INDIANAPOLIS — Frank Reich didn't want Jacoby Brissett to be caught off-guard.
So when it became apparent a couple weeks back that the Indianapolis Colts were moving forward in their negotiations to bring in another quarterback, Philip Rivers, in free agency, Reich gave Brissett a call.
Brissett, Reich told reporters this week, was understandably disappointed to hear the news that he was going to be transitioning into a backup role. But as Reich knows first-hand — both from his own playing career and now as an NFL coach — the backup quarterback position, with the right guy in place, remains one of the more critical spots on the roster.
And so now, as the Colts move forward with Rivers leading the offense, Reich expects Brissett to remain a key leader and contributor moving forward.
"This was unique opportunity, so when the time was right I called Jacoby and told him, 'Hey, this looks like it may happen,'" Reich told reporters on Tuesday in a video conference call. "We talked it through. Obviously Jacoby wasn't happy about it. He wasn't happy about it, but he's a great teammate, he's a great leader. We all know that and I'm sure he'll be good."
Brissett performed admirably for the Colts under extremely tough circumstances in 2019, particularly in the first half of the season. Immediately stepping in for Andrew Luck, who retired from the NFL with two weeks to go before the start of the regular season, Brissett helped lead the team to a 5-2 start, highlighted by a Week 5 road victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.
When all was said and done, Brissett, who missed one start due to a knee injury, completed 272-of-447 passes (60.9 percent) for 2,942 yards, had 56 rushing attempts for 228 yards and another four scores on the ground, and was among the league's best at protecting the football, as evidenced by his 18-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He was also selected as a Pro Bowl alternate for the first time in his career.
But for a multitude of reasons, the Colts' passing attack just wasn't able to keep up the pace over the second half of the season. After starting the year with 14 touchdown passes in Indy's first six games, Brissett would throw just four more scores the rest of the way, and coupled with a rash of injuries to some key receivers, the Colts would finish the season ranked 30th in the NFL in passing yards per game (194.2), tied for 30th in passing plays of 20-plus yards (38) and 29th in completion percentage (59.8).
As a team, the Colts finished the year with just two wins over their final nine games and were eliminated from postseason contention by Week 16.
"I think as a whole, our passing game – not just the quarterback position – but our passing game has to improve," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said Jan. 2 in his end-of-season press conference. "Unequivocally, that has to get better. We have to be able to throw the football to win in this league. I think we all know that."
After pouring over the film from the entire season, Reich, Ballard and team owner Jim Irsay came to the conclusion that they'd be content with sticking with Brissett as their starter heading into the 2020 season. But Reich alluded to a "crazy, unique opportunity" that ultimately led to the team signing the eight-time Pro Bowler Rivers, who played under Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni with the Chargers from 2013-17.
"We love Jacoby. I personally believe in Jacoby. I think as an organization we think highly of him," Reich said. "He did a lot of great things last year. We had some ups and downs as a team and we all had our personal ups and downs. … This was a unique opportunity and it wasn't so much about what Jacoby wasn't doing, it was about an opportunity to get someone who we feel is an elite quarterback who can help our team."
By virtue of having two starting-caliber quarterbacks, Reich believes the Colts have quite the advantage — an opinion built through decades of experience as an NFL quarterback and coach.
Reich on multiple occasions was counted on to relieve injured starter Jim Kelly during his playing career with the Buffalo Bills, with perhaps his best performances being saved for the most critical of moments during postseason play.
Then, in 2017, as offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, Reich was instrumental in the late-season rise of backup quarterback Nick Foles, who came on in relief of injured starter and MVP candidate Carson Wentz and eventually led the team to its first-ever Super Bowl title.
"Everybody knows what our goal is, everybody knows that we want to win a championship and so the message is every person on the roster counts," Reich said. "Certainly, when you look at a lot of championship teams, I don't know, but to me you better have a winning backup quarterback. You better have a guy that can step in there and win two or three or however many games it takes if the starter gets dinged up. And we have that in Jacoby. He's already proven that so we feel good about that.
"So the message to Jacoby is that his contract year is up, so just have your best year — whatever that looks like, have your best year this year and be ready to go," Reich continued. "Those games get weighted very heavily for all of Colts Nation and for everyone. I think it's exciting – I think it's exciting. In one way, I know it's disappointing for a backup. I won't talk specifically, but we all know what we're talking about. But at the same time because Jacoby is such a good teammate, we're excited about the trajectory of our team and he's an important part of it."