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How good do the Colts need Carson Wentz to be?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts OTA Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to Carson Wentz, most everyone agrees that his 2020 performance was really bad and his 2017 performance was really good, leaving everyone to wonder what to expect from the Colts offense next year. To get comfortable with this uncertainty, one narrative I have seen floated repeatedly is that as long as we get an “OK” performance from Wentz, the Colts offense should not take a step back.

Now, because of the dramatic variance in Wentz’s seasonal performances, I don’t really know who we will see next year, but I can say with certainty that just an “OK” Wentz will be a big regression for the Colts offense.


EFFICIENCY

Most fans recognize the connection between the proficiency of a team’s offense and the proficiency of their QB, but for those who think an offense can still rack up a lot of points while having just a “good enough” QB, I present the following.

The ability of a team to score points is rooted in it’s ability to move the ball down the field and while flashy, highlight reel plays are fun to watch, it is the level of a team’s average play that matters most to how close to the end zone a team will get.

Below is a chart showing every team’s season EPA per passing play relative to their points per drive for the last 10 years (1).

This clearly demonstrates the extremely strong relationship between how efficient a QB is and how many points the team scores. Not only is there a dramatic upward trend in points as efficiency increases but the data is also tightly grouped to the trend line (correlation = 0.92). This means that if your QB is just “meh” efficiency-wise, your team is likely going to score “meh” points.


A common theme I notice is that people under-rate Philip Rivers performance last year and think it will be pretty easy for the Colts to match or exceed that. I disagree.

The next chart filters the above data to just show Carson Wentz and 2020 Philip Rivers.

Last year, Philip Rivers earned the 8th highest EPA efficiency of any QB. With him under center, the Colts offense scored 2.5 points per drive, which basically matched the production of Wentz’s best year. Again, flashy plays are nice and Wentz in 2017 had far more flash than 2020 Philip Rivers, but when you measure ALL of their plays, they had similar efficiency and not coincidentally, similar point production.

Notice that the Colts data point isn’t some strange outlier either: it is slightly above the 10 year trendline, but not much. The fact is that Rivers was very efficient and the Colts scored a lot of points because of it.

Conversely, Wentz in 2016, 2018 and 2019 had much lower efficiency and much lower point production. In those respective years, Wentz’s offenses scored 1.86, 1.97 and 1.95 points per drive. Those numbers in 2020 would have ranked 25th, 23rd and 23rd, which is a far cry from the 10th ranked Colts.

If we get “just OK” Wentz, the Colts offense likely scores far fewer points.


CONCLUSION

Wentz has been in the league for 5 years and in only one of those seasons (limited to 13 games) did he have better efficiency than Philip Rivers did last year. If I were a betting man, I would wager Wentz fails to eclipse Rivers efficiency in 2021 and as such, I think the offense takes a step back.

Hopefully, I am wrong, but I can almost guarantee that IF the 2021 Colts offense matches or exceeds their 2020 scoring, it will be because Wentz improves his efficiency to be a top 10 QB, NOT because he was just “OK”.


FOOTNOTES

1) Points per drive ignores drives that end due to time expiration. Points are net of safeties and defensive scores off of turnovers. Dropbacks include scrambles and ignore QB spikes.