After the Colts’ loss to the Browns on Sunday, head coach Frank Reich was asked about the status of starting quarterback Philip Rivers, who had his worst game of the season and who has yet to have a game with multiple touchdown passes in his first five games with the Colts.
Reich said that Rivers, who threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, and took a safety, was playing “really good football” and that his play was “the least of my worries.” But on Monday, Reich actually apologized for that comment.
“I admit that the statement I made was dramatic and probably overdone,” Reich said.
The Colts are 3-2 and it’s not like they’re in a bad situation given that they’re in second place in the AFC South and still have seven of their eight divisional games remaining. But their quarterback situation is in an odd place.
Where is it exactly? Let’s try to answer that.
Rivers hasn’t played that badly
Yes, Rivers has only four touchdowns and five interceptions. He ranks 16th among the 34 quarterbacks in Total Points per Snap. That’s better than Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford, Baker Mayfield, Kirk Cousins, and Lamar Jackson, not to mention Carson Wentz and Mitchnick Folesbisky (the Bears QBs).
But on the positive side, Rivers ranks sixth in the NFL in completion percentage, eighth in on-target percentage, and 12th in catchable percentage (partly a product of his being 22nd in ADOT). He also has the second-lowest sack percentage in the league.
Where Rivers has struggled most is in the red zone, which of course is where it counts most and where mistakes tend to be magnified in the public eye. He has a 28% Positive Percentage on pass plays in that area, completing only 14-of-27 passes. The only quarterback who rates worse in Positive Percentage (percentage of plays with a positive Expected Points value) there is Sam Darnold (15%).
But if you take that chunk of the field out, Rivers ranks seventh in the league in Positive Percentage on passing plays (59%). In other words, there’s still something there. He just can’t seem to extract it in every part of the field.
For Rivers, this is similar to last season, when he ranked 10th in Positive Percentage on pass plays outside the red zone, but 23rd in the red zone.
The other concern with Rivers is that he hasn’t fully synced up with the team’s top two receivers. He’s 19-of-32 when throwing to T.Y. Hilton and 12-of-21 to Zach Pascal. Rivers and Cam Newton are the only two quarterbacks with at least 40 pass attempts to wide receivers who have one or no touchdowns to them (Rivers has one, Newton has none).
This too matches an issue from 2019. Last season, he had 8 touchdowns and 17 interceptions when passing to Chargers wide receivers, easily the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio on such passes in the NFL.
To his credit Rivers still can throw the ball deep. He’s completed 8-of-13 passes of at least 20 air yards. But among the 23 quarterbacks with at least five such completions, he’s the only one with no touchdown passes.
Jacoby Brissett was better than he looked
If you look at the Colts’ quarterback situation strictly through the lens of Total Points, you might wonder why they felt the need to make a change this past offseason at all.
Jacoby Brissett ranked ninth among NFL quarterbacks in Total Points last season and did that in 14 starts. He ranked ahead of Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Deshaun Watson among many (including Rivers).
Yes, Brissett lacked a gaudy completion percentage (60.8%) and only threw 18 touchdown passes, but he also threw only six interceptions and had the second-most Rushing Points Earned among quarterbacks(8). He presents a run-pass threat that Rivers does not.
Even though he might not be able to air the ball out like others can (he ranked 23rd in ADOT last season), Total Points was favorable to Brissett for a number of reasons. Colts receivers didn’t help him out – they had the lowest catchable catch percentage in the league and the highest drop percentage last season. As noted, he helped his team when he ran the ball. He was also solid in third-down situations, ranking third among quarterbacks in Passing Total Points on third down.
As longtime Colts writer Mike Chappell pointed out in a deep dive on the Colts’ red zone issues, Brissett was respectable in the red zone. His nine red zone touchdown passes through the season’s first five weeks were tied for most in the NFL. He finished with 15 red zone touchdown passes and no interceptions.
When asked in his Wednesday press conference if he might plug Brissett into some red zone opportunities moving forward (something Reich acknowledged they might do in August), Reich didn’t give a direct answer, saying “we look at it each week. We have a big inventory of plays.”
The Colts have the luxury of games with the 1-3-1 Bengals and the 1-3 Lions sandwiched around a bye week before the schedule gets considerably tougher, with matchups with the Ravens, Titans, Packers, and Titans in Weeks 9 through 12.
So Rivers has a little more time to show what he can do. If he doesn’t straighten out his shortcomings, there’s time to turn to Brissett – which isn’t as bad an option as you might think.