This weekend, the rest of the country will get to see what those in Indianapolis have been watching with hope over the last three weeks. And if you haven’t been paying attention to how Carson Wentz has come around? That’s understandable.
Wentz got hurt three days into his first camp with the Colts and needed foot surgery as a result. Then, after working his way back onto the practice field, he landed on the COVID-19 list, which knocked him out for almost another full week of practice. And after struggling in Week 1, he’d opened himself up to a beating against a fierce Rams rush in Week 2, sprained both his ankles and, well, Wentz might as well have been wearing wings on his helmet at that point.
Same old problems. Same old Wentz. Same as Philly. So one of the biggest stories of this NFL offseason—the Eagles-Colts trade that relocated Wentz—had its in-season narrative.
If we only knew then that’s just where Wentz was starting the rewrite in his new home.
And if what’s come the last few weeks was delayed, that’s explainable, too. Sure, it sucked for Wentz going through the injuries. But what hurt as bad was all the time he missed on task, something that Indy was acutely aware of and accounting for. So where frustration would’ve been natural, Wentz found a way to stay patient and trust that, with better health, progress would come.
“Practice time is always huge—I’d say it’s even bigger when you’re coming into a new team, new offense, new faces,” Wentz says as he’s driving home Wednesday night. “Thankfully for me, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve played five years already, seen a lot of ball, seen a lot of defenses, and it’s not a giant transition in the playbook. There’s a lot of carryover in the scheme. There’s a lot new, but there’s a lot of carryover, and similar stuff that I’ve done.
“That definitely helps make that transition. But it’s not something that’s advantageous by any means, to miss reps, miss practice.”
In total, Wentz had just 10 practice days between the start of camp and the opener (July 29–31, Aug. 23–25, Sept. 2 and 8–10), and that was after the Colts’ spring was cut short through player negotiations for more time off. He missed two more sessions after the Week 2 injury and was limited for the lone day he practiced ahead of a Week 3 loss in Nashville.
Bottom line, Wentz hasn’t missed a game but did miss a lot of valuable time. But now, he’s finally starting to get that time back. The results have followed, with the vision that Frank Reich had for Wentz coming to life over a 2–1 stretch the last three weeks.
This week, Reich’s plan and Wentz’s progress will take center stage on Sunday Night Football against the 49ers’ sixth-ranked defense, giving us all a new chance to check in on Wentz’s steps back to what he once was in Philly.
And more important, what the Colts believe he’s in the process of becoming again.
Thankfully, the run-up to Week 7 has been more about the actual football, and less about electronic communication, and we’re here to help get you ready for it. Inside this week’s GamePlan, you’ll find …
• The playoff rematch that’s my Game of the Week.
• An intriguing matchup of coaches in New York.
• Some (improved?) gambling advice.
• A detail that shouldn’t be missed in the Deshaun Watson saga.
But we’re starting in Indy with the Colts, and Wentz, and why there are some pretty good signs that they’re figuring all this out.
Reich’s plan for Wentz does, indeed, start with the injuries, because it’s hard to look at the history and ignore it.
Too often in Philly, Wentz leaned reckless—a playmaker who had treated his body like it was Grave Digger at a monster truck rally. He came into the NFL with medical history from college and, in part because of that aggression, it bled right over into the pros. He broke his ribs as a rookie, tore his ACL and LCL in Year 2, fractured his back in Year 3, suffered a concussion in Year 4, and by Year 5, his last in Philly, the accumulation of the damage was apparent in his play, one reason why the word “broken” was thrown around liberally.
All of it dovetailed into, as Reich saw it, Wentz’s desire to make big plays, whether by holding the ball for too long, or by tucking it and running. Reich never wanted to coach that completely out of him, but the idea was to get him to better pick his spots, which would help avoid mistakes that added up, and did a number both on the offense he was running in Philly and on his body.
“My whole career to this point, and I think my whole career going forward, I’m gonna keep trying to find that balance, whether that’s running the ball and sliding or going out of bounds, or trying to make a guy miss, or extending a play in the pocket,” Wentz says. “All of those things, I’ve been trying to find that balance my whole career. Some seasons, some games, it’s better, and other times, it’s worse.
“So going through everything and being where I’m at now, learning that trying to press and do too much doesn’t help. It never helps. So you try to just play within the offense, play within myself, and really just trust the guys around you.”
To his point, this year has played out like a case study in Wentz learning through playing.
Simply put, his progress in how and when he’s choosing to take his shots has very much mirrored his overall improvement—and, per his coaches, is really about finding what the defense is giving him, and also what his teammates are capable of taking on their own. The numbers back that up nicely.
• Through the Colts’ 0–3 start, the offense had just seven plays of 20-plus yards. Six of those came through the air (one in Week 1, three in Week 2, one in Week 3).
• In the team’s Week 4 win in Miami, Wentz turned a corner with his most statistically efficient day to that point. He was 19 of 25 for just 129 yards through three quarters as Indy built a 17–3 lead going into the fourth. Then, as the Dolphins rallied, Wentz broke out. He threw for 99 yards on 5-of-7 passing in the final frame. The Colts had six plays of 20-plus yards that afternoon. Four were through the air, three of which came in the fourth quarter.
• Against Baltimore’s stout defense in Week 5, the Colts exploded for eight plays of 20-plus yards, seven of which came through the air as Wentz threw for 402 yards.
• And last week, Wentz completed just 11 passes, but two were for 50-plus yards.
Now, Wentz is quick to point out how the Colts’ backs have done their part in both helping the coaches manipulate the defense and turn short throws into gigantic gains—indeed, one of the seven explosive plays against the Ravens was a screen pass Jonathan Taylor turned into a 76-yard touchdown. But that’s also just part of Wentz running the offense as it’s set up for him.
“With the running backs we’ve got and their ability in the screen game; they make my life easy,” Wentz says. “And that always helps. And coach does a great job of scheming it that way and reminding me of those things. That’s why it’s clicked to some extent to this point. It’s not quite where we want it to be, but some of those things that we’ve done well, that’s probably why.”
To further illustrate that, and how this has all come together, I asked Wentz to detail a few big plays from the last three weeks—ones I picked out after talking to Colts people, and the opponents they were facing. Here are four of those …
Game: At Miami
Situation: Third-and-goal, ball at the Dolphins’ 11
Score: Colts 20, Dolphins 10
Clock: 6:20 left in the fourth quarter
I chose this one not because of the yards, but because it was a difficult spot for the Colts to be in—inside the close quarters of the red zone, in a clear passing situation. And the difference here between a touchdown to make it a three-possession game, and a field goal, was huge. Wentz took the shotgun snap, took a three-step drop, and then found Mo Alie-Cox over Eric Rowe for the clincher.
Wentz’s take: “It’s third-and-long, but goal-to-go, not an ideal situation for an offense to be in. You’re going to get coverage from the defense nine times out of 10, and that’s tough to beat. So when it comes down to those moments, it’s, O.K., well, none of these are super high probability passes, but what are my best odds? What’s my best matchup? Who can I give a shot to? And in that look, it was definitely Mo.
“Knowing the defense, knowing how they were going to play outside leverage, all those things, we’re going to give him a shot. We’re going to give him the good ol’ cliché, the 50–50 ball that we think, in those situations, is definitely higher than 50–50 because of our personnel. And a guy like Mo? That was the real reasoning behind that, because you’re going to have to take your shots of third-and-long/third-and-goal-to-go types of situations.”
Game: At Baltimore
Situation: First-and-10, ball at the Ravens’ 42
Score: Colts 10, Ravens 3
Clock: 14:07 left in the third quarter
This one was particularly impressive to me because it came in the face of Baltimore’s bringing seven rushers—requiring Wentz to quickly diagnose, get rid of the ball in the snap of a finger, and put himself in harm’s way. The Ravens wound up storming back in this one. But at the time Wentz made the throw to Michael Pittman Jr. to give the Colts a 16–3 lead on the second play of the second half, it sure felt like he’d delivered a dagger.
Wentz’s take: “For one, I take shots when coach calls them—to some extent. And within every shot, there’s definitely times to check it down and not force it. Coach called his shot, and we weren’t in a max protection, but we thought it was a long-enough developing play where I could hang in there, just knew I’d have to take a hit, and it was kind of that same idea. I knew it was one-on-one coverage back there; I just had to give Pitt a chance.
“It wasn’t by any means a great throw; I just had to get it out there. Knowing they were bringing the house, and giving him a shot, he did the rest of it. When there’s no safeties, you know you’re gonna be in the pocket, about to wear one, but at the same time, if the reward outweighs the risk, you gotta give your guys a chance.”
(Note: By the time the ball got there, Marlon Humphrey had peeled off to help Anthony Averett, but to no avail.)
Game: Vs. Houston
Situation: Third-and-3, ball at the Colts’ 49
Score: Colts 0, Texans 0
Clock: 1:59 left in the first quarter
This one was interesting to me because it was a shot on third-and-3—the sort of situation where you’d at least think Reich would want Wentz just to take the easy money and move the chains. Instead, the Colts went the other way.
Wentz’s take: “Same thing applies—coach calls them, I execute. [The play] was designed to be aggressive, however they played it. We weren’t sure what the coverage was going to be; we went up-tempo, most teams think you’re gonna keep it short and just try to convert, which most teams, including us, do a lot of the time. And so in that case, coach felt aggressive and it’s our job to go execute it.
“The way they trust the safety to cut the deep cross, I had Parris [Campbell] get behind the defense there, and not many teams are expecting that shot there. And like I said, I love that coach is willing to mix it up, be creative. Maybe at times it’s a little unconventional from the norm, but it’s fun to play like that, and it’s awesome to see results like that last week.”
Game: Vs. Houston
Situation: Second-and-8, ball at the Colts’ 20
Score: Colts 7, Texans 0
Clock: 14:11 left in the second quarter
This one showed a few things. One, it showed Reich’s faith in Wentz and the offense to keep his foot on the gas—this came just two offensive snaps after the big Wentz-to-Campbell hookup. Two, it showed how Wentz still has the aggressive streak to marry with Reich’s getting aggressive. And three, you can see the anticipation here, and the trust from Wentz in how he threw it to a spot that basically asked T.Y. Hilton to outrun the coverage.
Wentz’s take: “Similar thought, definitely an argument to be made to check that one underneath or stay short, just knowing how soft the coverage was. But that’s where it comes down to personnel and knowing who you’ve got and who you trust. And having a guy like T.Y. back last week, I just trust his speed more than I’d trust those safeties’ speed, to an extent. And if we got a chance to outrun the safeties, my money’s on T.Y. every time.
“So I’m gonna give him that chance, try and manipulate the safeties in some way, shape or form, to get that chance to him. That one was definitely right on the fine line that we’re toeing, in taking that shot or coming to the checkdown underneath. But we’re gonna, hopefully, make more of those than we miss, and the reward will be much bigger and much greater than the risk involved.”
And again, being able to balance risk and reward is exactly what Reich has wanted to work with Wentz from the moment the two were reunited. That it’s come together like it has in moments like these—even if some of that lost practice time created some bumps in the road—is a pretty good sign of what’s to come.
Having patience can, of course, be a learned virtue, and having seen its benefits is why Wentz pushed back on the notion that some light went on in Week 4, when his numbers flipped and the Colts started winning. More so, he says, getting here from where he was, and where the team was, in September was at least in part being able to find little wins amid other things going wrong the first three weeks of the season.
It’s also why when I asked if getting these results now helps to reinforce what he’s been doing, he’s willing to reach further back than the Miami game.
“It 100% is, and I even go to the first couple weeks—we did a handful of good things,” he says. “We didn’t execute well in the red zone early in the season, but we had glimpses of what we can be. And now, I think it’s just doing it more and more consistently every week. I think we’ve done a good job of that. We’re continuing to get better. And hopefully we keep trending in the right direction.”
There are reasons to think it will.
For one, the Colts are still building their identity offensively. Wentz mentioned that the offense he and Reich were part of in Philly in 2016 and ’17 was heavy on RPOs at a time when the league wasn’t totally prepared to deal with them. That dynamic has changed, so Reich's offense has, too, even while maintaining the bones of what it was back then—and for Reich that means continuing to work to fit it perfectly for Wentz. The more time they get doing that, the better.
Second, Wentz is healthy now, and that means he’s getting the practice time he missed for all those weeks. “Mental reps are great; you maximize them when you can. But you can’t really beat being on the grass,” he explains. “When you see some of those one-on-one routes we’re connecting on, that maybe we missed earlier, that’s just because I’m understanding the receivers more, and we’re understanding each other. Definitely being on the grass has made a difference.”
On the flip side, Wentz will have to prove he can stay healthy, and the competition is going to stiffen the next two weeks, with the Niners this week and the Titans coming next week, then the Bills and Buccaneers looming at the end of November.
But the hope is that by then, the Colts are a force to be reckoned with, too, with a few more guys back in the lineup, and Wentz’s having a few more games under his belt. And if anything, the last few weeks have made that look possible after the kind of start no one draws up.
“Hopefully you get better and better, and we all figure out who we are a little bit more as an offense, what we’re able to do, and how we can maximize each guy’s skill set and all those things,” Wentz says. “It is fun, and the coaches do a great job of keeping it fun, mixing it up, getting everyone involved where everyone’s feeling the love. I’m having a blast out there. It’s fun to be back out there playing ball.”
It should be fun for the rest of us, too, to get a chance to see where this goes—and everyone will get a good look Sunday night.
FIVE STAR MATCHUPS
- Chiefs at Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Rare to see an early-window game as the weekend’s best, but I really can’t wait for this rematch of the AFC title game of two years. Teams with contrasting styles, each coming off a convincing Week 6 win, and two of the sport’s most watchable talents taking center stage—this one will be a blast all around. It’s also a relatively important one for Kansas City. The Chiefs haven’t lost more than four games in a season since Patrick Mahomes became starter, and they already have three losses.
- Bengals at Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Ravens’ defense looked nasty last week in shutting down the Chargers, and showing the upside it has. And now we get to see Joe Burrow head into Baltimore and take that group on. Here’s hoping we get to see Marlon Humphrey cover Ja’Marr Chase a whole bunch.
- Bears at Buccaneers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): Just in terms of watchability, this game has it. It’s a big road test for Justin Fields in facing an aggressive defense with an injury-ravaged secondary he should be able to pick on. And of course it’s a shot for Tom Brady to get his revenge on a rock-solid Bears defense after last year’s four-fingers Thursday Night Football debacle.
- Saints at Seahawks (Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET): Sort of a gut-check game for both teams. The Saints are coming off their bye, and a win over Washington but still haven’t found real consistency around Jameis Winston in their first year P.D. (post-Drew). And the Seahawks are in danger of slipping from contention as they try to buy time for Russell Wilson to get healthy again. Big game for both teams.
- Colts at 49ers (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): As you could see from this column’s lead, I’m interested to see whether Wentz can keep his positive momentum rolling. And Jimmy Garoppolo sure has a lot to play for—even if Trey Lance looked like he was a little ways away from being ready in his starting debut. Also, both teams, each with big expectations coming into the year, have plenty to play for, having dug themselves early-season holes.
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FOUR TO FOLLOW
The coaching matchup in Jersey. In case you need a refresher, in January 2020, the careers of then Baylor coach Matt Rhule and then Patriots special teams coach Joe Judge intertwined. On Jan. 9, 2020, the day after the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs, Judge interviewed for the job at his alma mater, Mississippi State. The next day, he went to interview with the Giants and Rhule interviewed with the Panthers. Rhule was scheduled to interview with the Giants on Jan. 11, and it was widely predicted at the time that Rhule, a former Giants assistant, would land back home in New York. Instead, that Monday, he knocked his interview with Panthers owner David Tepper out of the park, and Tepper didn’t want to let him get on the plane to meet with the Giants. Meanwhile, that night, Mississippi State was moving toward hiring Judge, who was coming off his Giants interview. Long story short, Tepper kept Rhule from going to Jersey, and got him to agree to a seven-year deal; and the Giants moved quickly thereafter, knowing Mississippi State was pursuing Judge, to hire the New England assistant. (And there’s a Josh McDaniels element to all this we’ll save for another day.) Nearly two years later, Rhule is coming to the Meadowlands looking to snap a three-game losing streak, in what’s also Sam Darnold’s return to MetLife Stadium; and Judge is trying to pump life into his 1–5 Giants. A lot on the line for both guys, who could’ve been in much different situations if not for how those fateful 48 hours or so played out.
How the Cardinals come off a very different week. In case you missed this week’s MMQB column, here’s what Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told me about what he and the Cardinals staff saw in their players last weekend, after a positive COVID-19 test shelved coach Kliff Kingsbury: “No one blinked. Even a young veteran like Budda Baker, I mean those guys are real dudes, man. And again, it’s a players’ game. It’s our job to obviously coach these dudes and give them good plans, but once it hits Saturday, Albert, it’s a players’ game. So thank God that Kliff didn’t pop until Friday because the work was done. Once it’s Saturday, Sunday, man, the players play. I told them Saturday, I said, ‘Look, leaders lead. Ballers, you guys go ball. And coaches, you coach.’ It’s Saturday. It's on. The plan's already done. All the work was in, so again, it was our job to keep it as normal as possible and to allow those guys to play good football. But the leadership has been apparent from Day One with the belief and how they practice every single day.” This week, rather than losing Kingsbury late, they haven’t had, at least in person, at all. So it’ll be interesting to see how they play. And I mean that beyond just the final score, since the 1–5 Texans are on the schedule. Is the energy the same? The organization? And could this be a nice audition for Joseph to get a second chance as a head coach? All that’s on the table.
Jared Goff Revenge Game! I don’t think you can quite call it a Matthew Stafford Revenge Game, since Stafford asked for the trade, the Lions obliged, and the sides parted amicably. But you’d think Goff would go into this one with a lot to prove, and even more so after something his coach Dan Campbell said blew up the way it did. Goff hasn’t been terrible this year, to be clear—and I don’t think Campbell’s comments were quite as biting (if you listen to the whole thing) as they were made out to be. Still, Goff’s future in Detroit isn’t exactly certain, nor is his future as an NFL starter. And so how he responds in this sort of spot is something people within the Lions organization, and with other teams, will pay attention to.
What do the Dolphins have left? For the first time this week, Brian Flores’s job security has been a point of debate. Tua Tagovailoa’s future in Miami was again questioned. The use of all the capital the brass scored in trading away stars Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick is being scrutinized. And that’s before even getting to all the Deshaun Watson talk. Meanwhile, the team itself is 1–5, coming back from London without a bye week, and will play an improving Atlanta team coming off a bye. Pretty good gut check for Miami, and a chance for everyone to see where the program stands.
TWO BEST BETS
Season record: 3–9 (Coming off a 1–1 week!)
Packers (-7.5) at Washington: I’m very much a believer in Green Bay right now. And I think it has a shot to bludgeon a very shaky WFT secondary.
Bears (+12) at Buccaneers: This is one of three massive numbers this week, and the Bears, while not some super team, aren’t the Texans or Lions. I think they keep it relatively close.
ONE BIG QUESTION
Will Deshaun Watson be eligible to play if he’s traded?
I know team owners have gone to the commissioner, and the league office, to inquire on what the next steps would be if someone traded for the Texans quarterback, and more pointed, whether he’d be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list if a deal were to be executed before the Nov. 2 trade deadline.
If anyone got a straight answer on that, I haven’t heard about it.
And if you’re a team considering a trade for Watson, and you’re not sure when he’ll be eligible to play, or whether he’ll be available for the remainder of the season, not being able to get an answer on that would considerably complicate things.
Twenty-two of the 23 lawsuits filed against Watson alleging sexual misconduct remain active, as do 10 criminal complaints. Absent a settlement, it’s highly unlikely teams get a clear picture of the landscape ahead in Watson’s legal situation before the end of the season. The league, for its part, has of late deliberately avoided usurping or getting in the way of any decision by the courts, so it’d be stunning to see the NFL come down with anything on this before the legal system does.
Which means that a team trading for him now, rather than after the season, would do so without clarity from the league or the legal system. That, of course, shows why it’s hard for anyone to go all in on Watson right now.
It also helps to illustrate why to this point, intentionally or unintentionally, the Texans have really done the league a favor. By coming to a tacit agreement with Watson that he can come to work and get paid but won’t be part of the team on game day, Houston has allowed the league to let the situation play out without having to take any action, and it would hardly be a surprise if the league wanted to ride it out this way the rest of the year.
Watson being traded would mean the league would have to make a decision, one way or the other. And so to me, it’ll be interesting to see if the NFL is willing to work with, say, Miami (and I don’t know either way, but maybe the league quietly already has), if and when a deal for Watson gets close to completion.
Regardless, it’s a major piece to the puzzle here that I don’t think should be ignored.
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