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Philip Rivers could be the Colts’ savior, or he could set them back even more

If Philip Rivers is mediocre, then he could prevent meaningful change in Indianapolis.

An illustration of QB Philip Rivers pumping his fist and yelling, superimposed on a black and white background with aqua graphics
Philip Rivers signed a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts for 2020.

Philip Rivers never made it to the Super Bowl in 16 seasons with the Chargers. He only made it past the Divisional Round of the playoffs once.

The Colts are betting that was a Chargers problem, not any inherent flaw in the now 38-year-old quarterback.

Indianapolis signed the eight-time Pro Bowler to a one-year, $25 million contract, installing him as the team’s latest solution to a problem it’s had since Andrew Luck’s abrupt 2019 retirement. Rivers will take the reins from Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer, allowing Hoyer to return to stasis with the Patriots.

It’s a low-commitment move the Colts could afford to make thanks to what was more than $80 million in salary cap space coming into the offseason. Rivers will have one season to prove he’s both:

a) an above-average starting quarterback in the NFL, even if he wasn’t last season, and

b) the missing piece in Indianapolis’ quest to return to the postseason.

The storybook ending for both sides would be the Colts’ young core giving Rivers exactly what he needs to finally break through and lift the Lombardi Trophy. The more likely ending, however, would simply delay Indianapolis’ search for its franchise quarterback.

The 2019 version of Rivers won’t be much of an upgrade for the Colts

There’s no denying Rivers’ resume. Barring disaster, he’ll throw his 400th touchdown pass early next season. He’s responsible for 28 career fourth-quarter comebacks. Six of the Chargers’ 10 postseason appearances since 1983 came with him at the helm.

That past undoubtedly played a role in the Colts’ decision to offer Rivers $25 million, because the 2019 version of Rivers was an average quarterback who vacillated between big plays and big mistakes. Last season marked the third time he’s thrown 20 interceptions or more. In good years, he’s able to offset that with 30+ touchdown passes.

It was not one of those years. Despite a lineup of targets that included Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler, and Hunter Henry, Rivers only found the end zone 23 times. His 3.9 percent touchdown rate was the lowest of his career. His passer rating dropped from 105.5 in 2018 (fifth-best among qualified starting quarterbacks) to 88.5 (17th). He had fewer adjusted yards per pass — a metric that factors in scoring plays and turnovers to measure overall efficiency — than Derek Carr or Gardner Minshew.

That was still enough for general manager Chris Ballard to tab him to restore Brissett’s status as one of the league’s top backups. Brissett exceeded expectations through his first seven games as the Colts got off to a 5-2 start. He suffered a knee injury in his eighth game, missed one start as a result, and was a markedly different QB in the seven games that followed.

A look at Brissett’s numbers pre- and post-injury (not counting the five pretty good passes he threw before leaving the Steelers game) showcase two very different players. In terms of statistical efficiency, Rivers’ 2019 fits right in the middle.

Philip Rivers vs. the two Jacoby Brissetts, 2019

QB Yds/gm Cmp% TD/gm Int/gm Rate Yards/Att Adj Yards/Att
QB Yds/gm Cmp% TD/gm Int/gm Rate Yards/Att Adj Yards/Att
Brissett, before his Week 9 injury 227 64.5 2 0.4 99.3 6.9 7.5
Philip Rivers, all of 2019 288 66.0 1.4 1.3 88.5 7.8 7.1
Brissett, after his Week 9 injury 185 56.4 0.6 0.4 75 6.1 5.9

It’s like the Colts saw what the good, early-season Brissett could do and what he turned into after Week 9, then decided to split the difference by signing Rivers. Rivers was more likely to turn in big plays, but over the first half of the 2019 season, Brissett was the more accurate, efficient, and safe passer.

However, he faded badly afterward his knee sprain. The Colts’ 5-2 start gave way to a 2-7 finish, necessitating the switch to Rivers. It’s going to take more than just a steady veteran hand to turn around the Indianapolis passing game, however.

The Colts need to upgrade their targets if Rivers is going to have a chance at a comeback season

Brissett’s injury limited his mobility in the pocket and his ability to avoid pressure and step into throws. He was also hampered by a receiving corps that did little to prop him up as his play declined.

T.Y. Hilton, the clear-cut No. 1 option atop the team’s target chart, dealt with nagging injuries that held him out for six games in the least productive season of his career. Eric Ebron failed to follow up on a breakthrough 2018 as his touchdown count dropped from 13 to three. Devin Funchess, one of the team’s highest-profile free agent signings, appeared in only one game before breaking his collarbone and missing the rest of the season.

As a result, Zach Pascal, a 2018 undrafted free agent, tied for the team lead in targets along with Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle. Marcus Johnson had the third-most receiving yards of any wide receiver ... with 227. This was not a stacked lineup.

Compare that group to what Rivers had in Los Angeles. Allen has sprung for at least 1,196 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons. Williams ranked first in the NFL in yards per catch at 20.4. Henry had 55 catches in 12 games. Ekeler was seven yards shy of pulling together a 1,000 receiving-yard season out of the backfield.

Rivers had all that and was still a roughly league-average quarterback, statistically. Now he’s moving to a team with plenty of holes to fill at its skill positions. Doyle will be back and a focal point of the offense, but he’s surrounded by questions. Hilton will be 31 in November. While he remains a valuable asset, age is ticking away at the burner speed that made him such a Pro Bowl deep threat for Luck.

Pascal is a rising prospect but was wildly inconsistent last season; he had 10 games with two catches or fewer. Funchess is a free agent. Eric Ebron is now a Steeler. Parris Campbell has the chops to be an impactful starter, but has to overcome the injuries that held him to only seven games as a rookie.

Indianapolis hasn’t yet signed any receivers from the free agent market. The Colts could have added an elite wideout prospect from this year’s deep class with the 13th overall pick of the draft, but they shipped that to the 49ers in exchange for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. There will still be opportunities to pick up talent in both phases, but the Colts’ options may be limited.

Mash those factors — a declining Rivers and a trimmed target tree — together and you’ve got the blueprint for a performance that would be roughly on par with Brissett’s 2019.

If the Colts are mediocre again, it’ll be even tougher to find their franchise quarterback

Indianapolis wasn’t in position to draft a surefire franchise quarterback with the 13th overall pick. If Rivers isn’t appreciably better than Brissett was, it will be right back in the same spot next spring.

While the Colts have enough talent to be threatening, they may not have the horses to ride to the top of a competitive AFC South. A vintage performance from Rivers could change that, but nothing about his 2019 suggests that’s the case. Even a league-average Rivers probably throws Indianapolis somewhere in the seven- to nine-win range, which would make the club fun and annoying in an ultimately meaningless way. The Kevin Hart of NFL teams.

It would also leave the Colts languishing in the middle of the draft for years to come. That’s a problem for a team whose two franchise-level quarterbacks from the past 25 years came with the No. 1 overall pick (Peyton Manning and Luck). Without an earnest teardown, the Rivers signing looks like the first step in a cycle of retread veterans and lottery ticket prospects with no sure thing in sight.

That could be an issue, but Ballard has made other moves to mitigate any lapses in quarterback play. He traded for Buckner, who was possibly the best defender on an NFC championship team but who is also very expensive thanks to the four-year, $84 million extension he signed. The Colts GM has an estimated $29 million left to spend this season in a picked-over marketplace, but his real improvements may not come until April.

Ballard has been brilliant when it comes to rookies who can make an instant impact. He’s brought starters like Marlon Mack, Malik Hooker, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, and Quenton Nelson into the fold the past three seasons. The 2020 draft could be another major reloading stop.

Acquiring young starters would be a boon for the Colts. But unless those players can make an immediate connection with an aging quarterback and lead this offense back from mediocrity, the Rivers era in Indianapolis could be just as inoffensively unsuccessful as his run with the Chargers. If that’s the case, he’ll send the Colts back to quarterback limbo.