INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts have been spoiled for the past 21 years.
The franchise has been fortunate enough to have two quarterbacks who were No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts: Peyton Manning in 1998 and Andrew Luck in 2012.
But the Colts are about to experience what many of the other 31 teams in the NFL have had to endure at some point over the past two decades. They have to find a franchise quarterback after Luck shocked the sports world with his sudden retirement on Aug. 24.
Enter Jacoby Brissett.
The Colts have resisted trade offers for Brissett in the past, and they showed their belief in him when they gave him a two-year, $30 million contract on Sept. 2.
"Money doesn’t define me, so therefore it wouldn’t change me to be anybody different," Brissett said. "So just to go out there and play football -- that’s what I’m excited for.”
Showing faith in Brissett financially and publicly backing him is nice. But the reality is, Brissett has to prove he's a starting quarterback capable of leading his team to the playoffs, beginning Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).
“I know this about Jacoby,” general manager Chris Ballard said. “He will not flinch. He won’t flinch. He didn’t when we brought him in here in ’17. Jacoby won’t flinch.”
Coach Frank Reich, a backup for most of his 13-year NFL career, had an hourlong conversation with his new starter shortly after Luck’s retirement to talk about expectations.
The conversation wasn’t one of those rah-rah speeches. It was rather laid-back, and the two found themselves completing each other’s thoughts, signaling another way that they’re on the same page.
One message Reich had for Brissett was he doesn’t have to be Luck. He doesn’t even have to be Reich.
"He handled it just how I thought. I mean, this guy is a pro," Reich said. "So it was more very conversational. It was more centered around, 'Be yourself. You don’t have to be a hero.' I had probably a list of about 12 things, 12 bullet points that I went through. I am not going to rehash everyone. To be honest with you, I know Jacoby knows everything I said. But I still think it was good for us to kind of go point by point through those 12 things -- experiences, lessons learned from my perspective over the years to help him in any way that I could. I thought it was a good visit.”
There’s nobody better in the Colts organization to talk to Brissett than Reich. Reich’s been in Brissett’s position -- stepping in to replace a starting quarterback.
“This is a tremendous advantage, tremendous help because Frank understands and can verbalize to him what he’s feeling more than anybody else in the building,” former Colts and Bills general manager Bill Polian said. “Frank has been there done that under more pressure than Jacoby is facing now. He had to do it in the playoffs. Having Frank there is a huge plus for Jacoby and the Colts.”
Reich started 22 games during his playing career, including leading the Buffalo Bills to the largest comeback in playoff history against the Houston Oilers in January 1993. Reich was also Philadelphia's offensive coordinator when quarterback Carson Wentz, who was having an MVP-type season at the time, tore his ACL late in the 2017 season. Nick Foles replaced him and led the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
“The reason [Reich] is so good is for him it’s not, ‘These plays will work. You’re going to run them,’" Foles said. "He watches film on the player and says, ‘Hey, these are the plays that it seems like you like to run and you have a good feel of running. What do you think?’ And that’s where the dialogue starts. He’s humble in his approach where he can build a game about what plays you want to run and you love so you can read and react and you can play at your highest ability."
Brissett doesn’t have to try to be somebody he’s not on the field, in the meeting room or in the locker room. Brissett is still the same lighthearted person, cracking jokes and keeping smiles on everybody’s face.
“Jacoby is going to be Jacoby,” tight end Eric Ebron said, laughing. “He’s business on the field, in our meetings. He doesn’t hesitate in speaking up about things. But at the same time, he’s not changing his personality, and that’s what you want. You don’t want somebody trying to be somebody they’re truly not.”
The Colts will have options at season's end if Brissett struggles. They can select a quarterback if they have a high draft pick. The Colts will also have salary-cap space to pursue one in free agency, if necessary.
The Colts were 4-11 with Brissett as the starter after he replaced the unproductive Scott Tolzien in the second half of their Week 1 game at the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 when Luck was out with a shoulder injury. The record wasn't all Brissett's fault.
He was basically set up to fail in 2017. Brissett was acquired from New England a week before the start of the regular season, which meant he was learning the offense on the fly during a time when Ballard had just started his roster makeover. Brissett was 276-of-469 for 3,098 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions while also being sacked an NFL-high 52 times that season.
The Colts aren't the same team now.
Indianapolis' starting offensive line, which gave up a league-low 18 sacks last season, returns in tact. And, top skill position players such as T.Y. Hilton are back for an offense that finished seventh overall last season. The Colts used seven of their 10 draft picks on defensive players to go along with the free-agent signing of pass-rusher Justin Houston to a defense that ranked 11th overall last season.
Ballard has said since the day he was hired in 2017 that the Colts are not about one player. They want a complete roster so the weight of the franchise isn't on the quarterback's shoulders. Hilton, who is not known for making bold statements, called the current roster the best one he’s been on in his playing career. That’s why it’s too early to write the Colts off this season.
“It’s the ultimate team game,” Ballard said. “I do believe in defensive football. I know you’ve got to score points, I get it. But you’ve got to be able to block people and you’ve got to be able to stop people. Those are two areas that we’ve really emphasized since we’ve been here. And the depth that you have, we are obsessed with it. We are absolutely -- as a coaching staff, as a scouting staff -- we’re obsessed with depth. You have to constantly be looking to upgrade and make sure you’ve got the type of depth you need to win.”
If there’s a chance for success for Brissett, it’s now. He’s in his second season in Reich’s offense and has been the starting quarterback since the spring because Luck was out with the lower leg injury. That means there's no overhauling of the offense to suit Brissett's game. Brissett, according to Reich, has taken more than 1,200 first-team snaps going back to April. He's also worked with throwing coach Tom House to improve his accuracy.
“That’s more than a season’s worth of plays that he has had with the first team here in practice, counting OTAs and training camp,” Reich said. “That’s not even counting what we did in Phase II. But you can just feel his presence in the huddle on the field, the confidence that he has had and the chemistry with the receivers.
"We all know that Andrew and T.Y. had a very unique chemistry and connection. I can feel that developing with Jacoby and T.Y. You can feel that developing with Jacoby and Ebron, [Devin] Funchess and the likes. So that has been very important that Jacoby has got all those reps.”
Brissett made his debut for the Colts two years ago in Los Angeles against the Rams. Just as he'll be facing a different L.A. team this time, it'll be a different Jacoby Brissett lining up behind center. That's what the franchise expects.