Carson Wentz gives the Colts a chance
This has been a rocky season for the Colts but, quietly, we're seeing hope in the quarterback. He made the plays late to win in Sunday's monsoon. Jimmy G? Not so much.
What a fitting environment. Both the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers entered the 2021 season in Win Now mode, both suffered their share of gut-punch losses and, on Sunday night, both teams were desperate for a win to resuscitate their seasons in Santa Clara, Calif.
Of course, they’d play in a monsoon.
Start to finish, the bomb cyclone currently slamming the West Coast never relented… and clearly affected the quality of play.
Depending on how you consume this sport, you either loved it or hated it. You either relish the elements or abhor the fact that such severe weather can paralyze the best athletes on the planet. And while it’d be easy to dismiss this game as a total wash, the fourth quarter absolutely showed us why the Colts went all-in on Carson Wentz and why the 49ers — five seasons and 38 games in — must rip the Jimmy G Band-Aid clean off.
One quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, is forced to play with training wheels on even if it’s a perfect 70-degree day. Let alone this. So the second those wheels came off, on third down with 5 minutes left, he threw a nasty interception.
One quarterback, Wentz, promptly sealed the win with a 28-yard touchdown to Michael Pittman Jr. up the right sideline. We’ve known since Day 1 that head coach Frank Reich has guts. Suppose digging the Buffalo Bills out of a 35-3 hole once upon a time has something to do with that. And he was utterly unafraid of the rain Sunday night. After gifting the 49ers an incomplete pass with 2 minutes and 56 seconds to go, the pressure was on. Reich could’ve tried inching ahead for a few more yards to set up a potential field goal, his team up 23-18.
That would’ve forced 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan to use his final timeout, too.
But, no. The Colts didn’t acquire Wentz to kick field goals.
They unleashed the perfect play for the perfect moment.
With three receivers lined up to the right, the Colts faked a quick receiver screen. Wentz pumped and went up top to Pittman who Moss’d it atop Dre Kirkpatrick’s head.
Game. Set. Match.
This quarterback and this coach won’t hesitate late in games.
“I love that Frank was aggressive and trusted us with that,” Wentz said at his presser. “That’s the first thing I told him: ‘I appreciate you trusting us.’ And me appreciating, just trying ‘Pitt’ and his ability to go up and get that. I thought it was cool for coach to trust us with that play and for Pitt to go up and make that play and really seal the deal, that was huge for us.”
It’s been a rough year for the Colts. They lost by three points to the Los Angeles Rams. They blew the 25-9 fourth quarter lead to Baltimore. They’ve been ravaged by injuries.
But under the radar — with virtually zero national attention — one truth has stuck through Indy’s 3-4 start: Wentz is starting to look like himself again. He may never be the MVP frontrunner from 2017 again but anything remotely close to that will do fine. It’s easy to see why the team traded Philly a third-rounder in 2021, a conditional second in 2022 and took on this salary. He gives them a legit chance. The question wasn’t anything physical — Wentz makes every throw, Wentz creates magic outside the pocket. The question was all mental. Despite battling through injuries to both ankles this season, Wentz hasn’t resembled the hesitant, mistake-prone passer with the yips from 2020.
Through seven games, he has now completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 1,695 yards, 11 touchdowns and one pick with a 102.8 passer rating.
It helps when Chris Ballard, not Howie Roseman, is assembling the roster around you, too.
The Colts’ general manager is one of the best talent evaluators in the league.
As the talent around Wentz drained in Philadelphia, he tried doing far too much. The End in Philly was ugly. With Jonathan Taylor — who we chatted with last season, ICYMI — in full, lock-step calibration with one of the best lines in the NFL, he doesn’t need to improvise like crazy. Everything here starts with the former Wisconsin Badger back that Wentz called “as dynamic of an all-around back as it comes” after the 49ers win. He’s right. Taylor’s sixth sense for how and when rushing lanes crack open is rare and the product of a mind unlike any other at the position. As you can read at the link above, Taylor puts his Philosophy major to use at running back.
Taylor once visited the Harvard campus three times because he dreamt of becoming an astrophysicist.
He’s still into complex jigsaw puzzles, too.
Screens. Shallow routes. Running between the tackles. Busting long runs. There’s not a weakness to Taylor’s game. He pounded away last night 18 times for 107 yards.
And in Pittman, Wentz has a receiver capable of plucking away jump balls in traffic. Afterward, Wentz was blunt: He said he trusted his guy making this sort of play in these conditions more than their guy. On another bomb early, Pittman beat vet Josh Norman for 57 yards. And yet another deep ball to the end zone resulted in a pass interference penalty that set up a touchdown.
Pittman’s a rising star. (He also makes us all feel pretty damn old. Yes, his Dad was the muscle-bound back on Tampa Bay’s 2002 Super Bowl team.)
Let’s give Wentz credit for pulling the trigger, too.
Scared money doesn’t make any money at QB in today’s NFL. Just take a look at the teams that took half-baked approaches at the position over the offseason. The Carolina Panthers traded a few picks for Sam Darnold, who was still on his rookie deal. After a hot start, the former third overall pick has regressed sharply through a four-game losing streak. Darnold was even benched in Carolina’s 25-3 loss to the New York Giants. He threw for a paltry 111 yards.
Washington’s decision to go cheap with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke has backfired through a 2-5 start.
Shanahan is still content rolling out a quarterback in the same mold. He took his own big swing in the spring, trading away three first-rounders and a third for the rights to North Dakota State’s Trey Lance but, to this point, is doing everything in his power to keep Lance on ice. Meanwhile, Garoppolo is Garoppolo is Garoppolo. Good, never great. Fine, never phenomenal. Throw him into a monsoon and your offense is doomed. I get it. Rookie Trey Lance is raw. Really raw. But there’s no more delaying the inevitable. The team is reminded every week that Garoppolo will only take it so far.
Lance at least has a chance to be special. His game actually would’ve been perfect in these conditions, too.
Instead, Wentz was the quarterback making plays with his legs.
His 17-yard run through a sea of red on second and 15 set up a key field goal in the fourth quarter, too. After everything he’s been through, I think we all expected Wentz to hit the deck and slide halfway through. He did not. He froze one linebacker with a shoulder dip, trudged ahead, took a huge shot from safety Talanoa Hufanga and popped up immediately to signal first down.
The margin for error is small after the heartbreaking losses but the Colts can still think big in 2021.
That’s all a team can ask for in today’s NFL, too.
“This was a huge one for us,” Wentz said afterward. “Hopefully, it’ll propel us into a big one next week.”
He’s not kidding.
Up next is a date with the surging Tennessee Titans, a team that blasted the Kansas City Chiefs. Pull off this upset and everyone will have no choice but to notice Wentz.
Derrick Henry averaged 3.0 yards per carry and Tennessee still routed the Chiefs, 27-3, in a game that really wasn’t that close. That’s why this offense is different than most every other offense that’s had a 2,000-yard back. The Titans have a legit passing game that’ll make teams pay for loading up the box. Christian Ponder couldn’t take advantage of defenses trying to stop Adrian Peterson, nor could Jeff Kemp for Eric Dickerson. In Nashville, Ryan Tannehill certainly can with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones.
It’s time for Mike Tomlin, Kevin Stefanski and John Harbaugh to be worried. Joe Burrow has arrived and he’s here to stay. These Bengals are not those Bengals of old — Burrow torched the same Ravens defense that just shut down Justin Herbert. For most of a generation, the Steelers and Ravens haven’t had to worry about much of anything in the state of Ohio. Andy Dalton could only take Cincy so far. This 416-yard day announced Burrow’s presence in the AFC North. He and receiver Ja’Marr Chase are around to stay.
OK, the Buccaneers are the defending champs. They’re in a different stratosphere. But the Bears’ loss in Tampa Bay sure felt like rock bottom. Fun Fact: Quarterback Tom Brady has 61 touchdowns in 23 games as a Buccaneer. That’d rank eighth on the all-time Bears list, right between Jim Harbaugh (50) and Erik Kramer (63).
The Packers keep on winning ugly and, hey, that’s fine. They’ll take the mini revelation of Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan making crucial catches over anything else in a 24-10 win over the WFT. They’re in need of a threat opposite Davante Adams and these two combined for nine receptions, 123 yards and two touchdowns on 11 targets. The real test is Thursday night against the undefeated Arizona Cardinals. Get your Bratwursts ready.
Wasn’t Brian Flores hired for his defensive mind? After allowing Laviska Shenault to set up a game-winning field goal in London, the Dolphins head coach covered freak rookie Kyle Pitts one-on-one in a 30-28 loss to the Falcons. Pitts himself said he was “surprised and excited” by the single coverage. Now, Pitts’ 471 receiving yards through six games are the most for any tight end ever in their first six pro games. Miami, meanwhile, may need to fork over draft ammo for Deshaun Watson.
Miss our Friday Feature last week? Saints receiver/returner Deonte Harris opened up to Go Long on nearly quitting the sport last month. He sunk into a deep depression when his girlfriend had a miscarriage, one of his best friends died and he was arrested. As Harris puts, be sure “to check on your people.”