- Houston's star rookie quarterback suffered a season-ending injury. Indianapolis's franchise quarterback won't play a single game this season due to injury. Looking ahead, which team has a brighter future at quarterback?
Watching a young star quarterback on a rookie deal light up the scoreboard is football nirvana; a sign that the present is good and the future is even brighter. The Texans and Colts have experienced this fleeting feeling in bursts.
Andrew Luck’s success during his first three seasons in the league prompted Colts owner Jim Irsay to predict at least two Super Bowls during his tenure as quarterback. Irsay also made Luck the richest man in NFL history last summer.
Deshaun Watson’s dazzling six-game run at the beginning of the season—1,597 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions over six starts—was so good that head coach Bill O’Brien would go out of his way not to gush during press conferences. When a quarterback throws four or more touchdowns in three of his first six starts and quarterback ratings over 100 in four, it’s not easy to do.
Now, after one shocking injury and one injury setback, both franchises sit at the bottom of the AFC South, leaving the rest of the season for self-analysis at the quarterback position moving forward. In that spirit, we’ll do the same.
Record: 3–5, third place in AFC South
Backup QBs: Tom Savage, TJ Yates, Matt McGloin
Best-case scenario: Savage finds his footing. In two appearances this season, Savage is 26-of-57 (45.6 percent) for 281 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Perhaps, without the weight of Watson closing in on him, or the burden of replacing him immediately on his shoulders, Savage can loosen up a little bit and operate the offense. However, there’s a reason this section is entitled ‘best-case scenario.’ The Texans are probably just hoping his numbers can come up to replacement level. How far is he from there? Football Outsiders has him at -38 Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement—behind other quarterbacks in his sample size like Cody Kessler and Ryan Mallett. Ryan Fitzpatrick is at +57. Without an adjustment for defenses, Josh McCown is essentially the definition of replacement level in 2017. The closest NFL quarterback to absolute zero this year with the adjustment and more than 100 attempts are Eli Manning +89, Cam Newton -71 or Andy Dalton -87. Could Savage at his best play an average Manning game in 2017 (228 yards, two touchdowns and one pick per game, 63% completion rate, 85.4 passer rating)? And if so, could that sustain the Texans for the supposed nine months it will take to get Watson back into the lineup?
Most likely scenario: Savage is a free agent after this season, which means the Texans will likely hit the market for a veteran quarterback hard this March, draft a rookie in the middle rounds and hire a new age medicinal guru to bless Watson’s knees. Watson is too special to move on from, and we’ve seen NFL players (quarterbacks included) return from torn ACL injuries in the past. O’Brien will likely face a ton of questions about making the offense safer for Watson this offseason and Watson will be compared a lot to Russell Wilson, whose effective use of mobility has kept him on the field. From there, the Texans hope for the best.
Record 3-6, last in AFC South
Backup QBs: Jacoby Brissett, Scott Tolzien
Best-case scenario: Brissett continues to improve and make stunning throws. Pro Football Focus has graded Brissett’s overall performance this year above that of Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler and Eli Manning. If the Colts were guaranteed that level of production behind Luck, they would have traded for the former Patriots quarterback months ago (they probably should have). So while the best-case scenario remains Luck returning to the starting lineup in 2018 free of any shoulder pain, in a new offense with a better supporting cast, a developing Brissett is not that far behind.
Most likely scenario: The Luck saga is not over and we could end up in the same uncertain state heading into training camp 2018 that we did in ’17. Among the storylines we’ll inevitably tire of this offseason, the incredibly minute updates about the pain in Luck’s throwing shoulder will rank quite high. A positive? Should the Colts continue pinballing through the remainder of their season, the 2018 draft will be a strong indicator of their future intentions. The top half of the draft could be littered with good offensive linemen and quarterbacks—which direction will they choose?
WHICH IS THE BETTER PROBLEM TO HAVE?
It’s an interesting thought: Would you rather have the electric rookie coming off a torn ACL and the opportunity to re-stack your depth chart at QB this offseason behind him? Or, would you rather the one-time heir to John Elway, who will be 29 around opening day and has Brissett as a backup under contract through 2019?
I think there is far too much potential here. While Watson may have the brighter future, an ounce of hope in Luck plus Brissett could end up creating the foundation for a solid five-year plan. Another interesting indicator of Luck’s future with the Colts will be how the market develops for a head coaching vacancy if Irsay opts to part ways with head coach Chuck Pagano this offseason. If Luck just needed a few more months to get better, there will be a line of offensive-minded head coaches out the door who will want a piece of this rebuilding project.