INDIANAPOLIS — The new starting quarterback was supposed to be the wild card in this Colts season.
The shaky link on the team, or at least the unknown. To the outside world, Carson Wentz came to Indianapolis in disgrace, a broken quarterback trying to pick up the pieces of a career that once seemed headed for stardom.
If Frank Reich could rebuild Wentz, the thinking went, the Colts would be in good shape. All they needed was a quarterback.
Two games into the season, Indianapolis finds its back against the wall after coming up short in a 27-24 loss to the Los Angeles Rams that dropped the Colts to 0-2, historically the sort of setback only a few teams can overcome.
But even in the midst of their worst start in the Frank Reich era, the Colts are beginning to believe in their new starting quarterback. Wentz has spent the first two weeks playing under heavy fire — he's been sacked six times, taken 21 hits and left Sunday's game with an ankle injury — and he's played the kind of football the Indianapolis franchise can respect.
"First of all, his toughness," Colts guard Quenton Nelson said. "Shoot, all the times he's gotten hit, all the times he's gotten up, it's on a different level. Hasn't complained once."
Toughness matters deeply to Nelson, an All-Pro who hasn't missed a start in his NFL career and is currently playing through a painful back injury. When Philip Rivers rode into town and led the Colts to the playoffs in 2020, it was the quarterback's toughness that caught Nelson's eye; Rivers had to play through a painful toe injury down the stretch.
Wentz might not be able to match Rivers' ability to stay on the field; the condition of his right ankle was unclear at the end of Sunday's game.
But the way he's responded to the sort of pressure a Colts quarterback hasn't seen in the Reich era has caught the team's eye just the same. Playing behind a banged-up offensive line that hasn't had a full game yet from left tackle Eric Fisher and didn't have right tackle Braden Smith on Sunday, Wentz has faced the beating head-on.
On some plays, like the 42-yard bomb he completed to Michael Pittman Jr. on Sunday, Wentz has stood in the pocket and delivered a completion even though he knew he was going to take a vicious shot. On others, Wentz has used his mobility to escape, buy time and make a play, picking up yards and extending drives when another quarterback might have cut his losses.
"Carson is one of the toughest guys I know," Pittman Jr. said. "He's able to use his feet, and he uses his feet well. He stretched us out on some drives that maybe last year we wouldn't have gotten."
Wentz's mobility gave the Colts a chance Sunday. Frustrated after two drives inside the Rams' 5-yard line came up empty in the first half, Wentz made magical escapes out of the clutches of two free rushers in the red zone on the Colts' touchdown drive in the second half, keeping Indianapolis in striking distance long enough to hit Zach Pascal for an 8-yard touchdown.
The Colts quarterback also picked up 37 rushing yards on five carries.
"I feel like that's what makes him great," Pittman Jr. said. "He can run around, scramble and still heave it 80 yards. The guy's arm is crazy."
Because of their prior history, Wentz already had a working knowledge of Reich's offense.
But after he was forced to miss most of training camp due to surgery to remove a bone fragment from his foot, Wentz has displayed an impressive command of the offense in the first two weeks, inspiring trust from the rest of the offense.
"I think his ability to learn the run game and pass game, his kills, everything he sees out there," center Ryan Kelly said. "His vocal leadership in the huddle goes a long way."
Wentz's play overall has been rock-solid. Outside of a fumbled snap against Seattle and a shovel-pass interception against the Rams that Reich chalked up to Los Angeles star defensive lineman Aaron Donald blowing up a play where Wentz made the correct read, the Colts' starter has played sound football, moving the chains and giving his team chances.
"I'm happy with how he's playing," Reich said. "I'm happy with how he feels out there, I'm happy with how well he's throwing the ball and seeing it. Today seemed like, mentally, he was just really sharp and in command."
The wild card in the equation is Wentz's injured right ankle.
Wentz was knocked out of Sunday's loss after his ankle twisted under Donald's weight on a scramble, and the Colts were waiting on scans, likely an MRI, to reveal the extent of the injury. One of the knocks on Wentz was his injury history in Philadelphia; the way he hurt his ankle trying to buy time and make another play in a critical moment is a risk the Colts knew they were taking.
"There's always going to be a play or two, when you have the ability that Carson does to extend the play, he's just naturally going to get hit," Reich said. "That's just going to be some of the give and take that we have with him as our quarterback."
But the plan was never to ask Wentz to make those plays all the time.
If Wentz's ankle injury is not too serious, if it allows him to return to the field soon, the Colts believe they can win with the quarterback they've seen in the first two games of this season.
"We need to be better up front and do a good job to protect him, because he's a great player," Nelson said. "If we give him more time, he can play even better than he already is."
Better than most expected.
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