Colts QB Gardner Minshew might be NFL’s best backup; if Jets called, would Indy trade him?

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Anthony Richardson didn’t plan on leaving the the second game of his NFL career so soon, not until he’d left no doubt. Sunday was about to be his coming out party, a warning to the rest of the NFL about the premature judgment of where he was picked and how his skill set — or supposed lack thereof — would translate to the NFL.

He’s too green, too inexperienced and too inaccurate.

That’s what Richardson heard before, during and after the draft. But with two touchdowns in the opening quarter of his second NFL game, the Indianapolis Colts’ No. 4 pick looked every bit like a franchise quarterback. He showed flashes of it in Indianapolis’ season-opening loss to the Jaguars and appeared to be on track for a monster performance against the Texans in Week 2.

But one big collision, at the end of his second TD run, changed the trajectory of Richardson’s afternoon. It resulted in him walking off the field and back to the visiting locker room at NRG Stadium early in the second quarter, while veteran backup Gardner Minshew warmed up on the sideline. Richardson would later be diagnosed with a concussion.

Indianapolis could’ve gone off the rails at that point, squandered its two-touchdown lead and lost its ninth straight game dating back to 2022. But when Minshew entered the contest, the Colts didn’t miss a beat. He engineered two more touchdown drives before halftime, and during the intermission, he reminded Richardson of what his role is as his backup.

“I’m going to hold it down for you,” Minshew told the rookie.

The five-year pro finished 19-of-23 passing for 171 yards and one touchdown in the Colts’ 31-20 victory, marking their first AFC South road win since 2021. Minshew’s performance prompted Colts owner Jim Irsay to tip his cap to Minshew, who he doesn’t think is the average second-stringer.

“That’s a starting player on your roster. He’s not a backup,” Irsay said. “That’s the one position (on our team) where the backup is a starter, and we proved the value of having Gardner and the quality of his veteran experience, his decision-making, his accuracy and that showed. We wouldn’t have had the victory without that.”

He’s not wrong. Minshew’s steadiness, despite not having any reps with the starting unit during the three practices leading up to that game, begs at least two questions as Indianapolis prepares for Week 3 at Baltimore with Richardson currently in the concussion protocol:

1. Is Minshew the best backup quarterback in the league?
2. Could a team with playoff aspirations, perhaps the Jets, seek his services via trade?

Stating Minshew’s case

This isn’t Minshew’s first time coming to the rescue.

After being selected in the sixth-round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Jaguars and making the 53-man roster as Nick Foles’ backup, Minshew was immediately thrust into the spotlight when Foles broke his left clavicle in the season opener. The rookie stepped in and completed 22-of-25 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a home loss to the Chiefs. Minshew’s 88 completion percentage is the highest ever for a player with at least 15 pass attempts in their NFL debut.

“Minshew Mania” ensued.

Of course, Minshew couldn’t stay that hot forever, but suffice it to say that if Richardson replicated Minshew’s rookie season this year, Indianapolis fans would be jumping for joy. Minshew finished with 21 touchdowns against six interceptions and 3,271 passing yards during his rookie campaign, and he posted a 6-6 record as the starter.

“He’s done a lot of good things in this league,” Colts quarterbacks coach Cam Turner said. “He’s proven that he can be successful in this league. … He can play football. Anyone that watches the tape and turns it on (to see him), he knows what he’s doing. He can make plays and guys play hard for him, and you know he’s gonna bring it every single play.”

Minshew hasn’t played that much in one season since he was a rookie, but when his number’s been called, he’s been ready. After tossing a touchdown pass to Kylen Granson against Houston, the first score of Granson’s career, Minshew has now thrown 45 touchdown passes against 15 picks in the 34 games he’s appeared in during his career. Since 2019, his 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio ranks eighth in the league among the 46 quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts. The next highest “backup” is former Colts QB Jacoby Brissett, who now plays second string to Sam Howell in Washington and ranks 20th with a 2.2:1 TD-INT ratio.

The Athletic dove deeper into Minshew’s career in comparison to Brissett, Falcons backup Taylor Heinicke and Dallas backup Cooper Rush, who are among the premier second-stringers in the league. (Disclaimer: Rush has only attempted 210 passes since 2019, but for the sake of fairness he was included over bigger-name backups like Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston, who are both former Pro Bowlers but were once viewed as franchise cornerstones.)

Notable backup QBs since 2019

Quarterbacks Games Pass Att TD-INT (ratio) Comp% YPA Passer Rating EPA/Att EPA/Dropback Sacks

52

1049

35-16 (2.2)

62.1%

6.5

85.8

0.12

0.02

72

34

958

45-15 (3.0)

63.2%

7.1

93.4

0.17

0.05

71

26

772

33-21 (1.6)

64.0%

7.0

87.5

0.06

-0.05

58

17

210

8-4 (2.0)

59.0%

7.0

85.3

0.07

-0.03

10

Among that quartet of Minshew, Brissett, Heinicke and Rush, Minshew ranks first in Expected Points Added — a sort-of catchall offensive metric defined by Pro Football Focus as a stat that “defines the value of each play by the effect it has on the offense’s likelihood to score” — with an EPA of 0.05 per dropback, the only positive calculation of those four players. Minshew’s 93.4 passing rating also trumps the other three signal callers and ranks 20th among QBs with at least 500 pass attempts since 2019, falling just short of career starter Derek Carr (18th at 95.1).

“We’re thrilled to have Gardner,” Colts offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “He plays football at a level above a lot of the backup guys that I’ve seen out there. I think Gardner could be a good starting quarterback in this league. He’s played really good football, and he continues to show that when he gets his opportunity.”

Would the Jets make the call?

Zach Wilson and the Jets pulled off a miracle to knock off the Bills in their season opener after four-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers ruptured his left Achilles. But since then, New York has come back down to earth with a lopsided loss at Dallas in Week 2 and the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs and NFC champion Eagles representing two of their next four opponents.

It’s fair to say Wilson, the No. 2 pick in 2021 draft, is in over his head and that Minshew could be a better option if New York hopes to keep its playoff hopes alive. But unless the Jets called and offered at least a third-round pick, Colts GM Chris Ballard would likely laugh and hang up the phone. While the Colts likely won’t make the playoffs, Irsay is the ultimate the optimist. Winning remains a priority, and if Richardson misses more time this year, Minshew can lead the Colts to wins.

New York owns its third-round and two fourth-round picks in the 2024 draft.

In terms of recent trades for backups, former No. 3 pick Trey Lance was traded to Dallas for a fourth-round pick, and Joshua Dobbs was traded to Arizona for a fifth-rounder, so you’d have to think Minshew’s asking price would be higher — even if he’s only a rental playing on a one-yer deal. Since entering the league in 2019, Minshew’s career, in a vacuum, has been relatively comparable to Geno Smith’s four seasons with the Seahawks (including 2023). The Seahawks handed Smith a three-year contract worth up to $105 million this offseason. Minshew is playing for the Colts for $3.5 million.

Minshew vs. Smith

Quarterbacks Games Pass Att TD-INT Comp% YPA Psr Rt EPA/Att EPA/Dropback Sacks

24

739

38-12 (3.2)

69.80%

7.4

101.4

0.14

0.03

63

34

958

45-15 (3.0)

63.20%

7.1

93.4

0.17

0.05

71

Additionally, Indianapolis could play hard ball with the Jets, knowing they’re desperate to win with Minshew, unlike Dallas making Lance its third-stringer and Arizona eyeing the a top draft pick after Dobbs and Co. blew a 21-point lead in Week 2.

Another team besides the Jets could inquire about Minshew, though in addition to his consistency on the field, it’s hard to see Indianapolis parting ways with what he brings to the locker room and his relationship with Richardson — particularly given his experience with coach Shane Steichen’s offense. Minshew’s biggest asset is arguably his self-awareness, and since he signed with the Colts in free agency, he’s known he’d likely take a backseat to whichever QB the team drafted.

The veteran hasn’t pouted once while uplifting Richardson at every turn.

“Assuming is always a dangerous game,” Minshew said in March, asked if he thought he’d be the Week 1 starter before the Colts drafted Richardson. “Like I said, I’ve come here to work hard and to help the team in any way I can. So whatever that role is, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”

That role could mean starting Sunday at Baltimore as Richardson recovers from a concussion. The Ravens’ defense has been stout through the first two weeks, but with Minshew, Indianapolis believes it has a chance.

“When Gardner Minshew shows up and plays football for your team, you got a shot to go win that game,” Cooter said. “If that’s the case this week or if that’s the case at any point this year, we got all the confidence in the world in Gardner, and I think his teammates do, too.”

(Top photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)


The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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