Washington, Indianapolis, and the Ever-Spinning QB Carousel
NFL Week 8 - There is no worse uncertainty in football than uncertainty at the quarterback position.
Quarterbacks often serve as the face of the team because we know just how important they are to all aspects of an offense. Outside of the center, no singular player touches the ball more than the quarterback. No player dictates where the ball ends up more than the quarterback. The offense's strengths and weaknesses are often determined by the quarterback. When you know you have a good quarterback, you're set for the long term. Even when you know you have a bad quarterback, you can definitively state your team is headed for a rebuild and go from there.
The middling quarterback? The signal-caller that's somewhere in the ballpark of 15th-best to, say, 25th-best in the league? That's not purgatory. That's hell. A rudderless ship in the ocean, navigating off inconsistent breezes. There's no direction for the present and little certainty about the future.
Enter the Indianapolis Colts and the Washington Commanders, two teams that wholly embody this lack of direction. At this point, the Colts' starting quarterback carousel is so well known that the problem almost doesn't need repeating. Six straight seasons without the same Week 1 starting quarterback in back-to-back years. Since Andrew Luck's unexpected retirement in August of 2019, six different quarterbacks have started games for the Colts.
In the last three seasons, Indianapolis has started every offseason by acquiring a veteran quarterback from a different organization to start for their team. The expectation is that these players will make a seamless transition, helping keep the rest of this very skilled roster afloat. The results have been … mixed. Philip Rivers joined the team, played well enough for them to earn a playoff berth, then hung it up at the end of the season. The Colts the traded a third-round pick and conditional first-round pick for Carson Wentz, who lost to the Jaguars in Week 18 to miss the playoffs outright. They flipped him to the Commanders at the end of that season, taking a loss in trade value in the process, and then spent more picks to get Matt Ryan from the Atlanta Falcons. Ryan has shown flash in exactly one game this season, earning a benching in favor of 2021 sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger.
The less-talked-about quarterback carousel is that of the Washington Commanders. Since letting Kirk Cousins walk in free agency in 2018, Washington has had 11 different starters at the position. Ron Rivera has coached 41 games for the Commanders since 2020, starting eight different players at the position. 2015 undrafted free agent Taylor Heinicke leads the way with 17 starts. No other quarterback has more than six.
The last two years, the Commanders have tried to follow the Colts' mold of replacement-level play at quarterback. They tried going the elder statesman route, signing everyone's favorite 38-year-old journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, only to have him go down in Week 1 with a hip dislocation. They even tried the Carson Wentz route, seeing the same result as Indianapolis did a year prior. In both cases, all roads lead back to Heinicke, who is currently filling in for Wentz as he rehabs a fractured finger on his throwing hand. If things continue the way they have, Wentz likely won't get that starting job back.
In a way, this game is the perfect microcosm of the ups and downs faced when you don't have a starting quarterback worth building around. Heinicke finished the afternoon with a commendable 74.2% completion rate for 279 yards, one touchdown, and an interception, but threw 18 of his 31 passes to targets within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Washington relied heavily on screen passes and bailout balls to the flats to keep things moving, clearing out one side of the field by running deep routes, allowing Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic at least 7 or 8 yards of breathing room before catching their passes.
The Commanders leaned on creativity for new offensive opportunities, involving wide receiver Curtis Samuel in four rushing plays for a season-high 29 yards. These didn't just come from jet sweeps like the majority of wide receiver rush attempts. Samuel lined up in the backfield in split-back shotgun formations, taking handoffs for runs in between the tackles.
It's the kind of thing you need to do when you have a quarterback with a decently high floor but low ceiling. Singular talent won't be enough to win games, so creating those opportunities and making the job as easy as possible for the quarterback playing the game.
It also helps to have players like Terry McLaurin, who have elite route-running abilities and can individually make Heinicke's job a whole lot easier. Despite what I just said about "singular talent," McLaurin's catch at the end of the game was very much a singular effort. The ball was underthrown by Heinicke, but McLaurin Mossed the cornerback in coverage to put Washington at the 2 for a quarterback sneak touchdown.
McLaurin showed off that same move earlier in the game on a crossing route, using that stop-and-go hesitation to create separation. As illustrated, a little creativity can go a long way.
By the DVOA
For his first start, Ehlinger wasn't all that bad. In fact, both Ehlinger and Heinicke are currently out-playing the men whose shoes they have filled, at least on a per-play basis.
Colts 2022 Quarterbacks:
- Matt Ryan: -19.0% pass DVOA
- Sam Ehlinger: 3.9% pass DVOA
Commanders 2022 Quarterbacks:
- Carson Wentz: -19.0% pass DVOA
- Taylor Heinicke: -1.1% pass DVOA
The Commanders aren't just showcasing positional versatility and creative play calling to create opportunities, but they are doing so with efficiency. Ten of Antonio Gibson's 29 receptions this season have come with Heinicke at the helm. In the last two weeks, Gibson has racked up a 45.7% receiving DVOA on those plays; through the first six weeks, that receiving DVOA was down at 1.2%. Curtis Samuel has nine of his 17 rushing attempts in the last two weeks. Over that time, he has posted a 28.7% DVOA, including a 74.2% DVOA in Week 8. Both are a far cry from Samuel's -53.8% DVOA through the first six weeks.
Not Enough Horses to Run the Race
The difference between Heinicke and Ehlinger in this game didn't exactly come down to the quarterbacks themselves, but rather the situations around them. Heinicke has the benefit of experience, sure, but neither offense played spectacularly. In fact, on a per-pass basis, Ehlinger actually out-played Heinicke, with Ehlinger's Week 8 passing DVOA of 3.9% beating out Heinicke's -4.1%. Ehlinger took some pretty impressive deep shots for a first-time starter.
The Colts set up plays to maximize Ehlinger's "secret sauce," as described by head coach Frank Reich during the announcement of Ehlinger's promotion, by running play-action—specifically bootlegs—to get Ehlinger into space with light boxes. There, he had more options to throw on the run or keep it. It should be noted that, despite being touted as a rusher, Ehlinger didn't rush particularly well on Sunday. Ehlinger finished the afternoon with -6 rushing DYAR and a rushing DVOA of -29.0% on five attempts.
Ehlinger's performance was not the Colts' downfall on Sunday. Neither was the play-calling on pass plays. It was pretty much everything else.
Let's start with fourth downs. Three times in the second half, the Colts had the ball on fourth down with less than 3 yards to go and elected to kick instead of going for it. Below are the situations in question, with our win probability numbers based on the decision.
IND 3 WAS 7 - 3Q 7:13 - Fourth-and-3 from the WAS 21
- FG: 43.8%
- Go For It: 43.3%
IND 6 WAS 7 – 4Q 12:32 – Fourth-and-goal from the WAS 2
- Go For It: 60.0%
- FG: 56.3%
IND 16 WAS 10 – 4Q 2:39 – Fourth-and-1 from the IND 34.
- Go For It: 83.6%
- Punt: 76.2%
In two of the three situations, our model suggests that Indianapolis should have gone for it. Even in the first case, where kicking the field goal down four is slightly favorable, there was a justification in going for it just because of how stagnant each offense had been for most of the game. Choosing to play conservatively with a new quarterback at the helm is counterintuitive to how it should work. With less certainty out of your new quarterback, the strategy should err on being more aggressive to maximize your odds of winning.
That being said, fourth-down decision-making is a smaller gripe compared to the Colts' biggest problem. In a game where the sixth-round quarterback getting his first-ever start plays adequately enough to win, the rest of the team around him needs to step up. There are veteran players this team depends on that failed to rise to the occasion on Sunday.
Kenny Moore, whom the Colts extended back in 2019, let up a fourth-and-6 pass to Curtis Samuel to eventually set up a field goal. Quenton Nelson, the highest-paid guard in the league, was called for a crucial holding penalty with the ball just outside the red zone. (He was luckily bailed out by a Washington defensive pass interference the next play.) Shaquille Leonard, the highest-paid linebacker in the league, played just 24 snaps in his first game back from his second injury of the season. Michael Pittman Jr., the team's top receiver, dropped a deep shot from Ehlinger that could have put the Colts a play away from field goal range. Jonathan Taylor, the league's leading rusher just last year, coughed up a fumble inside the red zone and had an otherwise forgettable performance.
It's the ultimate peril of not having a reliable quarterback. Just last year, Indianapolis finished 11th in total DVOA, had the best rushing attack in the league, boasted a top-10 DVOA defense, and couldn't make the playoffs. There were other problems with this team, but none were more glaring than that of the quarterback position. The constant re-treading and recycling of quarterbacks year in and year out is not a viable solution for a competitive football team. Teams change and players age. The Colts' biggest players have under-performed expectations this season, but it would be ignorant to assume Indianapolis would be getting carbon copies of their 2021 personnel in 2022. It wouldn't be much smarter to assume that the 37-year-old quarterback who has only ever played for one team would bring this Colts team back to playoff contention.
Everyone's preseason favorite to win the AFC South is looking up in the standings at a 5-2 Tennessee Titans team that's 3-0 in the division. The road to overtaking them, while not the most difficult, goes through a harder schedule than the one they have already played. Even if Sam Ehlinger is good enough to start next year, what does that get this Colts team? Since the departure of Peyton Manning in 2010, Indianapolis has had one single quarterback finish top 10 in DVOA at the end of a season: Andrew Luck, in his final season before retirement. The Colts have made the playoffs five times over that stretch, winning four total playoff games, all with Luck at the helm.
The Colts fired their offensive coordinator on Tuesday morning, then traded their pass-catching back to Buffalo for a ground-and-pound back and a conditional Day 3 pick. Ehlinger can be a good enough quarterback this season, but if he ever becomes great, it won't be for a long time. Is it worth the time and the investment to build around Ehlinger? Indianapolis doesn't have a wide receiver in the top 20 of DVOA to help him. The offensive line isn't the unit we have seen from the Colts in past years. Indianapolis will have to carry $18 million in dead cap from Ryan's deal after already carrying some of the highest-paid players at their position. They're not good enough to truly contend in a loaded AFC, but they're too invested not to at least try.
Aimless and rudderless, the Colts will continue to float, praying for landfall.