INDIANAPOLIS — So what do you do when your position on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers is shifting in the opposite direction of the optimism shared by head coach Frank Reich?
Doubts have a way of sticking after studying film into the early Friday morning hours of Rivers’ 20 interceptions with the L.A. Chargers last season. There’s a reason he became available, as is often said of any NFL free agent, which usually means buyer beware. This price tag is $25 million for 2020.
But then you hear Reich gush again about being reunited with Rivers — they were together when Reich was a Chargers assistant in 2013-15 — and the coach keeps making this sound like it’s the best thing to ever happen.
“We’ve said that a couple of times where this is just a really unique opportunity,” Reich said on Tuesday. “I can just tell you this and I know we still have to play games and all that stuff, and that’s the exciting part, but the further we get into this process with Philip, the more I’m convinced that was the right move for us.
“This guy is an elite quarterback and I think went with this roster. We have to stay healthy and we have to get some breaks. We all know that. It’s hard. There’s a lot of good football teams out there. We have a lot to prove. We have a lot to prove and it’s not going to be easy. I just think the roster was right, the time was right and the opportunity was there.”
In times like these, an understandable fan reaction might include something like this: “Frank Reich was an NFL quarterback and is a head coach, so he knows more about the position than you will ever forget.”
Truth. No argument.
But questioning everything is part of my job description. Providing informed analysis for fans, i.e. readers, isn’t just the job but my ultimate obligation.
The media isn’t paid to drink the Kool-Aid. Sure, it gets sipped from time to time, but it’s important for professional reporters to never drink enough to cause a burp, let alone vomit.
Here’s what is sticking in my head.
Before we knew quarterback Andrew Luck was going to retire last preseason, Reich firmly stated his belief that Jacoby Brissett was a “top-20 NFL quarterback.” He meant it as a compliment and vote of confidence, but to succeed in this league, it’s kind of important to be better than top-20.
When Brissett fit that description, the Colts were 5-2. When he didn't — with hesitancy and lacking vision in addition to being affected by too many injuries to key players (it wasn't all on him) — the Colts lost seven of nine to finish 7-9.
More than two decades of listening to coach-speak inherently reminds to rarely accept an assessment at 100 percent. Accept that’s what the coach believes and keep a watchful eye to see if it’s true.
For what it’s worth, Reich has the steady, understated, confident makings of a solid NFL head coach. He’s probably better than “top-20” at his job. Yes, that's intended as a compliment.
But here’s what else is gnawing away at my gut instinct.
The Chargers were coming off a season-opening overtime home win over the Colts, but trailed 13-10 in the final minutes at Detroit in Week 2 last year. They were in field-goal range, but looking at a third-and-19 play at the Lions’ 28.
The smart play is to throw underneath or go with something that reduces the length of that potential game-tying field goal. But Rivers the gunslinger takes a shot deep to a well-covered Keenan Allen. Lions cornerback Darius Slay is properly positioned, with a safety closing up top, and makes the interception. Game over.
In more than two decades of covering the NFL, there are often moments where you say or think to yourself: “You can’t make that play in that situation.” Yeah, Rivers just can’t make that mistake then.
Watch it for yourself.
Just one bad play, someone could say. But Rivers made the same kind of mistake at least three other times to sacrifice points last season.
His underthrown pass to running back Austin Ekeler in the end zone with just a little more than one minute to play in Week 11 was a head-scratcher. That fourth interception ended a 24-17 home loss to Kansas City. If having a bad day, might it be wise to stick with a smart play when the game is on the line?
That brings me back to Reich’s observation, “We have a lot to prove and it’s not going to be easy.”
The proof starts with Rivers showing he can consistently make the smart plays depending upon the situation. There’s no doubt the play-calling Reich will reiterate this all-important advice to his quarterback. If history repeats itself, it’s not because Rivers wasn’t properly coached. He’s 38, been to eight Pro Bowls, and his 59,271 passing yards and 397 TD passes each rank sixth in NFL history.
Rivers knows better and shouldn’t need to be told.
For now, it’s time to pass on a sip of Kool-Aid and wait to see if there’s something better to drink later. That’s not to suggest the Colts will be popping corks of champagne after Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7.
But we’ll reserve judgment on gushing absolutes about how Rivers is destined to thrive in this offense with a solid offensive line and proven rushing game.
Lest anyone forget, this Rivers dance is a wait-and-see, a-lot-to-prove deal entering 2020.
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is email@example.com.)