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Deshaun Watson outplayed Brissett, and the Colts’ running game was the only reason Indianapolis remained within striking distance.
Brissett lacks the dynamism necessary to consistently compete not only with the rest of the AFC but also in his own division.
It’s not entirely his fault, though. Brissett came into the year expecting to be Andrew Luck‘s backup. Then the 2012 No. 1 overall pick chose to abruptly retire two weeks before the regular season.
But Luck’s decision is old news. The Colts are now 11 games into the season with a 6-5 record and a game behind the AFC South-leading Texans. Indianapolis’ season is far from over, with winnable upcoming games against the Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars. The New Orleans Saints are the only Colts opponent that is clearly better than Indianapolis at the moment.
Even so, a winning season—even a postseason run—shouldn’t blind Colts brass to the reality of their quarterback situation: Brissett isn’t good enough to make the team a legitimate Super Bowl contender. He is what he is: an efficient former backup who won’t make critical mistakes yet can’t shoulder the offense is crucial situations.
With Watson and the Texans as the primary competition for AFC South supremacy, the Colts have a major problem.
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The teams split their two head-to-head contests this season. Brissett even outplayed Watson in the first meeting. In fact, the Colts quarterback’s best performance came in the previous rivalry game.
A four-touchdown, 326-yard performance on Oct. 20 provided a glimpse of Brissett’s ceiling. It wasn’t representative of his typical play, though. This season, the 26-year-old signal-caller sports an impressive 15-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. At the same time, Brissett ranks 16th or worse in completion percentage (64.6), yards per attempt (6.8) and QBR.
Brissett’s yards per attempt is the most damning stat, because he now ranks among the league’s worst in the category. His inability to consistently drive the football down the field or outright unwillingness to take shots places restrictions on the Colts offense.
The Texans frustrated the opposing quarterback by employing more zone Thursday instead of heavier doses of man coverage, as seen in the teams’ first meeting.
Head coach and play-caller Frank Reich chose a 10-to-5 run-to-pass ratio during the Colts’ final two drives while trailing in the fourth quarter. When it was all said and done, the scrambling quarterback couldn’t get the extra yard needed to extend Indianapolis drive on 4th-and-7 while trailing by three points with three minutes left to play.
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Granted, Brissett isn’t fully healthy. He’s dealing with an injured knee and wearing a bulky brace. Also, his weapons aren’t operating at peak performance. Indianapolis’ top wide receiver, T.Y. Hilton, was on a snap count while dealing with a calf injury.
But no team is healthy at this juncture. Injuries are not an excuse when playoff opportunities are on the line.
If anything, the Colts should expect Brissett to pick up the slack and elevate the play of those around him. The offensive line certainly did its job. Indianapolis’ vaunted front imposed its will on Houston’s defense. Jonathan Williams carried the ball 26 times for 104 yards. In doing so, the Colts were primed for a play-action passing attack that never materialized. Tight end Eric Ebron led all Colts targets with four receptions for 44 yards. Not a single receiver produced a catch longer than 14 yards.
Watson, meanwhile, hit multiple deep throws—which became the game’s deciding factor. Will Fuller V and DeAndre Hopkins both tested and exploited the Colts’ secondary with beautiful deep passes from Watson.
“It makes the game easy,” left tackle Laremy Tunsil told reporters of playing with Watson and Hopkins.
Good quarterback play should make the game easier. Offensive play shouldn’t be a constant battle.
The 24-year-old Watson has the look of a future MVP. He’s elusive and great at extending plays while keeping his eyes downfield. He can be both efficient and exploit man coverage on deep routes depending on what’s available. He’s the complete package. As such, the Colts will always be operating at a disadvantage if they decide to extend the Brissett era beyond this season.
But the team has an out worked into the quarterback’s contract. Brissett signed a two-year, $30 million deal prior to the start of the 2019 campaign.
“We want to make sure we make the right decision, both in the short term and in the long term,” general manager Chris Ballard said prior to completing Brissett’s contract extension, per the Indianapolis Star‘s Joel A. Erickson.
So it should come as no surprise the deal is essentially an overblown one-year proposition. The Colts can save $12.5 million by designating Brissett as a post-June 1 cut next year, according to OverTheCap. The team will still have a veteran presence in Brian Hoyer to serve as a potential mentor if it wants to swing for the fences with another quarterback prospect, and it should.
Indianapolis will have free-agent decisions to make with Ebron, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, tight end Jack Doyle and kicker Adam Vinatieri set to enter the market. However, an impressive young core of guard Quenton Nelson, tackle Braden Smith, center Ryan Kelly, running back Marlon Mack, safety Malik Hooker and linebacker Darius Leonard will remain intact. Also, the Colts own an eye-popping $109 million in projected salary-cap space for the 2020 campaign, per Spotrac.
Next season is the perfect time to go all-in with a quarterback since the cockpit is already built and the prospect can grow into the role of franchise savior.
The Colts would have the 19th overall pick if the season ended today. That’s not promising when searching for a top quarterback prospect. Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Washington‘s Jacob Eason or even Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (if he declares despite his hip injury) could all be in play at that juncture. Or the Colts could trade up since they have an extra second-round pick in their back pocket thanks to last year’s first-round trade-down.
At 6-5, the Colts still have a 46 percent chance of making the postseason, according to the Fox Sports telecast. They’d have significant better playoff prospects in the coming years with superior quarterback play. That level of play won’t come from Brissett. The Colts must find it elsewhere or run the risk of being stuck in the NFL’s version of limbo, aka mediocrity.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.