All the Indianapolis Colts had to do was beat the Jacksonville Jaguars—owners of this year's No. 1 overall draft pick, who already fired their head coach—to secure a playoff spot.
Simple, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong.
Like, predicting snowstorms in Jacksonville-level of wrongness.
The Colts and quarterback Carson Wentz fell flat on their faces in a stunning 26-11 loss at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday. In doing so, the organization has to question its entire approach after it missed the playoffs with Wentz leading the way.
"It's hard to put your finger on it," Wentz said of the Colts' offensive performance after he threw for only 185 yards in the season-defining loss. "Not the dynamic, explosive offense we thought we were ... I gotta protect the ball and do a better job."
Maybe Wentz isn't the quarterback the Colts have been looking for since Andrew Luck's retirement just before the 2019 season. Instead, his acquisition could have set the team back years.
This response to one loss after a winning campaign probably seems like an overreaction. Is it, though?
The signs of Wentz's shortcomings were already evident. But the Colts were ready to take the risk and invested quite a bit into what looked like a broken quarterback after last season because the front office and coaching staff felt they had the right situation to maximize his diminishing capabilities.
After all, the signal-caller had familiarity with multiple members of the staff because of their shared experience as part of the Philadelphia Eagles organization.
General manager Chris Ballard told reporters in May:
"I don't think you can ever minimize how important that is. The quarterback has to feel comfortable with who's pulling the strings and who's pulling the trigger. And that made the trade for Carson a lot easier because I knew there was a trust level between the two of them, and trust is everything in this league and trust between the quarterback and the play-caller is everything."
Ironically, the Eagles' success this season placed the Colts' decision under fire.
Without the 2016 second overall pick in the lineup, the Eagles finished with five more wins than they did last season, which is impressive even with the extra game on the schedule. Jalen Hurts, a 2020 second-round pick, established himself as the starting quarterback. Plus, the organization built a new identity as a run-first squad with Hurts serving as a dual-threat under the supervision of new head coach Nick Sirianni (a former Colts assistant coach).
Technically, the two franchises finished with the same record: 9-8. But one was already a playoff team and regressed, while the other improved to become a postseason participant. The through line for both is Wentz serving as the starting quarterback for teams that failed to make the playoffs.
Sure, that thought process may be simplistic. No quarterback is fully at fault for his team's downfall. The position often gets too much credit or blame. Yet, Wentz acknowledged he wasn't good enough down the stretch, which essentially wasted the performance of the team's best asset, running back Jonathan Taylor.
Taylor led the league with 1,811 rushing yards. He generated plenty of success. However, the lack of a consistent passing attack stunted the team's growth and contributed to the Colts losing their last two contests with a playoff berth on the line.
"Obviously, our run game is our identity and what we do, but we've got to be dynamic off of that," Wentz told reporters last week. "I feel like we've missed some things there. I've missed some things, got to be better there."
The Colts aren't like some other run-first teams that compensate for a lack of weapons in the passing game. Michael Pittman Jr. is a 1,000-yard wide receiver. Tight ends Mo Alie-Cox and Jack Doyle contribute as targets. The running backs get involved as well.
"I think we've had our moments where we just struggled throwing the ball," Wentz admitted.
On paper, the 29-year-old quarterback wasn't awful, as he posted a 27-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But the Colts changed their offensive approach to fit his skill set, and he didn't make the necessary plays to warrant such confidence.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Brady told reporters:
"Probably, our passes down the field has increased. Philip [Rivers] was different. He was getting the ball to them right now, and they had to create a lot of their yards after the catch, whereas we try to push the ball a little down the field (now) where yes, you may make the big catch, but it's catch-and-tackle for 30-yard gain. It's just a different style of offense that we play this year."
Kudos to the staff for trying to adjust and make life easier for the quarterback. At the same time, one has to question how broken Wentz really was after his falling out with pretty much everyone in the Eagles organization.
The quarterback's divide between himself and previous head coach Doug Pederson forced both out as the Eagles chose to restart. During the prior season, Wentz took too much on himself, which caused bad habits and worse mechanics. The quarterback wasn't even on the same page with his offense when he chose to check and audible at the line of scrimmage, according to The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia, Bo Wulf and Zach Berman. Sources stated the coaching staff "ran out of ideas to help him."
Despite everything, the Colts felt they could turn Wentz's career around and sent a 2021 third-round and a conditional 2022 second-round—which turned into a first-round selection when Wentz hit certain parameters—draft pick to the Eagles for the quarterback's services.
In doing so, the Colts also took on the remaining portion of Wentz's four-year, $128 million contract extension. Over the next three seasons, the quarterback's salary-cap charge will range from $26.2 million to $28.3 million, though no guaranteed money exists beyond the 2022 campaign, per Spotrac.
If the Colts can't find a way to turn things around next season, they could be back to trying to find a starting quarterback because they've cut bait with Wentz.
A look around the AFC isn't promising regarding the Colts' future.
In their division, the 12-5 Tennessee Titans ran away with the AFC South, even though Derrick Henry only played half the season because of a foot injury. Mike Vrabel's squad has taken the crown two years running, while the Colts haven't won a division title since 2014. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, meanwhile, should both be better in the second year of their rebuilds.
As for the rest of the conference, the New England Patriots found new playoff life with Mac Jones behind center. The Buffalo Bills are already one of the AFC's best teams. The Cincinnati Bengals are ascending with Joe Burrow and his talented trio of targets.
The Baltimore Ravens will get a healthy Lamar Jackson back. The Pittsburgh Steelers might actually upgrade from Ben Roethlisberger. The Cleveland Browns had plenty go wrong this season only to finish one game behind the Colts. In the AFC West, the Kansas City Chiefs are still kings. Outside the Denver Broncos, the rest of the division is highly competitive.
Wentz's status as Indianapolis' starting quarterback could very well hamstring the Colts for multiple seasons based on his recent play, financial status and the capital the team already invested. Meanwhile, many around the league should be envious of the Eagles, who are a playoff team with three first-round picks in April's draft.
The Colts thought they could get the most out of Wentz. They were wrong.