Combine Notebook: Carson Wentz's Final Crisis
NFL Draft - INDIANAPOLIS
The Carson Wentz questions began, and Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard sounded like a man about to come clean to his wife about a string of much-regretted affairs.
"I know I'm gonna get a lot of questions about Carson, and I don't have a direct answer for you," Ballard said at the NFL scouting combine on Tuesday.
"We're working through it. Mister Irsay, Frank [Reich], and I will sit down over the next 10 days and figure out where it's going. Ultimately, we'll do what's best for the Colts, in the short term and the long term."
Most coaches and general managers use combine press conferences to stifle all potential controversies, or at least swaddle them within a gauze of cliches and platitudes. But the truth kept tumbling out of Ballard like a kitten escaping a paper bag.
"Ultimately, you have to have a guy that you believe in and you can win with," Ballard said in response to an innocuous question about what he is looking for from his quarterback.
But, pointed out another reporter, if Ballard believed in Carson, he wouldn't be saying things like that.
"Fair enough," Ballard replied, sounding like William H. Macy's character from Fargo, or G.O.B. Bluth hoping to dose himself with a Forget-Me-Now pill. "Yeah. Fair enough. That's fair enough."
"I'm not saying we don't [believe in Wentz]," he continued after collecting himself. "But in the long-term best interests for us, as we sit down and work through whether Carson's the long-term best answer or not … we're not there yet. I'm not there yet."
Is the Colts' heavy investment in Wentz, in draft picks and dollars, a factor in Ballard's decision? "I don't ever worry about what we gave up. We make the best decision going forward. And whatever the repercussions of that decision are, they are. We deal with them."
When asked how Wentz himself is handling the questions about his future, Ballard said aloud the things that folks close to the Eagles and Colts have whispered for years.
"I visited with Carson today, in my office for an hour," Ballard said. "It was really good. I think learning to handle the criticism, what you always have to ask yourself—and I have to ask it with the criticism I get—is that some of it is deserved, but is the criticism fair? I'll take it in if its fair. But it it's not fair, then what am I doing? I'm not wasting my headspace on that.
"But if the criticism is fair, then we gotta be able to look internally, accept that and grow from it."
Ballard then stopped himself in the middle of his final thought. "And I'm not saying all of your … most of it is pretty fair. And it will be interesting to see how he grows from this. I think he will."
I have covered the combine for over a decade. I have heard coaches and execs log-roll about quarterbacks who had worn out their welcome from Tim Tebow through Mark Sanchez and beyond. I have listened to every loose-lipped, straight-shooting NFL personality from John Elway to Rex Ryan to Jim Harbaugh. I have never heard a general manager publicly neg his quarterback the way Ballard did on Tuesday. This was a man whose poker face had long worn off.
Heck, I'm someone who turned Wentz "victimization" jokes into a five-month content model, and I felt a little uncomfortable with Ballard's barely-coded criticism.
But surely, Colts coach Frank Reich would un-pop the balloon by playing good cop to his boss' bad cop when he spoke later on Tuesday. And Reich did indeed make more complementary remarks about Wentz's touchdown-interception ratio and the fact that he improved from 2020. But then the normally upbeat Reich downshifted into a mix of ominous warnings, fatalism, coach-speak, and therapeutic self-help aphorisms.
"We know in this business, everybody and everything gets evaluated every year," Reich said. "And the second thing we know about that process is head coach and quarterback are under the most scrutiny."
"I believe in Carson," Reich later added. "I stuck my neck out for him. Last year, 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's yet to be determined. But I still believe in the person; I still believe in the player.
"We're all in progress. I'm in progress. He's in progress. Every one of our players is in progress. We don't want to get into that trap of taking a snapshot of one week or one year. It's a bigger story than that."
I stuck my neck out for him is what the mafia don says before whacking a snitch. Reich was otherwise more diplomatic than Ballard, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines of his remarks: Wentz's shortcomings reflect very poorly on Reich, he knows it, and he's not going to stick his neck out an inch further, lest it be chopped off.
The Colts don't sound like an organization that's interested in trading Wentz. They sound like an organization that's thinking of just cutting him. If they thought a trade was plausible, they would have paid minimum lip service to Wentz's strengths, or at least would have been hush-hush about the whole this guy still can't handle criticism at all situation in the hopes that some team like the Panthers and Texans haven't picked up enough hints yet. Ballard just wants to cut bait, and Reich doesn't want to get in the way of the knife. Bargain hunters who want to kick the tires on Wentz one last time should just circle the boat offering third-day draft picks and some cap relief.
Wentz will probably be out of the NFL in two years. That's a shame, because he has the talent to be a Pro Bowl quarterback. But he has an even greater gift for making his biggest boosters and benefactors regret their choices, and he's quickly running out of chances.
Kyler Murray vs. Steve Keim vs. Kliff Kingsbury
Kyler Murray wants a new contract from the Arizona Cardinals.
Wait, let me rephrase that in language that Murray's agent can understand.
KYLER MURRAY IS 100% COMMITTED TO THE ARZIONA CARDINALS FRANCHISE BUT NEEDZ TO SEE THE FRANCHISE RECIPRO … RECIPRA … FEELS THE SAME WAY BY GIVING HIM A JOSH ALLEN-SIZED STACK OF MOOLAH.
Quick note to any NFL agents who are reading: I am happy to provide copy editing, free of charge, in exchange for the occasional insider scoop. I will even teach you some clever computer tricks, like what the Caps Lock button is for!
Murray ranked ninth in DYAR and seventh in DVOA last year, the highest figures of his career. He is developing into a sometimes-great, high-variance quarterback. He also missed three games with an injury, wasn't nearly as effective when he returned, appeared powerless to stop the Cardinals' annual second-half swoon, and laid an egg in the playoffs. Assuming the Cardinals pick up his fifth-year option, he has two years (including an expensive 2023 option) left on his rookie contract. The Cardinals are scraping the cap ceiling right now, and while they can make room for Murray, they probably don't want to spend 2022 bucks on a player with a fairly modest cap number.
In other words, Murray wants the bag now, before the Cardinals can change their minds, and his representation wants the world to know it. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have EVERY reason to wait and see on a quarterback who could go Full Wentz on them if he gets the Standard Rich and Famous Contract.
This is shotgun wedding logic. I don't trust you. You don't trust me. Let's solve the problem by making an almost unbreakable commitment to each other. Frankly, Murray's side sounds more like they are trying to force a trade than negotiate a contract.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim doesn't see it that way. "In regards to the statement, which I think everyone has seen, I think that's an agent doing his job," Keim said on Tuesday. "I have a lot of respect for [agent] Erik Burkhardt, and obviously Kyler Murray."
Of course, Keim didn't sound thrilled about the public nature of the demands. "You have to understand that people have different ways of approaching things," he said. "You can't get caught up in taking things personal. It's a business. And you have to separate the personal side. I have done contracts with players individually, like DeAndre Hopkins. That's one of the things we had to talk about: to make sure that when we sat in there together, face-to-face, that we were going to be able to talk this out like grown men."
Keim refused to divulge any thoughts regarding Murray's contract, except that the Cardinals would "absolutely" pick up the fifth-year option. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, meanwhile, kicked most of the Murray contract discussion back to Keim.
"I think all of our long-term goal here is to have Kyler be our quarterback," Cardinals coach Kliff Kingbury said on Tuesday. "That's my view of him. But I've got to refer it back to the business side of things, and that's not something that I deal with."
Kingsbury and Murray are both represented by Burkhardt, but Keim does not see that as a problem, nor was he surprised when Kingsbury demurred on contractual conversations. "When there's tough decisions to be made or money to be spent, Kliff runs to the hills," Keim joked. "That's his personality. He wants no part of that smoke."
In summary, the Keim-Kingsbury-Murray relationship sounds totally functional, but only after writing 1,000 words about Chris Ballard, Frank Reich, and Carson Wentz.
Keim's talk this out like grown men remark likely betrays what he really thinks about being called out across the Internet by an agent and player, and that zinger about Kingsbury sounded like it contained a little too much honesty. There's also the silly Instagram drama and an ESPN report about friction between Murray and the organization. Still, Keim delivered terse "no's" when asked if he was worried about a Murray holdout. He sounded a little like he was already calling a bluff.
Given the personalities involved and the tenor of the current conversation, don't be surprised if the Cardinals story doesn't overboil, either when quarterback-needy teams start throwing draft picks around or when training camp arrives and Kingsbury must make some tough decisions because Trace McSorley is the best quarterback in attendance.
Around the League
We wrap with brief notes from the start of the week.
Per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, Jaguars owner Shad Khan is no longer seeking an executive vice president to operate above Trent Baalke but is still seeking an assistant general manager to serve under Baalke.
Khan is trapped in his own labyrinth of an org chart. Baalke is the minotaur.
Competition Committee will consider overtime changes.
It sounds like the "both teams are guaranteed one possession" stans will get their way, perhaps in both the playoffs AND the regular season. And I'll remember each and every one of you when some Sunday Night Football game between wild-card maybes drags on until 1:45 a.m. Eastern. ("What a game!" say fans who went to bed at 10:30 and watched the game-winning field goal on Twitter.) I also cannot wait for the Monday night playoff game to go extra-extra long and the winner to drag its butt into the next Sunday and get hammered.
For the record, I'm all in on the suggestion our own Bryan Knowles made on one of our livestreams: home team gets ball first in overtime. It's simple, it's fair, it keeps games from going four-plus hours, and it makes late-season tiebreakers that much more important.
Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet retires.
This provides us with a pretty good sense of what the veterans on the Buccaneers roster are thinking, to say nothing of their free agents.
Saints begin their 'Cap Consolidation Loan' maneuvers.
Extending Ryan Ramczyk was an obvious, prudent move. Extending Michael Thomas makes perfect sense until you realize that he is coming off an injury-ruined 2020 season, a 2021 season where he never got anywhere near the field, and a prevailing sense that his lingering ankle injury is exacerbated by a grudge with the organization.
So Thomas can come back happy and healthy, or healthy but unhappy that he'll be playing fetch with Taysom Hill, or happy that Sean Payton is gone but still coping with a persistent injury, or not come back at all because he is both unhappy and unhealthy. That 25% chance of getting the 2019 Offensive Player of the Year back will cost the Saints $28 million in cap space in 2023 and $27.5 million in 2024. And the Saints still have $50 million in moves to go to become cap-compliant.
Otherwise, they're doing great.
Commanders (ugh) may settle for Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback.
Here's the Tuesday morning tweet from Hogs Haven, a well-connected team site, echoing what is being muttered elsewhere:
Mitch Trubisky is rapidly gaining traction as a “Plan B” if Washington strikes out on Rodgers, Wilson, or Watson, per team sources.
Trubisky would very likely be paired with a rookie QB, but they don’t just view him as a bridge option. Think he was a bad fit in Nagy’s offense
— COMMANDERS FOOTBALL (@HogsHaven) March 1, 2022
No quarterback with the option to veto a trade will end up in Washington; setting various scandals and their extreme mismanagement aside, the stadium facilities alone are enough to send Aaron Rodgers on a three-week cleanse. So Plan B is gonna be Plan A. The only thing standing in the Commanders' way is the fact that other teams may be planning to make the same compromise.
Trubisky makes some sense from a market-analysis standpoint because the Quarterback Trinity are still only theoretically available and the Garoppolo/Wentz tier of attainable quarterbacks is unbelievably overpriced and/or comes with too much baggage. Trubisky is probably about 95% as effective as Wentz (75% as good as a healthy Garoppolo in a comfy system) at roughly one-third the annual salary, with no trade necessary. Marcus Mariota is buzzy on the rumor mill for similar reasons.
Trubisky is also only about 5% or 10% better than Taylor Heinicke, currently under contract in Washington for peanuts. If the Commanders pursue Trubisky, they will be paying a very high premium for the name on the label, past draft status, and fading "potential."
Teams do this all the time. It backfires about as often as you would think.
As always, Football Outsiders' 2022 NFL draft coverage is presented by Underdog Fantasy.