It surprised everyone. The news that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring Saturday night set Twitter on tilt and was met with skepticism from grizzled beat reporters, boos from the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd and even disbelief from new starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett:
The only person who appeared unmoved by the announcement was — unsurprisingly — Bill Belichick.
When the rest of the football world recovered, the consensus outlook for the Colts under Brissett wasn’t particularly good. On Sunday, Las Vegas dropped the line on the Colts win total from 9.5 to 6.5 wins. Our FiveThirtyEight Elo system dropped the Colts from a 9.2 win team to 7.5 wins. And as seen on Sunday Night Football, the model developed by Pro Football Focus put the new Colts win total at 7.1, down from nine wins.
Looking at Brissett’s performance over his career, it’s easy to see why the math and the markets are bearish on the Colts’ prospects. Indianapolis has a 4-11 record in games Brissett started, and the quarterback has averaged 6.6 yards per attempt over his career, below the league average of 7.2 for the years Brissett has been active. Brissett averaged just more than 200 yards passing per game in his only full season as a starter — a season in which he compiled a QBR of 41.5 — and his career completion percentage is just 59.1 percent. These numbers are not good.
We can try to find a silver lining. Completion percentage can sometimes be misleading. Quarterbacks who attempt deeper passes at a higher rate than their peers will see their stat line punished despite the fact that they are helping their team by attempting more valuable throws. If we account for how deep Brissett’s passing attempts have been over his career, however, we find that there aren’t many depths where he’s above league average — although the sample sizes at some depths aren’t large enough for us to conclude this with certainty.
Among active QBs, Brisset ranks in the bottom 10 percent in completion percentage over expected. His poor performance is exacerbated by the fact that Brissett also doesn’t attack downfield as often as Luck did. Brissett’s average depth of target — a measure of the distance downfield a quarterback throws — is just 7.2 yards, 1.4 less than Luck’s 8.6. The Colts will need Brissett to target star wideout T.Y. Hilton often to compete offensively, and Hilton’s average depth of target is located well downfield at 12.4 yards. This is a legitimate cause for concern. In 2017 — the only full season Hilton and Brissett have played together — Hilton saw his targets drop to just 109 after 155 in 2016.1
There’s really no sugar-coating the Colts’ 2019 prospects. Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard has been widely praised for the work he’s done since taking over from Ryan Grigson in 2017. But losing a franchise quarterback when you’ve built a team around the idea that you’re currently in a championship window will stress the skills of even the most competent GMs. Ballard’s options are unpalatable but clear: Try to win now with the team he’s assembled and risk being trapped in a purgatory of mediocrity while the cheap talent ages out of their early contracts, or front-load the pain and tank this season in an attempt to secure a high pick in what looks to be a promising quarterback draft class.
In a league where having a franchise quarterback is damn near everything, Brissett’s value to the Colts might be highest as air cover for a front office and coaching staff trying to lose as many games as possible.