Colts’ QB conundrum: What Sam Ehlinger replacing Matt Ryan means

A game that was supposed to serve as a referendum on one quarterback decision — don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Carson — will instead serve as a referendum on the Colts’ flawed approach at the position for three years running.

Andrew Luck retired in August 2019. Indianapolis still hasn’t figured out what’s next.

And because of that, because the Colts have whiffed on their last two swings at the most important position on the field, this is where they sit eight weeks into a season that never really got started: asking a 24-year-old sixth-round pick who has never thrown an NFL pass to spark an offense that’s among the worst in the league, a unit that can’t protect, can’t run the ball and can’t stop turning it over.

Godspeed, Sam Ehlinger.

The Washington Commanders are in town Sunday for Ehlinger’s debut, a game that at the outset of the season offered up an obvious and delicious storyline: Carson Wentz, the QB the Colts kicked to the curb after last season, would be returning to Indianapolis to face his old team and, more specifically, the owner who openly panned him for months after the trade.

So anxious were the Colts to move on from Wentz, remember, that they were willing to cut him and eat $15 million if they had to. In the end they didn’t, because Ron Rivera and the Commanders offered up two third-rounders to take Wentz off their hands.

Matt Ryan was supposed to be the answer.

Like Wentz, he wasn’t.

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The Colts’ bold decision Monday to bench Ryan, who has struggled this season (11 fumbles, nine interceptions) but also had a big role in three come-from-behind wins, feels like a watershed moment for a franchise that’s been spinning in circles since the night Luck walked away, a breaking point in this endless rent-a-QB cycle that’s gotten this team exactly nowhere.

This is the first time the Colts are openly acknowledging that this approach has failed them, that getting younger — and likely worse in the short term — is the only way they’ll finally get better. You can only plug-and-play at quarterback for so long.

In Indianapolis, apparently, the expiration date on that approach is three years. And it shouldn’t have taken that long.

Make no mistake: This decision is less about 2022 than it is 2025. This is the Colts finally saying they can’t keep kicking the can down the road.

For years, it felt like they were taking the sensible approach, refusing to panic and take a flier on a young quarterback they weren’t convinced would last. The Philip Rivers move in 2020 only emboldened them; a 39-year-old Rivers led the Colts to 11 wins and a playoff berth, giving coach Frank Reich — who originally pushed for the signing — the weight he needed a year later when Wentz became available. Reich pushed for that one, too.


Frank Reich advocated for the Colts to trade for Carson Wentz, but the quarterback’s tenure in Indianapolis lasted only one season. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

The Colts shipped first- and third-rounders to Philadelphia, punting on any chance they had that spring to take a top quarterback in the NFL Draft. If they hadn’t, who knows? Justin Fields might be wearing a Colts uniform right now.

“You can’t rush it,” owner Jim Irsay said around that time. “If you try and solve the quarterback issue in a year and don’t do it right, you can set your franchise back 10 years.”

“It’s not an exact (science),” general manager Chris Ballard echoed. “Everyone thinks you just take one and you’re gonna fix the problem. Look, taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t play well, I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building.”

Colts’ QB carousel, 2018-2022

Year QB Record Pass. Yds TD-INT Sacks Rating

2018

Andrew Luck

10-6

4,593

39-15

18

98.7

2019

Jacoby Brissett

7-8

2,942

18-6

27

88.1

2020

Philip Rivers

11-5

4,169

24-11

19

97.1

2021

Carson Wentz

9-8

3,563

27-7

23

84.1

2022

Matt Ryan

3-3-1

2,008

9-9

24

84.7

That was the thinking in the 24 months after Luck walked away: The Colts weren’t going to make the mistakes other teams made. They weren’t going to panic. They weren’t going to reach.

But the problem with that is finding the right quarterback requires aggressiveness, particularly for a franchise that hasn’t drafted inside the top five in a decade.

To say the Colts stuck with the Band-Aid approach isn’t accurate; Wentz arrived with four years left on his contract, two of which were guaranteed, and the initial hope was that he’d last for several seasons. But after last year’s horrendous finish, he was out, forcing the Colts to restart a cycle they believed they’d climbed out of.

Similarly, Ryan arrived as a two-year plan, and as recently as April, Irsay was openly talking about him being in Indianapolis for three or four seasons.

Ryan lost his job seven games in.

He was asked Wednesday if he thought the team had broken its word.

“Listen, I know in this league, you’ve got to go out and win games,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to produce, and you’ve got to play well. I don’t see it that way. Obviously, disappointed we haven’t played better. I thought we would.

“But I don’t worry about that. My job this week is to help support (Sam). I’ll help him in any way I can.”


Taking care of the ball has been a problem for Matt Ryan this season. He has tied for the NFL lead in fumbles with 11. (Marc Lebryk / USA Today)

Ehlinger will become the sixth starter in Reich’s five seasons as coach. Dating back to Luck in 2018, the Colts have dished out a whopping $145 million in cash to 12 quarterbacks, per Spotrac. They have made the playoffs just twice and don’t have a division title to show for it.

And whether they’ll admit it or not, the cycle has worn on them: the uncertainty each winter, the restart each spring, the ups and downs each fall.

It was just a few weeks ago, after another loss to the Titans, when running back Nyheim Hines said what other players in that locker room were surely thinking: “Not an excuse, but every year we have a new quarterback. So each year we have growing pains while we sit here and watch Tennessee, which has had (Ryan) Tannehill, what, my whole career? And each year we’re restarting and we have to turn the page.”

Asked about that cycle Wednesday, Reich pushed back on the notion the Colts have spent three years running in place.

“I think it has gotten us somewhere,” he said. “I understand on the outside, it may look like it’s not. We’ve developed a roster — we’re continuing to develop a roster we think is a championship roster. So that’s part of a double-edged sword because we’re close …”

go-deeper

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The roster has talent. But if there is one truth in this league it’s that a roster without a quarterback isn’t going anywhere.

The fact that the Colts haven’t collapsed, haven’t fallen apart to the point they find themselves picking in the top five, has actually hurt them. The team’s top decision-makers won’t say this publicly, but they know this.

Nothing hurts a franchise over the long haul quite like mediocrity.

“Do you want to take a step back?” Reich continued. “Maybe at some point you have to do that, but that’s the hard part. As Chris and I and Mr. Irsay sit down and talk about those things, those are the decisions that you have to make every offseason. I don’t think we’ve been spinning our wheels. I think every year we’re learning and we’re getting better.

“I understand the record goes up and down. Like I said, we’ve won a lot of games here in four years. We’ve won more than we’ve lost in four years. (The Colts are 40-31-1 under Reich.) In some ways, I think we’ve exceeded expectations with all that we’ve gone through when you consider the number of quarterbacks.”

Reich has a point. Despite having four different quarterbacks over his first four seasons, the Colts finished in the top 10 in scoring offense three times. The only outlier was 2019 with Jacoby Brissett, who was thrust into the starting job after Luck retired 15 days before the season opener.

“You say in ’18, how did we do?” Reich said. “In ’19, with a quarterback change, how did we do? In ’20, how did we do? Where did we fall as far as expectations? In ’21, and I think if you look at it year by year, I think you could argue that in some ways — in some ways, not all ways — we’ve exceeded expectations given the fact that we’ve had that many quarterbacks and still have been able to be in the hunt and find ways to get better. When Chris and I and Mr. Irsay talk, we’re about winning championships. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Now the fate of their 2022 season rests on the shoulders of the unproven Ehlinger.

And this team feels as far away from a championship as at any point under Reich.

The offense ranks 29th in scoring, the run game 30th. The team is averaging just 5.5 points in the first half this season and has given up the second most sacks (24) and the most QB hits (80) in the league.

Maybe Ehlinger gives them a spark. Maybe yards are easier to come by — same with third-down conversions. But it’s fair to wonder whether any quarterback could excel behind this offensive line. The consensus in the locker room Wednesday, two days after Reich shared the decision with the players?

The surprise hadn’t worn off. This team was behind Ryan, and the news was hard to swallow.

“You’re not upset, but you’re like, dang,” Hines said, choosing his words carefully. “It’s unfortunate. The circumstances are really unfortunate. I love Matt to death. We love Sam, but it sucks how things have transpired for us to get to this place.”

Center Ryan Kelly, who noted he’ll be snapping to his eighth quarterback since he arrived here in 2016, offered a similar sentiment.

“I think everybody’s got their own opinions about it,” Kelly said. “I’m not gonna get into mine, but yeah, certainly, I think everybody’s surprised.

“I have no choice but to get close to these guys. My locker’s next to (the QBs). It’s been the case ever since I got here. So yeah, that sucks. Sucks big time. But it’s Week 8, man. The NFL freaking flies by. So, you know, if you sit and console and if you wanna just (hang) your head and throw in the white flag, then you can certainly do that. But we’re gonna play the game no matter what.”


Sam Ehlinger’s mobility could give the Colts offense an added wrinkle Sunday against the Commanders. (Gregory Fisher/USA Today)

That’s the other layer in all of this: the belief of some that the Colts are waving the white flag, punting on the season and hoping for a better draft pick so they can solve this quarterback riddle once and for all. Internally, that’s not the approach. They believe they have the pieces on offense to fix this, and Ehlinger, with his ability to move around a bit more in the pocket, could give them something they’ve been missing.

“It’s like, look, man, we can help him play really well, and if we help him play really well, that changes his life forever,” Hines said, speaking for the running backs. “If he plays well, his life changes. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. We’re not gonna be the reason he fails.”

Reich, embattled as he’s been this season, isn’t rolling over. On one hand, no head coach should have to shuffle through six starters in five years. On the other hand, Reich’s hands are dirty in this too; he pushed for the Wentz trade that backfired, costing them a first-round pick and forcing them to restart the cycle.

What he has now is another opportunity, with the odds as long as they’ve been since he took over: He has to take an overlooked, unproven sixth-round pick and help him save the season.

“Anybody who knows Sam knows he’s made for moments like this, right?” Reich said. “Is he going to go in and be the offensive player of the week? I’m not saying that. Will he have growing pains? Absolutely, he’ll have growing pains, but I can tell you this for sure: There is nobody waving the white flag. That is not in the DNA. It’s not in my DNA; it’s not in our players’ DNA. I would never do that in a million years. I just couldn’t do that.”

From Luck to Brissett to Rivers to Wentz to Ryan to Ehlinger, the carousel continues.

Say this much for this franchise: It keeps it interesting.

(Top photo: Bryan Lynn / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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