INDIANAPOLIS — Carson Wentz faced plenty of criticism in Philadelphia — most fair, some not — but it was almost never delivered by the Eagles, especially in a public forum.
The Colts, though, have been unsparing in their assessment of the quarterback since their disappointing end to last season. While comments made in January by general manager Chris Ballard, and less so by head coach Frank Reich, suggested a last straw approach heading into the offseason, they declined to endorse Wentz as their starter for 2022 at the NFL combine Tuesday.
“I don’t have a direct answer for you,” Ballard said at the Indiana Convention Center. “We’re working through it. [Colts owner] Jim Irsay, Frank and I will sit down over the next 10 days and figure out where it’s going.
“But, ultimately, we’ll do what’s best for the Colts, both in the short term and in the long term.”
Ballard said he met with Wentz in his office earlier in the day and that he had a productive conversation with the 29-year-old. Reich said he sat down with the quarterback, as well, and that he felt “a resolve in him” despite the team’s unwillingness to commit to him.
But the Colts’ public uncertainty wasn’t meant to test Wentz. They are clearly looking at other options under center. The market for quarterbacks, though, isn’t exactly deep. It’s how they found themselves trading with the Eagles last year.
Reich, having been the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in Wentz’s first two seasons, sold Ballard on the idea that he could fix him. It was also believed that the new environment, one maybe more forgiving, would allow for him to flourish.
Wentz did improve upon 2020′s dismal season. But he struggled in big spots, none more so than in the season finale when he turned the ball over twice, made multiple mental errors, and the Colts lost to the lowly Jaguars and were eliminated from the playoffs.
“I thought Carson did some good things,” Ballard said after the season, “and there’s a lot of things he needs to do better.”
Asked about Wentz’s mental state in light of the doubt about his future, the Colts GM said he wanted to see how he would learn “to handle the criticism.” When the Eagles were winning, Wentz’s personality was often described as Type A. Many NFL quarterbacks have that similar gene.
But when the team’s fortunes declined following the Super Bowl season in 2017, some team sources labeled his reluctance to take hard coaching as stubbornness.
“Always ask yourself, ‘Is the criticism fair?’” Ballard said. “I’ll take it in if it’s fair. If it’s not fair, what am I doing? I’m not wasting my headspace on that. But if the criticism is fair, then we got to be able to look internally and accept that and grow from it.
“Most of it’s pretty fair. And it’ll be interesting to see how [Wentz] grows from this. I think he will.”
Many fans in Philly have understandably moved on from the Eagles’ former first-round pick. When Wentz played in more than 75% of the Colts’ snaps, thus turning a conditional second-rounder that the Eagles received in the trade into a first-rounder, it closed the door on a relationship that started off with great promise but ultimately petered out.
Howie Roseman essentially didn’t want to trade his crowning move upon his return to the Eagles personnel department in 2016. But when Wentz expressed his desire to play elsewhere, the Eagles general manager somehow managed to get ample return despite not having many suitors.
Both teams are currently mired in a quarterback middle ground. But the Eagles have Jalen Hurts on his rookie contract and three first-round picks in April’s draft. They can kick the can one more season with the third-year quarterback and continue to address the holes on their roster. Or they can use their capital to draft a replacement for Hurts or trade for one.
But does such an option exist? Most quarterback-needy head coaches or GMs interviewed at the combine on Tuesday declined to give their assessments of the class because repeating what the draft community has unanimously said — it’s not good — would likely hinder their leverage in a trade.
But how many quality passers will be available? It once appeared as if Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson would be gettable. But the Packers are reportedly working on a new contract with Rodgers. The Seahawks have made zero indication that they plan to deal Wilson, although GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll talk Wednesday.
And the Texans remain in limbo with the 26-year-old Watson, perhaps the most attractive to teams like the Eagles because of his age, but still the subject of criminal and civil complaints for his alleged sexual misconduct with 22 massage therapists.
Houston may be forced to trade Watson, who reportedly wants out, rather than pay him $35 million to not play. The Texans ate $10 million last year. But how many teams would be willing considering his baggage?
There are as many as eight teams that have an obvious quarterback need. The Buccaneers joined that group when Tom Brady announced his retirement last month. Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians was asked about finding an elite replacement.
“I like about eight of them, but they’re all playing for somebody else,” he told reporters. “I don’t see guys giving up quarterbacks unless they’ve got a really good [No. 2 quarterback] sitting on their bench, because this draft is a little thin.”
There are about 10 more teams — the Eagles seemingly fall into this group — that may be looking to upgrade the position if the right situation were to present itself. But if the aforementioned top-tier quarterbacks can’t be wrestled away, that leaves only second- or third-tier options such as Jimmy Garoppolo, maybe Derek Carr, and few other possibilities.
As much as Washington coach Ron Rivera and Denver GM George Paton said they’re going to be aggressive in their pursuit of one of the rarest species in sports — an elite quarterback — even the most talented don’t have the mental strength to meet the position’s demands.
“It’s the most scrutinized position in sports and one of the most difficult to play in sports because you’re playing a position where you have to make accurate throws with people actually trying to hurt you,” Ballard said. “And then the scrutiny that comes into play in the position week to week. … And so, handling the ups and downs of it and staying the steady course.”
Wentz’s future could impact the dominoes that are to fall this offseason, but he may not have many opportunities to start. The Colts were the only team to make an offer last offseason. Other wary teams based their evaluations mostly on his on-field regression, but how the Hurts pick affected Wentz had to be taken into consideration, as well.
His relationship with Doug Pederson had also soured by the time the former Eagles coach benched him.
“I’ve always wanted the best for him,” said Pederson, who became Jaguars coach last month after taking a year off. “I think he can still win games in this league and help and be the quarterback he can be and we know he can be.”
The Jaguars have Trevor Lawrence, though. And the Colts’ openness about their doubts suggests they’ve already made their decision to move on — “That’s fair enough,” Ballard said — but Reich was able to convince them once before.
“I know I believe in Carson,” Reich said. “I believe in him. I stuck my neck out for him. … I was a big part of that decision to get him here. I believe he’s going to continue to have a lot of success at quarterback.
“That might be here. It might not be here. That decision has yet to be determined.”