INDIANAPOLIS — Chris Ballard made a few things abundantly clear during his year-end news conference Thursday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
The Indianapolis Colts’ loss Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars was unacceptable, and he freely admits his share of the blame.
He still believes the Colts have many of the right pieces in place to win consistently, but his philosophy will always center around the trenches and he must do a better job of boosting the eight-man defensive line rotation to improve the pass rush.
And — though no single player bears the entirety of the burden, including quarterback Carson Wentz — the passing game must become more dynamic and consistent.
It’s the last note that will make headlines, especially in light of the fact the general manager became the second Indianapolis decision maker this week to decline to give Wentz a vote of confidence for the 2022 season.
“When we made the decision after (2020 starter) Philip (Rivers) retired, we made the decision to make a move on Carson, at the time of the decision, we felt good about it,” Ballard said. “And I still don’t regret the decision at the time. … I won’t make a comment on who’s going to be here next year and who’s not going to be here next year. That’s not fair. That’s not fair to any player.
“I thought Carson did some good things, and there’s a lot of things that he needs to do better. Our passing game has to be better.”
The Colts traded a third-round draft pick in 2021 and a conditional pick that became a first-rounder in this year’s draft for Wentz last March.
Reunited with head coach Frank Reich — who served as his offensive coordinator for two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles — the 30-year-old quarterback completed 62.4% of his passes for 3,563 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 17 starts this season.
But his numbers fell off significantly down the stretch. Over the final four weeks, Wentz completed 58.3% of his throws for 615 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. In the final two games, with Indianapolis needing just one win to make the playoffs, he competed 58.9% of his attempts for 333 yards with two scores and one pick.
Things came to a head during the 26-11 loss in Jacksonville, when Wentz was responsible for two third-quarter turnovers the Jaguars turned into 10 points while building a 23-3 advantage.
On Monday, Reich was asked directly whether Wentz will be his starting quarterback next season and declined to give a definitive answer.
“Next year’s roster will be next year’s roster,” Reich said. “I’m not going to evaluate or talk about any — I don’t want to just open it up with one player and then start talking about all of them.”
Wentz finished with the third-highest quarterback rating (94.6) of his six-year NFL career and tied for his second-highest touchdown total.
But he came up short in at least one key metric, averaging just 6.9 yards per pass attempt. That number was well above 7 yards per attempt for much of the first half of the season but dipped to 6.3 over the final eight weeks.
It speaks to a lack of big plays for a passing game complemented by the NFL’s leading rusher in second-year running back Jonathan Taylor. And it’s one of several areas Wentz must improve if he returns for a second season in Indianapolis.
Beyond the raw numbers, there was a sense Wentz needed to be more consistent with his mechanics and deliver more often in big situations.
He made an elite touchdown pass late in the Christmas Day victory against the Arizona Cardinals that put the Colts on the brink of a playoff berth but also threw costly interceptions in losses against the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With the season on the line Sunday at Jacksonville, the offense produced just one fourth-quarter touchdown after falling behind the team with the league’s worst record by 23 points.
“I talked to Carson about this (Wednesday),” Ballard said of specific areas of improvement for the quarterback. “It’s make the layups. … Like, the throw against Arizona was incredible. It was incredible. There might be two or three other quarterbacks in the league (who) can make it. But let’s make the layups.
“Those highlight throws are great. But, look, Carson wants to win. He’s got a will to win, and sometimes when you carry that burden where you think you gotta go make a big play all the time, sometimes you just — let’s let the team help you. Make the layups.”
The natural follow-up question was whether that issue is fixable with a veteran quarterback who will be entering his seventh year in the NFL.
“It’s something we’ve got to work through,” Ballard said. “We gotta work through it, work through it with Frank and the staff.”
The Colts have had four different starting quarterbacks in Reich’s four seasons as head coach. It’s not a streak the organization endeavors to continue.
But something has to change. Taylor is the first league rushing champion not to make the postseason since Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011.
Whoever is under center next season must direct a passing attack that better meshes with the team’s strengths.
“At the end of the day, I think we’ve got a lot of really good players and really good pieces,” Ballard said. “You’ve got to get stability at the quarterback position. You have to. We have to have stability there, and that position has to play up to his potential to help the team win.
“Don’t get me wrong here. Don’t sit here — I ain’t blaming all this on Carson, all right? I’m not. Because everybody else has got to do their jobs, too. But the hyper importance of that position — I mean, it’s real. And you’ve gotta get consistency. And the years we’ve gotten it, we’ve been pretty good. And we thought we had it (this year) until the end of the season. So it’s just something we’ve gotta continue to work through.”