INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Anthony Castonzo was there for the end of one era (Peyton Manning) and the beginning of the next (Andrew Luck). He was Bill Polian’s final first-round draft pick in 2011 and fully expected to serve as the blindside guardian of the Indianapolis Colts’ franchise quarterback.
And that’s what he did for the better part of the last eight seasons. He never protected Manning, but offered top-level protection for the vast majority of Luck’s 94 career games.
Until one era suddenly, dramatically ended Saturday night and gave way to the next.
“It’s Jacoby’s turn now,’’ Castonzo said.
That would be Jacoby Brissett.
In 2017, he was acquired in a September trade and viewed as the stopgap measure as Luck missed the season with his right shoulder issues.
Now, the Colts’ offense and their immediate future rest in his hands.
If ever there was an opportunity for a young, strong-armed quarterback – Brissett is 26 and in the final year of his rookie contract – to excel, this is it.
As Chris Ballard mentioned earlier this month, “This is not 2017.’’
That season, Brissett was thrust into the starting lineup in week 2 after being in town less than two weeks. Not only was he learning the offense on the fly, he needed to lean on his GPS for several weeks to find his way to the team’s West 56th Street complex.
He was sacked a league-high 52 times and his running game ranked 22nd.
Brissett made the best of an impossible situation, helping the Colts win four of their final 15 games.
But again, this is not 2017.
“Yeah, totally different,’’ insisted Jack Doyle, the veteran tight end who served as Brissett’s security blanket with a career-high 80 receptions that led to his first Pro Bowl selection.
“But that experience of ’17 definitely helps him, I’m sure. I’m sure he’d tell you that.’’
Listen to Brissett, who has nurtured a relationship with his wideouts and tight ends while running the No. 1 offense the past four months during Luck’s absence.
“I mean it’s not the first week of me being here now,’’ he said. “I’ve been here for two years, same system with a lot of the same guys. I think that will help me out and help us out a lot.
“We’ve gained a relationship. We’ve had those tough conversations. It’s an on-going thing so it’s not like, ‘He’s all that.’ It’s still week-after-week, day-after-day that we have the opportunity to get better.’’
Brissett’s supporting cast for his second stint as starter is dramatically different, and better. The only offensive starters who remain from 2017: Castonzo, Doyle, T.Y. Hilton and Ryan Kelly.
Now, he’s supported by one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines, an emerging running back in Marlon Mack and a wealth of options in the passing game.
“Starting with the offensive line,’’ Reich said. “You know how Chris and I feel about it. That is where it all starts, up front on both sides of the ball.
“And you know how we feel about Jacoby. Yes, he has been Andrew’s backup . . . in my mind I say this guy is a top-20 quarterback. This guy is a legit starter in the league. Kudos to Chris for making that move a couple of years ago and who would’ve known it would’ve ever came to this.
“I’m sure glad we’ve got him now.’’
It may surprise some, but Reich plans no significant rewrites to his offensive playbook with Brissett, not Luck, under center. He recalled his time as Jim Kelly’s long-time backup in Buffalo, and those occasions when Kelly was sidelined with an injury.
“We’re running the K-Gun offense and everybody thought when Jim got hurt, that we would have to go to Plan B offense for me because I wasn’t as talented as him,’’ Reich said. “But that’s not how it rolled and that’s not how we’ll roll.’’
And that’s not how it rolled in 2017 when Reich was Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator and the Eagles lost Carson Wentz to a knee injury in week 13 and turned to backup Nick Foles.
“Completely different quarterbacks in many respects, ’’ Reich said. “Same offense, but it’s just interpreted in a slightly different way. We will accentuate some of Jacoby’s strengths and some of our team strengths in a different way, but the playbook won’t change.’’
Reich demands his quarterback to master the running phase of the offense and the protection schemes. It’s imperative for him quickly to check out of a bad run play when facing a loaded defensive look, and understand the reason for doing that.
“If you don’t understand what that looks like and why we’re asking you to do what you’re doing, then you’re not going to put your team in the best position, and we need you to put us in the best position to win games,’’ Reich said.
Also, while the quarterback and center work in tandem while determining pre-snap protection calls, the quarterback has “the trump card’’ in making certain the proper protection assignment is in place.
“He has to be a master at protections,’’ Reich said. “Jacoby has worked very hard at it and he has become that.’’
Not that anyone was prepared for Luck’s stunning decision Saturday night, but the offseason prepared Brissett for what’s to come. He handled virtually every rep with the starting unit during the offseason and training camp.
Reich’s curiosity got the better of him recently and he asked an assistant to check the number of reps Brissett took.
“It was about 1,200 reps,’’ Reich said. “That’s more than a season’s worth of plays.’’
The Colts’ offense ran 1,070 plays in 2018.
“You can just feel his presence in the huddle on the field, the confidence that he has had and the chemistry with the receivers,’’ Reich said.
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