INDIANAPOLIS — The sting of losing his starting quarterback and friend to retirement was still there for Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich back in January. But as much as he wanted to reminisce about coaching Philip Rivers, Reich had to shift his focus to finding his fourth different starting quarterback in as many years.
He had an idea, one he wasn’t sure the Colts would be able to pull off.
It was maybe a day, two at the most, after Rivers broke the emotional news to Reich that the coach approached general manager Chris Ballard.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t know what Philadelphia’s plans are with Carson (Wentz), but do you think we can see if they will trade him?’” Reich recalled. “We knew one (quarterback) option was the draft and free agency. But I also knew there was a unique dynamic in Philadelphia. I felt like we had to make that connection and find out if it was possible.”
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This was no different from a year ago when Reich mentioned to Ballard and owner Jim Irsay he believed the organization should try to sign Rivers after the quarterback and the Chargers parted after 16 years.
Yes, Reich has a close relationship with Wentz the same way he does with Rivers.
But pursuing Wentz was different.
It was a risk for the Colts and, more importantly, Reich was putting his name on the line by telling his bosses he believed Wentz was the right person to stop the constant change at quarterback for the organization.
The coach wanted the Colts to give up draft picks for a quarterback who was benched after throwing 15 interceptions and was sacked 50 times in 12 games, while some wondered where Wentz was mentally. The Colts gave up a third-round pick in this year’s draft and a conditional second-round pick in the 2022 draft for Wentz.
Reich believes in himself as a coach the same way he believes in the starting quarterback getting the job done. He learned that approach from his father, who was a high school football coach for many years. He always emphasized “no one player is bigger than the team and everybody is important.”
Make no mistake: If landing Wentz doesn’t work, the pressure will be there on Reich because the days of having an established quarterback (Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck) will fall further into the distance, as will Irsay’s continued quest to win multiple Super Bowls.
“When you’re in the role of head coach, you take a lot of responsibility for it,” Reich said. “But that’s what you have to do. You have to be willing to stick your neck out and have some conviction about things. You don’t have to make every decision a make-or-break decision, but there are certain defining moments or big decisions. This is one of those big decisions, but I think as an organization we handled it the right way.”
Reich didn’t rely on his history with Wentz — two years as his offensive coordinator with the Eagles in 2016-17 — to validate the reunion. He watched every throw the quarterback made during the 2020 season to assess Wentz. Reich saw his fair share of poor throws and poor reads from Wentz while breaking down the film.
No quarterback with at least 100 pass attempts in the 2019 and 2020 seasons saw a bigger QBR drop-off than Wentz, who went from a 62.8 QBR in 2019 to 49.6 in 2020, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In addition, he has played all 16 games in the regular season only twice in his career.
Reich was Wentz’s coordinator in 2017 when the quarterback threw for an Eagles franchise-record 33 touchdowns and his 78.5 total QBR was 18.7 points higher than the rest of his career.
“It’s getting back on track, getting back in rhythm, just doing his job as a quarterback,” Reich said. “Do the little things right. Don’t be a hero on every play. Don’t have to try to make the spectacular plays every play. He has spectacular in his mind and his body that it’s naturally going to happen if he plays his game and does the little things right. That stuff will come out.
“I thought 2020 was an outlier year. It was not a good year for the team or for him and I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Part of it was him, part of it was other dynamics. I feel like we can get him back on track.”
Again, that’s Reich.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and quarterback coach Scott Milanovich will be the ones working with Wentz the most, but Reich will be heavily involved with the quarterback and game planning because he calls plays and has the most familiarity with Wentz.
“When you become a head coach, you don’t want to lose touch with what helped you get to the position that you’re at,” Reich said. “And part of what’s helped me to get to this position is whatever level quarterback coaching and offensive coordinator skills that I can bring to the equation, I want to continue to bring that. Now our approach to that is a very collaborative approach as a staff. I believe in that approach. To make that work, not only for Carson, but our whole team, it’s all of us doing it together.”
And again, that’s Reich.
That approach worked in his first season with Luck in 2018 when nobody knew where Luck was physically or mentally after he missed the 2017 season with a shoulder injury. Luck led the Colts to the playoffs and won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
It didn’t work with Jacoby Brissett in 2019, as the Colts went from starting the season 5-2 and finishing 7-9 with the quarterback struggling down the stretch.
It worked with Rivers last season, as the quarterback cut his interceptions down by nine while leading the Colts to the playoffs.
That’s why Irsay, who has been around the NFL for 30-plus years, believes Reich is the right person for Wentz to settle things down at quarterback for the Colts.
“The type of experience he has both as a player and as a coach, what kind of man he is, his intelligence, all the things that quite frankly make him one of the top one or two or three, maybe the best in the league at developing and grooming quarterbacks,” Irsay said. “At this point, I can’t think of anyone better. … He really gets an understanding — very realistic on saying, ‘How can I make this player be the best Carson Wentz Carson can be, period?’
“But in this league, we know we are quarterback-driven and when you have a coach like him who really gives a quarterback the best chance to be great in this league, that is really special and I think that’s one of the attributes that I feel makes us real Super Bowl contenders is his talent to be able to elevate a quarterback’s play to its very highest of levels.”