Monday’s revelation that new Indianapolis quarterback Carson Wentz will undergo immediate surgery to remove a bone from his left foot, an operation expected to sideline him up to 12 weeks, promises to have major ramifications unlikely to be limited to the Colts and their 2021 season.
It’s obviously a shame for Wentz, who was set to hit reset his once-promising career amid a reunion with head coach Frank Reich, who was Wentz’s offensive coordinator for two years in Philadelphia. That included the 2017 campaign, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl after largely being propelled by Wentz’s MVP-caliber performance in the regular season … until he was sidelined in Week 14 by a torn ACL.
Prior to last year’s disaster in Philly, Wentz had been solid without Reich yet hadn’t recaptured his golden touch from 2017 while continuing to be waylaid by injuries. He had earned praise from his new Colts teammates during the offseason, notably All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard. But whatever progress Wentz forged in a positive direction – following a season in which he tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions (in 12 games) – is now indefinitely on pause.
Meanwhile, he’s hardly the only one affected by his latest physical setback:
As of Monday afternoon, Indianapolis had four backups for Wentz on the roster: newly signed veteran Brett Hundley, 2020 fourth-rounder Jacob Eason – he never took a snap last year, when there was no preseason due to COVID-19 – and rookies Sam Ehlinger and Jalen Morton.
Hundley has kicked around the league since being a fifth-round pick of the Packers in 2015, going 3-6 in nine NFL starts while completing fewer than 60% of his passes and throwing more career interceptions (13) than touchdowns (9). His experience, however mixed, might suggest he’ll be the front-runner to replace Wentz once the season starts. Yet Reich currently favors Eason. « The job is Jacob’s right now, » the coach said Monday, « and he’s gotta earn it. But he’s in the driver’s seat. »
Still, GM Chris Ballard could always attempt to reacquire former backup Jacoby Brissett, who signed with the Miami Dolphins during free agency and has a $2.5 million base salary in 2021. The list of the league’s capable backups includes the Raiders’ Marcus Mariota and Jaguars’ Gardner Minshew II.
And, of course, Ballard could always place an inquiry to a team three hours up the road. The Chicago Bears’ Nick Foles played so memorably in Wentz’s stead for Philadelphia but also cast a long shadow thanks to his MVP performance in Super Bowl 52. He’s now third on Chicago’s depth chart behind veteran Andy Dalton and first-rounder Justin Fields and acknowledged the speculation percolating around him.
« Listen, Frank Reich is one of my favorite – if not favorite – coaches of all time. He understands me as a player, he understands me a as a person, » Foles said Monday. « But we haven’t had any talks. »
Indy’s playoff hopes
Despite a revolving door under center – Wentz was set to be the Colts’ fourth predominant QB1 in four seasons, following Andrew Luck, Brissett and Philip Rivers, who retired after the 2020 season – Indianapolis has reached the postseason twice in three years under Reich, going a collective 28-20 in the regular season.
However the Colts open this season against the Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Dolphins and Ravens, teams that all won at least 10 games in 2020 and project as playoff contenders this year, too. Indianapolis overcame a dreadful 1-5 start in 2018 behind Luck before winning nine of 10 to close the regular season. If Wentz is out a full 12 weeks, he wouldn’t return to action before Oct. 24 at San Francisco, which is Week 7. As generally solid as the Colts’ roster projects, that might be unrecoverable given Wentz has yet to see any game action with this group, a distinct difference from Luck’s situation.
If the Colts spiral into irrelevance during Wentz’s absence, who’s going to stop the reigning AFC South champion Titans from running away and hiding with another division crown? Tennessee hasn’t had a losing season since 2015 and upgraded its already imposing offense this offseason by prying perennial Pro Bowl wideout Julio Jones out of Atlanta.
Tough to envision the down-to-the-studs Texans or Urban Meyer’s rebooting Jaguars posing much threat to Tennessee, which hosts the Colts on Sept. 26 (Week 3) and visits Indianapolis on Oct. 31 (Week 8), when Wentz will theoretically be in the lineup. Still, a seemingly major opportunity for the Titans to serve an early knockout blow – if the Colts aren’t already on the mat by Halloween – while conceivably gaining an upper hand for the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and lone first-round bye considering how tightly the top of the conference appears to be packed.
The second-year back had a good chance of being the focal point of Indy’s offense – with help from Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack – regardless of Wentz’s circumstances. A second-round pick last year, Taylor’s season-ending flourish – 741 yards and seven TDs on the ground in his final six regular-season games of 2020 (five of them wins) – coincided with the Colts’ push to the AFC’s final wild-card berth. Overall, Taylor’s 1,169 rushing yards ranked third league-wide, and his 11 TDs tied for seventh. With Wentz out for the foreseeable future, Taylor might get a jump on his first rushing title out of necessity … or more likely be a man under siege from nine-man boxes.
Probably the best division in the league top to bottom, it will be facing a suddenly shakier AFC South in 2021. With the Seahawks and Rams drawing Indianapolis in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, they could get an early leg up on the aforementioned 49ers – they’re likely to face Wentz, even if he’s rusty – and Cardinals, who will host the Colts on Christmas night.
Aside from the Colts, perhaps no team is more directly impacted by Wentz’s injury than his former one. The Eagles finally hopped off the Wentz roller coaster when they agreed to trade him in February. Philadelphia, which received a Round 3 selection this year, will also recoup a first-round pick in the 2022 draft – if Wentz plays 75% of the Colts’ offensive snaps this season or 70% and Indianapolis reaches the playoffs – otherwise, the compensation will be a second-round choice. The Eagles will be fervently rooting for Wentz to be back by Week 5, hoping he remains healthy and plays well enough to keep the Colts relevant enough that they don’t shut him down late in the season. The expanded 17-game schedule might at least give Philadelphia more reason to hope – especially if it quickly becomes apparent that second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts doesn’t play like a worthy successor to Wentz.
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