INDIANAPOLIS — One day removed from the season’s end, Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich clearly stated his desire for what the team should do at quarterback in 2021.
“Yes, as I sit here right now,” Reich said Sunday, “yes, I want Philip Rivers to be my starting quarterback next year.”
But before Colts Nation is convinced that Reich is too close to the 39-year-old Rivers to make a rational decision, the coach conceded it’s not just his decision to make. And everyone, including Rivers, understands the NFL is a business.
“Yes, that could change,” Reich said. “That’s the NFL. This isn’t a one-man show. Yeah, I’m the head coach but we have to do what is best for the team and if as an organization – as the head coach, GM (Chris Ballard) and ownership, Mr. (Jim) Irsay, those are the three primary decision-makers. As we sit down and talk through every option about Philip and what other options are out there, that will all get discussed. But what I’m really proud of for Philip is that he earned the right to be in that discussion.”
Rivers signed for $25 million to play his 17th season with the Colts (11-6), who made the playoffs for the second time in Reich’s three years and lost 27-24 to the Buffalo Bills in a Saturday AFC Wild Card game.
What the Colts decide about the most important position isn’t just a key in moving forward. Reich reiterated his belief that the Colts are close to winning a Super Bowl with the talent in his locker room.
Yes, roster turnover is inevitable. But a strong core of talented players led by the All-Pro trio of guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard, and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner provide a strong foundation.
That’s why who plays Colts quarterback has become the No. 1 topic for debate in social media with fans. Some are convinced Rivers did enough in completing 67.9% of his passes for 4,169 yards and 24 TDs with 11 interceptions. Others see how some of the best NFL talents at the position are mobile passers who can create big plays on their own like Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the Bills’ Josh Allen, and Houston’s Deshaun Watson. They favor having a quarterback who can be a dual-threat as opposed to the immobile, aging Rivers.
The only quarterback under contract for next season is 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason, who didn’t get many practice reps behind Rivers and backup Jacoby Brissett. Because Brissett becomes a free agent and is expected to sign elsewhere, Eason could elevate to a backup job. But he didn’t get any live action as a rookie to show if he's ready to be a starter.
The good news is that with Rivers and Brissett off the books, the Colts have $46.4 million spent on them to make a decision that won’t be impacted by money. They can sign anyone they want, presuming there’s someone they like, be it Rivers again or a free agent.
When the Colts signed Rivers last March, both sides expressed optimism that this could be more than a one-year marriage. But long term, considering he turns 40 in November, nobody is ignoring the reality that Rivers is not playing much longer. He’s already agreed to be a high school coach for his sons in Alabama when it’s time to retire.
Looking around the NFL, a few names enter the conversation as considerations. Carson Wentz is unhappy in Philadelphia and Rivers won a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles, so he knows him well. But the Eagles fired head coach Doug Pederson on Monday, so perhaps Wentz will find new life with a new hire.
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is also a popular mention. He’s 32 and has two more years and $22 million in base salary on a contract that also has $21 million in roster and workout bonuses. But Stafford has the option to opt-out and become a free agent.
Extreme optimists see that Watson is unhappy with the Texans, but don’t expect an AFC South Division rival to trade the NFL’s leading passer, no matter how disgruntled he is, and especially not within the division.
The other option is that the Colts could draft another quarterback, although their first-round selection is No. 21. If Ballard likes a young passer in this draft, would he be willing to part with picks and/or a player to move up and get one of the best available in this draft?
It seems unlikely because Ballard was adamant before April's 2020 draft that he wouldn't force a quarterback pick. And he didn't, although some suggested he might trade back into the first round to get Jordan Love, who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers to be an heir apparent to Aaron Rodgers.
That’s not to say the Colts wouldn’t like a quarterback in the second round, but if Ballard shares Reich’s belief that this team is close to a Super Bowl, do they hand the offensive reigns to a rookie or unproven Eason? Probably not ideal.
Ballard bought himself at least one year to think about scenarios after Rivers was signed. He could buy himself one more year by re-signing him. That's presuming Rivers wants to keep playing. The quarterback said his decision will be in accordance with God's plan.
But what if Ballard and Reich don’t agree? What if Ballard is convinced that Rivers can only take the Colts so far as a quarterback who has never made it to the Super Bowl? Then the GM has to make a move now.
“I think that’s what makes it so complex,” Reich said. “It’s not an easy decision and it is a very close-knit team. In particular with Philip, Philip is such a strong leader that when you think about the impact he was able to have on this team coming in in a virtual offseason and the closeness. I know Philip really well and Philip’s love for his teammates. That’s what keeps him coming back. I really believe that it’s the competition (and) it’s his love for his teammates. I know he’s been on a lot of great teams over the years, but I know that he felt it this year from the guys in this locker room.
"There is a closeness to that and there is something about that, you want to keep that together and you want to build off that. Those things are strongly considered in every decision, but there are also obviously other things to consider as well. Ultimately, when changes are made – I don’t know if I’m getting off your topic here, but we do count on the guys understanding really at every position that – everybody understands, coaches and players how this business works. That sometimes there are factors, change is going to happen at a position because it’s the moving target.”
That understanding also requires Reich to look at the situation with his head and not his heart.
“I do think it’s possible to maintain the emotion but to have the maturity to understand – that’s one thing about Philip, even though it’s only been one year, he understands,” Reich said. “I can just say that as we talked (Saturday night), I think we both know how we feel about each other and about the year that he had. We also know that this business is what it is. We know the natural tendency is to sit here and say, ‘Hey, this is great stuff. Let’s keep this rolling.’ That’s how we feel, and I hope that’s how he feels.
“You have to digest, you have to pull away and get perspective. You have to think about the whole thing and maybe that is the right answer at the end of the day. There might be a good chance that is the right answer. We will have to see, but it’s just too early to tell right now. Just know that the love and respect are real and what he did this year was pretty incredible.”