You wait months for the NFL season to start, full of excitement and hope. After a quiet few weeks, training camp begins and gives you a taste of what could be to come.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Weeks before a competitive football is even kicked, the Colts season looks in real jeopardy. Finding out this week the Colts would be losing Carson Wentz for 5-12 weeks for a foot injury was bad enough. Finding out Quenton Nelson would be out for the same time for the same injury is even worse. To add insult to injuries, both were related to pre-existing issues. Wentz is believed to be due to an injury in high school, whilst Nelson’s has been there since birth.
It was only last week Braden Smith was celebrating his big new contract; unfortunately, since then, fellow linemen Nelson and Kelly have joined Eric Fisher on the injured list. It certainly doesn’t bode well for a unit that has been the Colts’ greatest strength since 2018. It also makes a difficult situation for Jacob Eason that much harder.
The best-case scenario for the Colts is that both Wentz and Nelson are healthy after five weeks, which would allow them both to play in week one. The worst-case, a twelve-week absence, would have them return for week eight.
The Colts face a brutal schedule to start the season—Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Dolphins, and Ravens in the first five weeks. Before training camp, I expected four of those teams to make the playoffs, with the Titans narrowly missing out. Now the Titans may well make the playoffs at the Colts’ expense.
All five games would have posed a challenge to a fully healthy Colts, although I would have had the Colts as narrow favourites to win most of them. If Wentz and Nelson are injured for those first five games, it’s entirely possible the Colts start 0-5.
Week six is the Texans, who the Colts should certainly still be able to beat even without Wentz and Nelson. However, the 49ers follow in week seven. Unless they’re having the kind of injury crisis they suffered last year, they’d likely be favourites if Wentz and Nelson are still injured.
The good news for the Colts is that their schedule from week eight onwards is far kinder. Although it does feature games against the Buccaneers and Bills, that would be challenging for any team in the NFL. The Colts face the Titans and Texans again, Jaguars twice, Patriots, Jets, Raiders, and the Cardinals. Whilst not necessarily easy games, I would expect the Colts to be favourites to win each of those eight games. Although I appreciate it’s rarely that simple in reality.
That means that even in the worst-case injury timetable for Wentz and Nelson, there would be nine games I’d expect the Colts to be favourites for. Whilst there are two games I’d expect even a fully healthy Colts to be underdogs for. Nine wins could be enough to scrape through to the playoffs, but I suspect it’s unlikely.
That leaves six challenging Colts games in the 5-12 week window for Wentz and Nelson to return. I’d have the healthy Colts favoured to beat the Dolphins and Titans, but the Ravens, Seahawks, Rams, and 49ers would be incredibly difficult games to predict if teams were healthy.
Therefore, weeks three and four are critical for Wentz and Nelson’s return. It’s unlikely they’ll be healthy for the Seahawks and Rams games, and they’d be challenging games to win even if both were fit.
Weeks three and four of the season would be weeks seven and eight of their recovery, which would only be on the slightly optimistic side of their timetable. I think the Titans and Dolphins would be the most winnable of the Colts’ first five games. Being back for the Titans in week three would also allow the Colts to claim a big win in the race to win the AFC South.
If Wentz and Nelson can be back for week three or four, the Colts can avoid a disaster. But if they’re back for week five against the Ravens or week seven for the 49ers, then the team will face a real uphill battle to make the playoffs.
The Colts have improved the depth of their roster in recent years, and I thought they had one of the most balanced rosters in the entire league approaching this season. That being said, no roster could suffer injuries like this and not be left meaningfully worse.
We all know that quarterback is the most important position in the sport and the team had a lot of faith in Wentz’s potential to rediscover better form under centre with all the advantages he’d have with the Colts.
Quenton Nelson is quite simply the Colts’ best player and one of the very best in the league. It’s hard to explain just how good Nelson is, but this quote from the Colts’ announcement of Nelson’s injury does a pretty good job:
“The 2018 first-round pick played in all 48 regular-season games and all three of the Colts’ playoff games from 2018-2020. Nelson, a first-team AP All-Pro in 2018, 2019, and 2020, became the fifth player in the last 50 years to be named a first-team AP All-Pro in each of his first three seasons, joining Earl Campbell, Keith Jackson, Barry Sanders, and Lawrence Taylor.”
My colleague Jason wrote an article about which Colts players he least wanted to be injured. My list certainly would have had Wentz and Nelson in my top three alongside DeForest Buckner. There’s no point sugar-coating it; if Wentz and Nelson miss games this season, it could get ugly for Colts fans.
That being said, I think Nelson’s injury underlines why the Colts shouldn’t pursue a big-name veteran quarterback like Foles, Minshew, or Mariota (although Mariota would be my preference of the three). The Colts are just going to have to get through Wentz and Nelson’s injuries as best as they can and see how much of the season is left to salvage when they return.
If that is by week three or four, then I think the Colts’ overall season goals of winning the AFC South and winning a playoff game should remain intact. If they return closer to the 12-week mark, the team will have to focus on its long-term goals.
As talented as this Colts team is, I didn’t expect them to be top-tier Super Bowl contenders this year, even if they were fully fit. So they won’t be missing a golden opportunity to win it all this season.
If the playoffs are out of reach by the time Wentz and Nelson return, the Colts should focus on answering the key questions they had before training camp. Is Carson Wentz the long-term answer at quarterback? Which of the Colts’ young pass rushers are good enough?
This season may be more of a struggle than Colts fans had hoped only two weeks ago. But even if injuries wreck this season, the future for this Colts team should still be bright.
Wentz and Fisher could have proven themselves the long-term solutions at their respective positions; Dayo Odeyingbo should be healthy with a full offseason behind him, and talented young players like Pittman, Taylor, and Blackmon should have another year’s development under their belts.
Having said all that, I really want Wentz and Nelson to be healthy and back to their best as soon as possible. I really don’t want this season to be a write-off already. It’s far too soon to start counting down to the 2022 season.