.’’

And the speculation continues.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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