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Why the Colts should consider keeping Stephen Morris as their backup quarterback

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Let’s make this clear to start off: there’s not a quarterback competition in Indianapolis, even for the backup spot. After leaving the door open for competition a bit after the team’s first preseason game, Chuck Pagano closed the door last week by declaring Scott Tolzien the backup.

“You guys have made more out of the number two and number three quarterback competition than I have or anybody else in this building has,” Pagano said after the second game. “Scott Tolzien is our backup quarterback and Stephen [Morris] is the number three right now.”

So this article isn’t to suggest that there’s some sort of quarterback controversy for the backup spot, but rather it’s to suggest that perhaps there should be. Here’s why I think the Colts should be open to giving Stephen Morris the backup quarterback job over Scott Tolzien:

  • First, it’s not like Tolzien is an established player. Last year, even though Matt Hasselbeck struggled a bit in the preseason the concerns were overblown because he was a veteran who had already proven himself in the NFL. For Scott Tolzien, that’s not the case. He’s played in just six games over his five NFL seasons, making two starts, and has completed 56 of 91 passes (61.5%) for 721 yards (7.9 yards per attempt), one touchdown, and five interceptions for a passer rating of 67.1 (adding eight rushes for 52 yards and a touchdown on the ground). Compared to Stephen Morris (who’s never played in an official NFL game) Tolzien has much more experience, but it’s still not enough to guarantee him the job. Furthermore, let’s be honest: if Andrew Luck goes down, Scott Tolzien won’t keep things afloat. So if the Colts are sunk either way if Luck is injured, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal going with a less proven but younger (and more talented) player.
  • Second, Tolzien has been outplayed by Stephen Morris this preseason - and I actually think it’s been by a considerable margin, too. Morris has the arm to make NFL-caliber throws, has been poised in the pocket and in late-game scenarios (yeah, it’s preseason, but whatever), has command of the offense, has made smart decisions (for the most part, with his two-point conversion fiasco in week two being one of the few exceptions), and has made plays with his feet (he’s the Colts’ leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per carry this preseason). Morris has completed 19 of 31 passes (61.3%) for 314 yards (10.1 yards per attempt), three touchdowns, and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 127.6. Tolzien, on the other hand, has completed 30 of 50 passes (60.0%) for 302 yards (6.0 yards per carry), two touchdowns, and an interception for a rating of 82.3. Tolzien hasn’t neccessarily been bad, it’s just that Morris has been much better.
  • Third, there’s a chance there would be some incentive to cutting Scott Tolzien. It’s not neccessarily financial (the Colts would only save $1 million and be on the hook for $500,000 in dead money), but it could affect the compensatory pick situation. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson this offseason talked openly about compensatory picks and how that would impact some of the Colts moves - especially since they’re tradeable next year. The NFL doesn’t disclose the compensatory pick formula, but Over the Cap has done a pretty good job of getting very close in their projections. They currently project the Colts to get a fourth rounder for losing Coby Fleener, but they also have the loss of Dwight Lowery warranting a seventh round pick but being cancelled out by the signing of Scott Tolzien. According to their write-up of their understanding of the compensatory pick formula, in order for a player to count toward this process, “he cannot have been permanently released by his new team before a certain point in the season (which seems to be after Week 10) or, possibly, before getting a certain amount of playing time, unless he was claimed off waivers by another team.” They suggested earlier this year that if the Colts were to go with Morris as the backup, the team could be in line for an additional seventh round compensatory pick. Now, let’s be clear: it’s definitely not guaranteed, especially since the formula is unknown and there are only a select number of picks available. Is the loss of Lowery enough to get them a seventh round pick if Tolzien is cut? It’s not certain, but it seems like it is.

So what the Colts have here is their third-string quarterback outplaying Scott Tolzien (albeit while playing against third-stringers), and Tolzien doesn’t have the NFL experience or resume to make him a clear, guaranteed favorite. If the situation is pretty even, the possibility of another compensatory pick could push the competition in Morris’s favor.

Again, it doesn’t really seem like the Colts are currently open to a competition for the backup quarterback spot, but I think they should be. If I were Chuck Pagano, I’d try to get Scott Tolzien and Stephen Morris equal reps and enter the game with an open mind. If they didn’t have their minds fully set on Tolzien, I think they’d see the potential value of keeping Morris. I don’t expect it to happen, but I think it should.