“I need to get back on track,” said Philip Rivers, eight years ago, on a warm winter day in San Diego, days after seeing Chargers talent man AJ Smith and coach Norv Turner lose their jobs.
Rivers had veered off course, largely because the franchise had lost its way.
Enter Frank Reich, a former NFL quarterback with an easy, confident manner and a Super Bowl pedigree. With Reich as his quarterbacks coach, Rivers returned to form and delivered perhaps his best NFL season in 2013.
Years later, when the Rivers & Reich partnership had one more comeback to make, it again succeeded: Rivers and Reich reuniting last March with the Colts paid off in an 11-5 season, Rivers playing well after a final rough ride with the Chargers and Reich cementing his status as a capable head coach.
When Rivers retired last month, he left Fix-it Frank without a quarterback.
Now he turns to Carson Wentz, 28, via Thursday’s distress-sale trade with the Eagles.
Wentz landing with Reich and a talented Colts team is a promising development, not only for Wentz and perhaps the Colts, but also the NFL, whose business model begins with touchdown passes. Think of Indianapolis as the anti-New York to a Sinatra soundtrack; if Wentz can’t make it there, he can’t make it anywhere.
But this will be a tougher reboot than the two with Rivers. Wentz’s 2020 season was worse — much worse — than any Rivers endured.
Rivers never was as inaccurate as Wentz was last year, never as consistently befuddled.
The Eagles weren’t wrong to trade Wentz. The relationship had run its course.
MVP was Eagles blocking
It is asking a lot, but if Wentz can rebound and play as consistently well as he did under Reich in 2017, when the quarterback was a second-year starter and Reich was the offensive coordinator, the Colts will join the Bills, Ravens and Browns as leading threats to the Chiefs in the AFC.
Wentz played a not-small role in the ’17 Eagles winning the Super Bowl despite sitting out that game. His performances by him until late in the Week 14 contest, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury, contributed to the Eagles getting a first-round bye and two home-field matchups.
The Eagles’ 11-2 record in his 13 starts made Wentz a contender in the league’s MVP race — but keep this in mind:
The MVP of Philadelphia’s offense was the blocking unit.
Eagles blockers created running lanes. Inside. Outside. Against overloaded defenses. In the red zone. Anchored by a three-time All-Pro in center Jason Kelce, the Philly line — superior to any Chargers unit that fronted Rivers — also got reliable help from a group of tight ends headed by Zach Ertz. Known as a dangerous receiver, Ertz was also a playmaking blocker who thwarted Chargers star end Joey Bosa a few times in Philadelphia’s Week 4 victory.
The “Fly Eagles Fly” cries of fans could’ve been “Run, Green, Run.”
A ground game that defenses respected set up run-pass option plays that, in 2017, NFL teams were struggling to figure out. With the RPO game humming in the Super Bowl, Wentz’s replacement, Nick Foles, and teammates ripped the Patriots for 538 yards, including 164 on the ground, in the 41-38 victory.
The formula didn’t hold up as Wentz moved past the training-wheels stage. When the Eagles’ blocking (and overall playmaking talent on offense) didn’t match that of the Super Bowl team, Wentz’s limitations were exposed. His game of him eroded as his struggles mounted.
Rivers had a similar journey in 2011-12, when Chargers blocking deteriorated.
In 2013, new Chargers coaches pruned bad plays that had plagued Rivers. If Rivers was flushed right, no more would he try to complete a pass. Nor would he throw deep over the middle if that was not his first option.
The coaches put in a quick-pass game. Rivers being Rivers, I have mastered it fast.
Rivers said Reich, his position coach, emphasized footwork and other quarterback fundamentals to an extraordinary degree. Even late in the season with his veteran quarterback, Reich revisited the basic building blocks.
Last year, the biggest boon to Rivers was the forceful, mature Colts offensive line. The best line to front Rivers, it featured a very good center (Ryan Kelly) and the only All-Pro lineman to block for Rivers (guard Quenton Nelson).
Wentz landed in the right place, for sure.
The Colts will have to replace retired left tackle Anthony Castonzo but still should supply Wentz a top-10 blocking unit enhanced by versatile tight ends. Jonathan Taylor heads an explosive ground game that will lead to clean play-action shots to receivers such as fellow sophomore Michael Pittman. Quick-and-fast Nyheim Hines and Parris Campbell will help Wentz rev up the quick-pass game Reich figures to emphasize.
The Colts’ defense and special teams should be top-10 units, taking heat off Wentz. Relatively ample salary-cap space that AFC South champion Tennessee must envy is an offseason tool for GM Chris Ballard, who still has his top-two draft picks after getting Wentz for this year’s third-round pick and a conditional second-rounder in 2022.
Reich, who had the good luck or good sense to align with strong offensive lines since leaving San Diego after his dismissal in 2016, has shown he knows to play to his QB’s strengths.
Wentz doing his part is tougher to project. Durability is a big question. His checked injury history includes back and head trauma. He is strong-armed, powerful and fairly fast as a sprinter, yet isn’t graceful.
He isn’t likely to match the spectacular playmaking of AFC rivals Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. Nevertheless as a Colts-blue tide raises his boat, it’s realistic for Wentz to re-emerge as a Super Bowl contender.