COLTS

Carson Wentz traded to Washington after leadership, play cost Colts playoff berth

Joel A. Erickson
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts are trading starting quarterback Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders, two league sources told IndyStar on Wednesday, for a package of draft picks and full relief from his salary, a move that ensures Indianapolis will have its fifth different starting quarterback in the past five years.

Indianapolis traded Wentz and its second-round pick, No. 47 overall, for Washington's second-round pick, No. 42 overall; its third-round pick, No. 73 overall, and a conditional third-round pick in 2023 that could become a second-rounder if Wentz plays more than 70% of the snaps.

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Washington also took on Wentz's entire contract, handing the Colts more than $28 million in salary cap space and pushing their total to more than anybody else in the NFL heading into free agency next week.

The Colts have telegraphed the move away from Wentz ever since a promising regular season ended in embarrassing collapse in winnable games at home against Las Vegas and on the road against Jacksonville, the worst team in the NFL.

In the days and weeks after the Colts' crushing loss to Jacksonville in the season finale, Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard refused to commit to Wentz as their starter in 2022, even though they traded first- and a third-round picks last offseason to get Wentz with four years remaining on his contract.

"I don’t have a direct answer for you," Ballard said two weeks ago at the NFL combine. "Ultimately, we’ll do what’s best for the Colts, both in the short term and the long term.”

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Indianapolis traded for Wentz initially in the expectation that he could at least be a short-term answer, and the hope that he might be the long-term answer, after reuniting with Reich, the man who first developed Wentz into an MVP candidate in his second season with the Eagles.

The Colts believed that Wentz's disastrous final season in Philadelphia had been the product of an Eagles roster crumbling around him, and although Indianapolis did not expect Wentz to carry the team, the Colts thought they could rehabilitate him into an efficient passer who might be able to bring back some of the big-play elements of the passing game.

Reich was able to rehabilitate Wentz. But not enough to get the Colts' passing game to where it needed to be.

On the surface, Wentz's numbers seemed solid -- 27 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 3,563 yards and a 94.2 rating.

But in reality, the passing game collapsed as the season progressed, diving at the same time that running back Jonathan Taylor's season catapulted the second-year running back into the MVP conversation. With teams loaded up to stop Taylor, the passing game should have had more opportunities for big plays. When the running game found its footing in Reich's offense in 2018 and 2020, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers' efficiency had skyrocketed. 

Wentz's productivity went the other way.

Under Reich, Indianapolis has always considered yards per attempt to be a critical statistic to the passing game, and Wentz's tumbled to an ugly 6.3 yards per attempt over the final eight games, and he threw for more than 185 yards just twice in those final eight games.

Indianapolis finished 26th in the NFL in passing, and the team's quarterback play ultimately became the anchor that dragged down a Colts squad with the NFL's best running game, an opportunistic defense and an excellent special teams unit.

In the final weeks of the season and shortly after the season, Reich repeatedly said the passing game wasn't good enough. And although he refused to put the blame on Wentz alone, Wentz's inaccuracy, lack of decision-making and tendency to try for the big play instead of taking the open receiver deserved the lion's share of the blame.

Outside of protecting the ball, Wentz failed to play the way Reich has gotten other quarterbacks to play in the past, even though Reich said after the season that he'd coached Wentz harder than he ever had during their days together in Philadelphia.

"Make the layups," Ballard said he told Wentz at the end of the season.

But it was already clear at that point that the Colts might be moving on, given the team's reluctance to commit to him as the starter in 2022 and the description of the meeting Colts owner Jim Irsay held with Ballard and Reich the night of the Jacksonville game, a meeting that Ballard later described as an ass-chewing.

Wentz's play was not the only issue in a drama-filled year in Indianapolis. The Colts starting quarterback missed nearly all of training camp due to a bone fragment that broke loose in his foot.

Shortly after he returned, he was forced to sit out five more days as a close COVID-19 contact due to his decision to remain unvaccinated. All three of the Colts' top decision-makers -- Irsay most of all -- repeatedly spoke in favor of players getting vaccinated, with Irsay pointing out that it could be a competitive disadvantage. Wentz tested positive for COVID-19 late in the season, and a change in NFL rules kept him from missing time, but he did not practice that week.

At the combine last week, Ballard also mentioned the scrutiny that comes with the position and detailed a conversation he'd had with Wentz about handling criticism.

"If the criticism is fair, then we’ve got to be able to look internally and accept that and grow from it," Ballard said. "I’m not saying all of it is, but most of it’s pretty fair. It’ll be interesting to see how he grows from this. I think he will.”

Indianapolis does not appear to have an easy option to replace Wentz -- second-year backup Sam Ehlinger and developmental prospect James Morgan are the only quarterbacks on the Indianapolis roster -- but the Colts ultimately decided it was best to cut their losses, both in terms of the first-round pick they lost last season and the belief that he could help stabilize the franchise.

"I stuck my neck out for him last year. I was a big part of that decision to get him here, and so I believe he's going to continue to have a lot of success at quarterback," Reich said at the combine last week. "That might be here. That might not be here."

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Ballard has maintained that he does not regret making the trade at the time. 

The Colts made it clear that they wouldn't let the financial implications or the draft capital given up to acquire Wentz play a role in their decision.

"You always do what you think is the best with the information at the time," Ballard said. "I don’t ever worry about what we gave up or what we didn’t. We make the best decision going forward. Whatever the repercussions of that are, they are, and we deal with them and we figure out how we can move forward.”

The deal Ballard made Wednesday allowed the Colts to recoup some of the draft compensation, and it allowed them to escape without any financial ramifications.

But it extended the run of quarterback instability in Indianapolis, a run that has left Reich starting over in every season he's coached the Colts so far.

"Whatever ends up happening. ... you play the hand that you're dealt," Reich said. "You make the most of everything you have, and you know when you're playing that hand, you believe you're going to win that hand."