INDIANAPOLIS — In the NFL, if your starting quarterback goes down, you want someone to step in who's been there before. They've led the team and had the proverbial bullets fly past them on the field. They've done it.
The Indianapolis Colts feel fortunate to have that experienced presence at their backup quarterback position in Jacoby Brissett, who was their starting quarterback in 2019 before the team signed eight-time Pro Bowler Philip Rivers as a free agent this offseason.
Throughout his career, Brissett has garnered respect as an infectious leader with physical and mental toughness as well as a never-say-die attitude.
NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks recently released his top backup quarterbacks in the NFL, and not only was Brissett an easy choice for the list, but he took the top spot as well. Brooks writes:
"Chris Ballard and Frank Reich might've replaced Brissett as the Colts' starter, but don't let his demotion diminish his performance and potential as a player. Prior to suffering an MCL injury midway through last season, Brissett was playing at a high level with a 14:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio on a team devoid of playmakers on the perimeter beyond T.Y. Hilton. Although Brissett's play slipped down the stretch, he has more than enough game to chalk up Ws as a spot starter surrounded by enough playmakers to enable him to manage the game."
"I like to sleep at night."
Those were the words of Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard during the 2019 offseason, when asked about the value of having Brissett on the roster as the backup quarterback versus the prospects of trading him to an interested suitor and getting other valuable assets in return.
Ballard recalled the 2017 season and how Brissett — who was acquired via trade just before Week 1 that year — handled "getting thrown into the fire," ultimately starting 15 games while learning the offense a chunk at a time each week.
"Let me say this about Jacoby Brissett: he is a special, special teammate. I think you have all seen that. You have been through that locker room. He is well respected," Ballard said. "This is what I told Jacoby, I said, 'I am not giving you away, won't do it.' I said, 'I had chances last year and I didn't do it and I won't do it again.' It would have to be right organizationally and for him. I want to do the right thing for the player too, now. I want to do the right thing for Jacoby."
Ballard further explained that Brissett "has too much value to us, not only as our backup quarterback, who I think you can absolutely win with and I think he is a starter in the league, but also to the locker room.
"He is well respected throughout the locker room by both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively," Ballard said. "So that's something we will work through, but it would take somebody doing something that would absolutely blow me away and it has to be the right thing for the kid too. I am not just sending him anywhere."
What Ballard and the reporters speaking to him that day didn't yet know, however, was that in a few months Brissett would once again would be thrust into the driver's seat as the Colts' starting quarterback after Andrew Luck's surprising decision to retire from the NFL. This time, the Colts were ready to roll with Brissett — who took most first-team reps in the offseason and throughout training camp and the preseason — as their leader.
The Colts got off to a hot start to the 2019 season with Brissett leading the way, going 5-2 through the first seven games — including wins over the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and two other playoff teams — before the season got away from them around the halfway mark.
Brissett would injure his knee in the first half of that eighth game against the Pittsburgh Steelers; he missed the remainder of that contest as well as the following week's game against the Miami Dolphins, and never quite would capture the same consistency past that point, and Indy would fall out of playoff contention by Week 15.
In his first seven starts before he got injured, Brissett completed 149-of-231 passes (64.5 percent) for 1,590 yards with 15 total touchdowns and six total turnovers for a 98.5 rating, and was being discussed as a dark horse MVP candidate. In the seven starts after the injury, Brissett completed 119-of-211 passes (56.4 percent) for 1,293 yards with seven total touchdowns and five turnovers for a rating of 74.4.
Still, Ballard and head coach Frank Reich had seen enough out of Brissett to roll with him again as their starter heading into the offseason. But when March and the start of free agency approached, the team knew several veteran options could likely become available at the position, so they started doing their homework.
And in the end, the Colts just couldn't pass up the opportunity to sign eight-time Pro Bowler Philip Rivers, creating a reunion of sorts with Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, who coached Rivers together with the San Diego Chargers from 2013-15, with Reich serving as his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
The Colts were otherwise "ready to go" with Brissett, but Rivers presented a "unique opportunity" for the franchise.
But Reich, perhaps just as much as anybody across the league, understands the importance of having a quality backup, which is why he's so excited to have Brissett back in that role for the Colts in 2020.
"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 crazy, unique opportunity," Reich continued, referencing the Rivers signing. "Philip, who I believe is a future Hall of Fame quarterback, I think whatever he does here in the next year or two whatever that is will contribute to that career. But when you consider that Nick (Sirianni) and I and Jason Michael all had a really up close and personal look at this player and competitor and teammate for me for three years and Nick was with him for five years. Jason was with him for a while. Went back and looked at all of his film from the last two years and didn't see any physical drop-off in his play."
Rivers' signing, Reich concluded, "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," Reich said.
And now the Colts have the fortune of having two players they believe to be starting-level quarterbacks on their roster.