On a Friday afternoon in late-August, a little more than 24 hours before the Colts’ third preseason game, Andrew Luck summoned his backup to the locker room. Luck didn’t say why he wanted to meet, but when Jacoby Brissett arrived, he remembers thinking Luck didn’t exactly look good. “He was never the most well-groomed guy anyway,” Brissett jokes, but that day, Luck wore agony all over his face, from the disheveled beard to the pained look in his eyes. Before he could even begin to speak, Luck started to cry. And not a soft cry—an ugly sob, tears rolling down both cheeks. “Holy s---,” Brissett thought to himself. “What’s about to happen?”
Brissett had watched Luck up-close last season and throughout the summer, had seen the torture his friend endured, the discomfort that lingered from the torn rib cartilage and the lacerated kidney, the bum ankle, sore shoulder and mangled thumb. Football had so battered Luck that at one point he peed blood. As the 2019 season neared, it became clear to Brissett and his coaches that the franchise QB would miss games early on. Brissett figured he’d play anywhere from the first two weeks to the first month.
Finally, Luck stammered out the secret. For the next 30 minutes, he explained that he was walking away from football, retiring in his prime, unable to shake the maddening cycle of injury to rehab to next injury. The longer they talked that afternoon, the more Brissett saw Luck’s body language and facial expressions change. He started to look happy, relieved. He even smiled. What stood out, Brissett says, was “the joy he had” when he walked out of that locker room that day. “I’m going to be your biggest fan,” he told his replacement.
The exchange forced Brissett to hide an international news story—until it broke unexpectedly the very next evening. Brissett says he hadn’t told a soul about Luck’s plans, and was “pissed” that someone had leaked the news to ESPN at the worst possible time. Brissett found out the world knew, from Luck himself, on the sideline that night, cameras capturing his look of surprise. “I like literally blacked out,” Brissett says. “Because I was so mad that somebody did that. I was just cursing.” Luck implored him to remain calm, Hey, Jacoby, relax.
Brissett also sensed that Luck didn’t want to move, because to pace the sidelines or sprint to the locker room would subject him to angry, heckling fans. So Luck stood there like a statue, as his backup saddled up right next to him, standing so close their shoulders almost touched. Brissett wouldn’t have shifted for an oncoming semi-truck. He could see his teammates watching him, waiting, gauging his reaction in that moment. “Y’all are booing this man?” Brissett kept saying. “Y’all are booing him?”
He couldn’t bring himself to watch Luck’s press conference; he still hasn’t seen more than a few clips. He hates when he hears anyone say that Luck quit on his team. Brissett sees it this way: For Luck to keep playing through that kind of misery would have been like Luck quitting on his family, or himself.
Still, one of the most surreal and unexpected retirements in NFL history left Brissett—a player the Colts had acquired from the Patriots in exchange for a disappointing first-round wideout in Phillip Dorsett; a quarterback who then was immediately thrown into the fire to replace an injured Luck as Indy suffered through a brutal 4–12 season in 2017—the starter once again. As so many questions bubbled, none loomed larger than the most obvious: How in the hell would Brissett replace a perennial MVP candidate?
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In another meeting that would change the course of the Colts franchise, Brissett sat down earlier last summer with his general manager for an honesty summit. As the rare NFL player who represents himself rather than hiring an agent for contract negotiations, Brissett had already forced himself to see things from GM Chris Ballard’s point of view.
The men sat across from each other inside Ballard’s office. Brissett knew he was the backup quarterback on a deep team many were billing as a Super Bowl contender, and that the GM would need to pay a host of burgeoning young players in the years ahead. He also knew that rumors had already begun to swirl that Ballard would trade him before the 2019 season.
Brissett the player did not want that. He loved his adopted city, loved the Colts and loved Luck like a brother. When the Patriots traded him, he found out from teammates who had learned of it on social media and still shudders at the whirlwind he confronted after arriving in Indy just before Week 1 of the 2017 campaign.
Brissett the agent (who leans on advice from both a legal advisor and Hall of Fame coach/mentor Bill Parcells) met with Ballard alone for this informal chat. He knew the GM valued both honesty and a good backup quarterback. He had told Brissett the truth after that disastrous ’17 season, when Brissett lost almost as many games in one season as he had throughout the rest of his football life. Luck would not only return from various injuries, Ballard told him after that season, but the Colts would become his team again.
Brissett the player had suffered through that ’17 season. The low point was on a Thursday night at home, against the Broncos, in Week 14, when he threw for 158 yards in a performance he now tabs as the worst of his life. In the locker room afterward, he collapsed into the arms of his offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, his face landing on the coach’s shoulder as he choked out sobs. “It was like, f---, this can’t be happening,” he says now. “But it was happening.” The reaction was concerning enough that both Schottenheimer and his wife checked in on Brissett that night.
Still, Brissett the agent knew the Brissett the player had improved, had learned from Luck and had put together a strong off-season entering 2019. He also knew that his second-year head coach, Frank Reich, valued backup signal callers as much as any coach in the NFL. He had apprenticed under Jim Kelly in Buffalo and served in that role for four teams over most of his 13-year playing career. Reich had also won Super Bowl LII as Philly’s offensive coordinator after Nick Foles took over the Eagles offense when it lost an MVP front-runner in Carson Wentz. Reich had even hired Marcus Brady, who spent seven years as a CFL backup, as his QB coach in Indy. Having discovered Backup QB City, Brissett didn’t want to leave.
Ballard got straight to the point. “I won’t trade you,” he told Brissett. “I’m just telling you that. I value you, and I won’t let you go.”
In hindsight, this meeting might appear fortuitous, a stroke of good luck in a season defined by the absence of Luck. But the Colts were far more than fortunate. A few weeks later, “it happened,” Brissett says, referring to Luck’s retirement.
In the aftermath, the total of the negotiation they had started in that meeting shot up. Brissett negotiated his own extension for $30 million with $20 million guaranteed and stepped right into one of the strangest scenarios in NFL history, for a franchise that had a run of two franchise quarterbacks—Luck, preceded by Peyton Manning—almost exclusively since 1998. Brissett’s Colts came out firing. The first half of the season included a primetime road win over Patrick Mahomes’s Chiefs, a comeback win in Nashville and a decisive victory over Houston during which Brissett threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns. A run to January was foiled only by a rash of injuries and unexpected kicking woes. But early on, Brissett and his team became one of the most unexpected stories of this NFL season. Unexpected to everyone, anyway, except the two men in that room.
As Brissett relays the story in late November, he remains floored by Ballard’s foresight. “Chris,” he says, “is a beast.”
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Brissett knew right away that he wanted to address his teammates. He sought out veteran wideout T.Y. Hilton to go over what he planned to say, and then he stepped in front of the team—his team—inside the locker room, two days after Luck retired. He told them he realized that number 12 was a special person, that many of them had come to Indy just to play with Luck and that he made their championship expectations realistic. “I’m not going to be 12,” Brissett said. “But listen, I’m playing. Either you like it, or you don’t, but it’s nothing for y’all to freak out about.”
The message resonated exactly as Brissett intended. Teammates found him genuine in that moment and, more importantly, unafraid. “The best part about that speech,” says tight end Jack Doyle, “is that you felt it.”
As Brissett scanned his teammates’ faces, what he noticed did not surprise him. “I just saw confidence,” he says. “Nobody flinched.”
Brissett still had to actually replace the production and presence of a quarterback most expected to one day don a gold blazer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Only he didn’t necessarily see this season that way. He never felt like he needed to approximate Luck. He only needed to be the best version of Jacoby Brissett.
In the days after Luck’s retirement, Brissett started to feel overwhelmed by what he came to describe as “the noise” swirling in his head. He spoke with the Colts mental health coach, team clinician Elizabeth White, and their initial consult lasted almost two hours. She recommended that Brissett try an app that teaches users how to meditate. He almost stopped going back after the first try, but instead persisted, taking to the visualization techniques. Eventually, Brissett found it quieted the chaos that had been rattling in his brain, giving him clarity and focus. “Now,” he says, “it’s just a part of me.”
Brissett continued to tweak his own style, like with the newfound Zen. Throughout all of 2018, the backup would wear throwback jerseys on Friday afternoons, searching for the rarest ones, like the number 9 that Adam Sandler wore as linebacker Bobby Boucher in The Waterboy, or A.C. Slater’s number 6 hoops jersey from Saved By the Bell. But this year, as the unquestioned starter, Brissett dropped the jersey routine in favor of projecting a more serious image. He still posted goofy, existential questions on social media (example: “Sitting here. What shape is the sky?”), striking an authentic balance that endeared him to teammates.
In the post-Luck Colts, Brissett sees a roster constructed in the image of its roster-savant general manager and unassuming preacher-like coach. Indianapolis is strong on the offensive line and linebacker, deep at running back and tight end. They aren’t flashy, and that lack of pizazz can mask their overall talent level. “It’s not like, this dude’s great, this dude’s great, what the f--- is he doing here?” Brissett says. “It’s solid guy, solid guy, knows his role, plays his role.”
In Week 8 Brissett got another shot at the Broncos, and unlike in ’17, he required no shoulder to sob on. Trailing by one with the ball their own 11 with 1:48 left, he started the drive by dropping back and somehow spinning out of the grasp of Von Miller, escaping right and lofting a 35-yard pass to Hilton. That set up the winning field goal. Brissett thought back to the night with Schottenheimer in that moment. The comeback, the win, this season—all showed how far he’d come. Six plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning field goal.
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Then came the setbacks. Indy was 5-2 and leading the AFC South when, in the second quarter in Pittsburgh, Brissett sprained the MCL in his left knee. He left that game, and while backup Brian Hoyer threw three touchdowns in relief, he also posted two crippling turnovers, including a 96-yard pick-six. Still, Vinatieri had a chance to win it but pulled a 43-yard attempt wide left. Brissett missed the next week, and the offense sputtered without him in an upset home loss to Miami, back-to-back losses that shouldn’t have happened.
Eventually, things got worse. Brissett returned in Week 10 as Indy crushed the Jaguars, but the injuries around him started to pile up, most notably in the receiving corps where four of Brissett’s projected top-five targets at the start of the season all missed significant time. Hilton didn’t play in six games with calf and quad injuries and was limited in others, free-agent signee Devin Funchess’s season ended after a broken collarbone in the opener, tight end Eric Ebron was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury before Thanksgiving, and second-round pick Parris Campbell missed more than half the season with foot, hand and abdomen injuries.
Hilton played through injury in a key Thursday night matchup in Houston but had two crucial drops, and Brissett finished with a meager 129 yards in a 20-17 loss. A week later, Brissett put Indy in position for a go-ahead field goal with five minutes left against Tennessee, only to see Vinatieri’s 46-yard attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown. That was followed by a shootout with Tampa during which the defense uncharacteristically collapsed, turning a 35-21 late-third-quarter lead into a 38-21 defeat. A blowout loss at New Orleans in Week 15 capped a four-game losing streak that doomed the season. Point is, Brissett didn’t play that poorly. His team had collapsed around him.
After the Houston loss, a few local columnists had written that Brissett might not be good enough for the Colts to stake their future on. The writers always added similar disclaimers about how he has played with a bulky brace on that knee ever since the injury, and how the rash of injuries had been nearly impossible for any quarterback to overcome. Still, his rise had inflated expectations, and his mini-slump forced uncomfortable questions. Like: Brissett is good. But is he good enough? To carry a franchise? To win a Super Bowl?
There are no indications that Luck is reconsidering retirement. But the extension Brissett signed only runs through next season, and the Colts could pocket $12.5 million if they cut their QB after June 1 of next year. Still, Indy was in control of the AFC South before injuries struck, and it’s nearly impossible to find an available quarterback who would have weathered the rash of injuries this season better than Brissett did (his 2019 numbers are in-line with those of Tom Brady, whose much maligned supporting cast is far better than the one Brissett had). Brissett just turned 27 earlier this month, and considering he received limited practice reps at New England’s third QB his rookie year, he’s an especially young 27. Most notably, Reich has remained steadfast in his commitment to his quarterback.
His private quarterback coach, Tom House, said in an interview before the losing streak that he believes Brissett is the Colts’ future. The quarterback met the QB whisperer through Brady, another House client, and Brissett even flew to Atlanta this offseason to catch House at a passing camp. House saw the way that Brissett interacted with the campers, how they gravitated to him. “The upside with Jacoby is even better than what we’re looking at right now,” House says. “He has a similar drive to [Brady and Drew Brees]. All the factors that contribute to that type of career, they’re there. Chris Ballard recognized that early on. But I don’t think any of us realized how deep the possibility really is.”
In many ways, Brissett has settled into an ideal development scenario, protected by a strong offensive line and complemented by a run-heavy scheme and solid defense. He is young and on a reasonable contract.
And he still counts Luck among his mentors—they speak weekly and meet for lunch whenever time permits. He even picked out some gifts for Luck’s newborn, Lucy. “I didn’t get him anything [expensive]; I mean, he’s rich,” Brissett says, laughing.
He knows it might sound strange, but Brissett believes the key to replacing Luck was in never trying to replace him. His season may have been uneven, his weapons lost, his future both uncertain and promising. When Brissett looks back at this 2019 season, he might see it as something else. The year he became a bonafide NFL starter and the Colts became his team and, through some bad luck and no Luck at all, he forged his future.
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