The Colts’ Decision To Bench Matt Ryan Is a Failure for All Parties Involved

    The Colts are benching Matt Ryan after seven games, and Chris Ballard and Frank Reich are now betting their jobs on de facto rookie Sam Ehlinger.

    The Indianapolis Colts have been searching for an answer at quarterback since Andrew Luck retired before the 2019 season, and that hunt reached a new chapter on Monday. The Colts are benching Matt Ryan, whom they acquired from the Atlanta Falcons over the offseason, after just seven starts.

    Indy will instead turn to 2021 seventh-round pick Sam Ehlinger, who’s played 18 NFL snaps and has yet to attempt a pass. Ehlinger is the only individual involved in this change who will emerge with a more positive outlook.

    For Ryan, the loss of his starting job could signify the end of his NFL career. For head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, the move represents a failure that could ultimately cost them their jobs.

    Colts Bench Matt Ryan for Sam Ehlinger

    Ryan has a Grade 2 shoulder sprain, so he wouldn’t have been available to practice or play this week anyway. But Reich was sure to note that the Colts would have handed the starting QB role to Ehlinger regardless of Ryan’s injury status.

    “Right now, the move is for Sam to be the starter for the rest of the season,” Reich said.

    For this transition to occur before the 2022 campaign even reaches its midway point is a damning indictment of both Ryan’s lackluster performance and the Colts’ poor team-building around the 37-year-old quarterback.

    Ryan has taken the most sacks and thrown the most interceptions of anyone in the NFL. He’s bottom-10 league-wide in adjusted net yards per attempt and expected points added per play. Outside of his 389-yard, three-touchdown effort against the Jaguars in Week 6, Ryan hasn’t been efficient or helped create explosive plays.

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    Indy has now botched a quarterback acquisition in consecutive offseasons. In 2021, they sent what ultimately became first- and third-round picks to the Eagles for Carson Wentz. After somehow escaping that debacle thanks to a trade with the Commanders, the Colts shipped another third-round pick to the Falcons for Ryan.

    “I wanted to make sure Matt knew that there’s no doubt it’s going to be two years,” Ballard said after acquiring Ryan. “And I think we’ll go from there. I think we’ll know. I think both parties will know as we move forward.”

    The Colts were so sold on Ryan that they restructured his contract upon acquiring him, pushing more money into the future and making it more difficult to cut him in the future. Indianapolis would take on $18 million in dead money by releasing Ryan next spring, although that would represent a cap savings of $17+ million.

    “Matt is different than Philip [Rivers], this is definitely different than that,” owner Jim Irsay said in May. “It’s not drafting Andrew Luck, but it’s different than Philip. We knew Philip was going to be a one-year sort of thing, and we view this as very possibly a three-year thing. Who knows. It’s hard to put a number on it.”

    Reich and Ballard’s decision to go with Ehlinger for the rest of the season — which may have been more of a directive from Irsay — feels like Hail Mary to save their jobs. Yes, the Colts have played poorly, but FiveThirtyEight‘s model still gives them a 43% chance of making the postseason.

    To go to the wholly inexperienced Ehlinger reeks of desperation and seems like a last-ditch attempt at developing a franchise quarterback. The uber-conservative Ballard has continuously opted against targeting a signal-caller early in the draft, making it ironic that his job may now hinge on a passer the Colts chose 218th overall.

    Ehlinger Won’t Fix Indy’s Structural Problems

    Ehlinger threw 94 touchdowns against 27 interceptions over four seasons with the Texas Longhorns, and he flashed some ability during the preseason. Still, Ehlinger’s pre-draft scouting report pegged him as a high-character leader who probably doesn’t have the physical tools to become a passable NFL starter.

    Reich is still an excellent offensive play-caller, and Ehlinger could theoretically have some success if he avoids the back-breaking mistakes that Ryan made. Still, the second-year quarterback won’t be able to paper over Indy’s roster issues.

    Ballard has essentially refused to enter the free agent market during his time as the Colts’ GM. Indy has ranked in the bottom 10 of FA spending in each of the last four offseasons. In 2022, the Colts signed 15 external free agents, but only one — cornerback Stephon Gilmore — received an annual average value north of $4 million.

    “This is another point … and I told this to Matt: ‘We did not hold up to our end of the bargain here,” Reich said today. “We promised you one of the top NFL rushing games and we promised you great protection. And we haven’t really, as an offense, delivered on that.”

    The Colts failed to acquire a veteran receiver for Ryan, and they didn’t address an offensive line that lost left tackle Eric Fisher and right guard Mark Glowinski in the offseason. They’ve tried multiple combinations of Matt Pryor, Danny Pinter, Dennis Kelly, and third-round rookie Bernhard Raimann between LT and RG, but nothing has seemed to mesh.

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    As they move on to Ehlinger, Indy has to hope that he’s either outstanding or terrible. A merely competent rest-of-season from the de facto rookie probably won’t move the needle much.

    If Ehlinger is fantastic, Ballard and Reich can convince Irsay they’ve discovered the Colts’ next quarterback. If Ehlinger is putrid, Indy can quietly tank for the remainder of the year, lock in a high pick in the 2023 draft, move on from Ballard and Reich, and push the reset button next spring.

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