INDIANAPOLIS — The objective will drive Jim Irsay until his franchise is able to finally recover from Andrew Luck’s sudden, numbing retirement.
Find a long-term answer at quarterback.
“It’s the highest priority of the long-term interest of the franchise,” Irsay said Saturday as he participated in his 50th NFL Draft.
The owner of the Indianapolis Colts was situated behind his massive desk in his memorabilia-decorated office at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. The backdrop included the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl XLI flanked by helmets of franchise icons: Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Robert Mathis.
Above the Lombardi Trophy were the helmets of Manning, John Unitas and Luck.
The QB trifecta display was a stark reminder of the importance of the position, and the influence that guy can have on an entire organization.
Since Luck’s retirement two weeks before the start of the 2019 season, the Colts have missed that guy and bounced from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz.
And now, to Matt Ryan.
Let’s get one thing straight: Ryan isn’t the prototypical long-term answer. Father Time nixes that possibility. Ryan, acquired in a March trade with Atlanta, turns 37 in May and comes to Indy following 14 prolific seasons with the Falcons.
But neither is Ryan another one-and-done QB. At worst, he’s the Colts’ starting quarterback for the next two seasons, after they guaranteed the final two years of the contract they acquired at roughly $54 million.
Irsay said believes Ryan might be around a tad longer.
“Obviously it’s not drafting Andrew Luck, but it’s different than Philip Rivers,” he said. “We knew Philip was going to be a one-year sort of thing.”
That’s a bit of revisionist history. In fact, the Colts hoped Rivers would give them two years, not one, before retiring after leading them to an 11-5 record and the playoffs in 2020.
But yes, Ryan is different.
“We view this as very possibly a three-year thing,” Irsay said. “Who knows? It’s hard to put a number of it.”
Several minutes later, that number actually increased.
“We hope Matt can be here for even four years, maybe,” he said. “But we’ll certainly have our radar out for a young guy that could be the long-term future.”
Ryan has been noncommittal regarding his career, but it’s clear he’s in no hurry to dive into life after the NFL.
“I’ve said from the start, I’d like to play as long as I can,” Ryan said during his mid-March introductory press conference. “Nobody has a crystal ball to know exactly how long it’s going to be. As long as I feel good and feel like I can play well, I’m going to try and play.”
No one should underestimate his anticipated influence.
Irsay spoke of how far removed the Colts are from his come-to-Jesus meeting with general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich, that Jan. 9 night their season imploded with the 26-11 loss at Jacksonville. He did most of the talking, and much of it focused on the absolute need to move on from Wentz.
“Really, it’s pretty stunning to see where we’re at because I’ve seen the other sides of things that didn’t work out and where the program could stand if we didn’t get through a few narrow roads that brought us to where we think is definite prosperity,” he said. “Everyone feels optimism, but I think we really have a reason to feel optimistic because when you look at our football team and you look at things we did in 2021, you really realize it was a special and a dangerous team.
“But it was lacking. Some things had to be corrected. But we’re pulling all of the good things forward with us.”
That optimism flows because of Ryan. And remember, things had to fall into place. The Colts were prepared to cut Wentz before finding a trade partner in the Washington Commanders, even without a viable Plan B. At the time of the trade, Atlanta had no plans to part ways with Ryan.
Irsay insisted the Colts head into 2022 “as real competitors.”
Because of Matt Ryan.
“There’s no way I can sit here and explain to you unless you look in Frank’s and Chris Ballard and other people in the organization’s eyes and see the difference right now because of Matt Ryan being in this building… his professionalism, his stature still at 36 and coming in here,” Irsay said.
The success of the Ballard-driven offseason is undeniable.
“I mean, he’s parted the sea,” Irsay said.
There was getting at least two 3rd-round draft picks and having Washington assume $28 million for a quarterback they were going to cut, trading for a Pro Bowl edge pass rusher (Yannick Ngakoue), signing a cornerback who was the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year (Stephon Gilmore) and adding potential difference-makers in the draft (Alec Pierce, Jelani Woods).
Most of all, it was engineering the trade for Ryan after there weren’t any clear answers following the Wentz trade.
“You don’t take for granted where we are sitting here at the end of April, (after walking) out of that stadium in Jacksonville and meeting right here Frank, Chris and I late into the night Sunday night,” Irsay said.
“I think it’s quite remarkable what we were able to do, trading Carson, getting Matt, getting the fee agents that we did and going into this draft and getting football players that we think can make a big difference in areas of need.”
Irsay’s optimism is unchecked.
“It’s an exciting place to be,” he said, “but it’s all put against the fact that Matt Ryan is here. Pull him out of the equation and now you’re asking me a lot of different questions, probably all quarterback questions.”
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.