Maybe the Indianapolis Colts needed 2022 to happen.
The Colts hadn’t really faced reality after the Andrew Luck retirement. They were good enough most years as they patched together the quarterback spot with veterans looking for last chances. The Colts were too good to tear it down but not close to a championship contender. Entering last season, they were favorites to win the AFC South. If they had a normal post-Luck Colts season — a record hovering near .500, playoff contention despite no real hope for a deep playoff run — maybe they’d be onto another stopgap veteran QB in his late 30s, and they’d again be just good enough to put off a rebuild.
Nothing about the Colts’ 2022 season was normal.
Matt Ryan hit the wall hard and was benched. Twice. The Colts fired Frank Reich and made the shocking choice to hire Jeff Saturday, who had no coaching experience beyond high school, as the interim coach.
“You want to bet against this guy?” Colts team owner Jim Irsay said in a memorable, defiant press conference. “Put your money down, people. Love to see it.”
The Colts went 1-7 with Saturday. One of the losses was the wrong end of the biggest comeback in NFL history, when the Minnesota Vikings rallied from down 33-0 to win. However low the expectations were for a Saturday-led team, the Colts couldn’t even cross that bar.
At least it led to big changes. Irsay wanted Saturday to work out and give him the full-time job, but thankfully for Colts fans that didn’t happen. Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen was hired. Thanks to the Colts bottoming out last season they had the fourth pick in the NFL draft, and then they caught a break. The Colts claimed they settled on Anthony Richardson as their target a month before the draft, and then the Florida quarterback fell to them with the No. 4 pick.
There’s risk with Richardson. He had just 13 career college starts. He’ll need to develop. But no quarterback has ever come into the NFL with the physical profile of Richardson. He blew away the scouting combine, setting multiple testing records for QBs. The Colts, who have been settling at quarterback since Luck walked away, finally weren’t content swinging for a single.
“I didn’t want to look up and watch him be a superstar somewhere else,” GM Chris Ballard said in a team documentary after the draft. “If he’s going to be a superstar, he’s going to be a superstar for the Colts.”
If Richardson hits, the roster isn’t that bad. Plenty of holes were exposed during a miserable 2022 season, but there’s a decent foundation between a good offensive line, running back Jonathan Taylor, receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and a decent defense led by lineman DeForest Buckner.
Good or bad, it was time for the Colts to change paths. If Richardson becomes an MVP-level player down the road — and he has that ceiling — the crazy Saturday experiment and the entire miserable 2022 season will have been well worth the embarrassment.
The offseason will be remembered for the Anthony Richardson pick. It’s hard to recall a player with a wider range of NFL career outcomes. It was a good draft overall, with cornerback Julius Brents in the second round and intriguing (albeit small) receiver Josh Downs in the third. The Colts’ draft got the third-highest consensus grade among experts, via Football Outsiders, though a lot of that will be determined by Richardson. In free agency, the Colts added defensive end Samson Ekubam and defensive tackle Taven Bryan and also signed Matt Gay to the largest free-agent contract ever for a kicker (four years, $22.5 million). Quarterback Gardner Minshew was signed as insurance Indianapolis hopes it doesn’t need. The big loss was linebacker Bobby Okereke, who signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the New York Giants. The Colts also traded cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the Dallas Cowboys. If the draft was as good as everyone thinks, this was the offseason the Colts needed.
In a perfect world maybe Anthony Richardson would sit a full season, though sitting and learning is an outdated method of developing quarterbacks. Richardson might be a rare case in which it would be the right approach, given his inexperience. But it’s hard to believe the Colts will wait long. Owner Jim Irsay already has said Richardson will start as a rookie, though he didn’t specify when. After the first round of the draft concluded, Ballard tried tempering expectations for Richardson’s timetable to start.
“Let’s not expect him to be Superman from day one,” Ballard said.
If Richardson doesn’t look good in preseason, the Colts could turn to Minshew for a while. But at some point, and probably early in the season, the Colts will trust that Richardson’s playmaking upside will be worth living through whatever mistakes he’ll make.
BetMGM odds breakdown
I don’t have a great read on the Colts’ win total of 6.5 at BetMGM, but I’ll take some shots on the “Hey, what if Anthony Richardson’s freaky talent shows up right away?” possibility. If the Jacksonville Jaguars take a step back, the Colts could be next in line to win the AFC South. Their odds to win the division are +550. Richardson’s Offensive Rookie of the Year odds are +750 and I really like that. Voters like quarterbacks and Richardson is behind Bryce Young and CJ Stroud in those odds. If Richardson struggles in his first season, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise. But it’s worth the odds on Richardson putting up good numbers right away.
Yahoo’s fantasy take
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Scouting opinions vary greatly on Anthony Richardson, but his fantasy setup is an easy sell. Richardson showed electric rushing ability in college — both on power runs and on breakaway splash plays — and new head coach Shane Steichen was primarily the architect of Jalen Hurts’s breakout in Philadelphia. Even if Richardson struggles initially as a passer, his rushing chops, Steichen’s schemes, and the way fantasy football is scored sets the rookie up to be a high-upside fantasy pick.
“Richardson won’t be drafted as an initial fantasy starter — it’s possible the Colts won’t rush him to take over the job, especially with Gardner Minshew around as insurance — but he makes for an interesting ceiling choice once fantasy managers start picking their reserves.”
Stat to remember
Last season Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts had 123 designed runs and added 44 scrambles, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s 8.2 designed runs a game. Hurts gained 411 rushing yards on those designed runs, PFF said. SI.com said the Eagles ran a run-pass option (RPO) 251 times, or about 20% of their offensive plays.
Just because new Colts coach Shane Steichen was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator last season doesn’t mean the offenses will be the same. However, it’s feasible Steichen’s offense is even more run-heavy with Anthony Richardson at QB, whenever he takes over. Hurts had more than eight designed runs a game, and he was a much more advanced passer than Richardson with better receivers than the Colts have. We don’t know what Richardson will be as a passer in the NFL, but he can be a devastating runner right away. He’s 6-foot-4, 244 pounds and ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Read option plays with Jonathan Taylor at running back will be incredibly hard for a defense to defend, and RPOs will make the passing reads easier for an inexperienced quarterback. This could be a great scheme fit for Richardson.
Through four NFL seasons, Leonard was one of the best linebackers in football. He made three All-Pro teams. Then he had back surgery last year.
Leonard played in just three games last season and admitted he looked slow on film. He had a second back surgery. Even Leonard questions what comes next, as he enters his age-28 season.
“There’s been so many times where I’m thinking, will I ever be back to 53? Will I ever be back to ‘The Maniac?'” Leonard said in April, via the Indianapolis Star.
Leonard won’t rush back this time. There’s no guarantee he’ll be ready for the start of the season, though the early reports were encouraging. The Colts defense will rely heavily on Leonard’s return, especially with Bobby Okereke having left in free agency. His first four seasons, Leonard was a versatile, playmaking whirlwind. If Leonard doesn’t return to being that superstar linebacker, their hopes of having an above-average defense will take a big hit.
Last season was weird for the Colts, and not just because of their interim coach choice. Jonathan Taylor and Shaquille Leonard, two blue-chip players, were hurt most of the season. Other top players like guard Quenton Nelson and receiver Michael Pittman Jr. had unexpectedly down seasons. (Pittman can blame the quarterback play around him, and Nelson wasn’t the only offensive lineman to be far off his career norm.) The QB play was as bad as you’ll find in the modern NFL. But the Colts still have talent. The Colts were favored to win the division last season and they were one of three teams to beat the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals were the others. There are a lot of ifs involved, but if players like Taylor, Leonard and Nelson rebound to All-Pro form, if Shane Steichen’s offensive mastery with the Eagles carries over right away and if Anthony Richardson’s elite physical skill leads to him being a productive quarterback right away, the Colts could compete for a division title. It’s what was expected last season, after all.
The foundation of the Colts around the quarterback position seemed strong before last season. There are a lot more questions about some of those former All-Pro players heading into this season. Also, the Colts are going forward with an unknown at head coach and a massive wild card at quarterback. The focus is obviously on Anthony Richardson’s development this season. It will take a while before we know if Richardson hits, but you never want to draft a quarterback that high and watch him suffer through an awful rookie season. If Richardson is bad or doesn’t play much because he’s so far behind, and some of those other stars don’t rebound to what they were, the Colts could take another step back. And that’s hard to believe after such a putrid 2022.
The crystal ball says …
I want to have more faith in the Colts, and mostly write off 2022 as a weird season in which everything went wrong. But there are too many questions to have them further up in the rankings. I think Anthony Richardson will be a really good player, but it could take some time. The rest of the supporting cast is a mystery. So is Shane Steichen, though that seems like a good hire. I’ll say the Colts suffer through another losing season, but if Richardson is special early on that could change.
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