He can, but it will take two significant factors:
1. Tolzien rising to a level no one expects.
2. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski calling the game of his life.
I have confidence in the latter, no way to know about the former. But if this turns into a perfect storm of Tolzien’s greatest day and Chudzinski’s trickiest strategy, it could end up the most important performance either has ever delivered.
The Colts (5-5) play the Steelers (5-5) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday in Lucas Oil Stadium (NBC). The Colts announced Wednesday that Luck will miss the game.
One positive precedent is the fact the Colts were able to win games last season when Luck was down and Matt Hasselbeck took over. The difference between then and now is glaring, of course. Hasselbeck was a veteran and former starting quarterback with over 35,000 passing yards and a Super Bowl appearance. Tolzien is a career backup with 721 total yards passing, all but four of which came in 2013.
Tolzien stepped in for the Green Bay Packers when Aaron Rodgers was hurt in 2013. The Packers were 0-2-1 with Tolzien at the helm, the two losses were by identical 27-13 scores. If I was a betting man, I could see a similar score rearing its head again Thursday night.
There’s nothing in Tolzien’s NFL past to suggest he can handle a Thanksgiving night game against one of the traditionally best defensive franchises in history. The Steelers have soundly beaten the Colts the last two times they played.
Tolzien must play at a level we aren’t expecting. It could happen. Tolzien gets on the field. There are few snippets of recent film for the defense to judge in advance. He feels invigorated by the moment. A combination of competitiveness and adrenaline take over. He soars. Maybe the Colts even use an complementary package with Stephen Morris at quarterback.
Again, there’s no way to predict that will happen. It’s just as likely, given the lack of recent Tolzien data, that he stumbles and fumbles and throws interceptions under pressure. It could turn into a three-touchdown loss.
If there’s a miracle win, I’m leaning toward it hinging on the mastermind effort of Chudzinski more than the untapped skills of Tolzien.
We’ve seen some inventiveness in Chudzinski’s repertoire, perhaps best illustrated by the “wildcat” play where running back Frank Gore tossed a lateral to Luck and then went out for a pass reception and a big gain against Tennessee.
That’s not the type of play that’ll be needed to beat the Steelers, however.
Chudzinski will have to a simpler offense into actoin for Tolzien, facing his first in-season live action since three brief appearances last season. Tolzien threw one pass last year, complete for four yards.
Chudzinski’s game plan with Tolzien would have to employ a variety of fundamentally sound plays. He’ll have to use Gore extensively. He’ll have to use “safe” passes to tight end Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle and quick hits to T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief. He’ll need a heck of a performance by the offensive line to allow Tolzien the extra time he’s going to need to get his bearings in the rush of game action.
The good news is the relative health of the Colts’ offense. Tolzien would have some talent at his disposal. The worrisome news is how long it has been since Tolzien has played.
The Colts won their final regular-season game last year with a combination of Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley at quarterback. Both were basically off the street and into the game. At least Tolzien has been with the team since last summer. At least he’s been in the film room all year with Luck, Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer. At least he’s been around.
The Steelers have not been dominant on defense this season. They rank 22nd in total defense, 19th in scoring defense and 16th in sacks. They’re decent, but not overpowering.
"Decent" could be enough to disrupt a rusty quarterback like Tolzien.
Or it may give him just enough room to thrive if he plays a notch above what many expect. And Chudzinski calls the game of his life.
A little optimism can’t hurt. Reality? That's on its way. Might be painful.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.