INDIANAPOLIS – Wherever the Indianapolis Colts go from here, they’ll follow Sam Ehlinger’s lead.
Listen to Frank Reich.
“Yes, right now the move is for Sam to be the starter for the rest of the season,’’ he said Monday.
The dramatic lineup change – a second-year quarterback with zero passes on his resume replacing a 15-year veteran and former NFL MVP – was made less than 24 hours after Matt Ryan suffered Grade 2 separation with his right shoulder in Sunday’s loss at Tennessee.
“The shoulder injury is real,’’ Reich said, “but this move was going to be made either way.’’
That’s how poorly Ryan’s first season – probably his only season – with the Colts has gone. Even if he had exited the Titans game unscathed, he would been supplanted by Ehlinger, that second-year QB who’ll throw his first career pass in his first career start against the Washington Commanders Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“It’s a big step, but we think he’s ready,’’ Reich said. “This guy is special.
“He’ll be ready.’’
The team’s patience with Ryan’s carelessness with the football was growing thin. He leads the NFL with nine interceptions and 12 total turnovers. Those mistakes overshadowed the three fourth-quarter/overtime wins Ryan directed in the Colts’ 3-3-1 start.
Sunday was the tipping point: two more interceptions, including a 76-yard pick-6.
“At some point as a head coach, you have to make hard decisions,’’ Reich said. “ . . . they are not easy decisions to be made.’’
Reich watched video of the 19-10 loss to the Titans on the short flight home Sunday, then drove to his office at the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center and watched more video.
At some point late Sunday, Reich, general manager Chris Ballard and owner Jim Irsay talked “for an hour or so, just talking everything through,’’ Reich said.
Irsay fully endorsed the March trade that delivered Ryan from Atlanta. He believed the decorated veteran was the latest short-term answer who could help the Colts contend for the AFC South title, perhaps more.
“We view this as very possibly a three-year thing,’’ Irsay said in April. “Who knows? It’s hard to put a number on it.’’
While believing in Ryan, the owner also has been intrigued by Ehlinger’s potential.
Reich admitted Irsay offered serious input in the decision to move away from Ryan.
“He’s got a lot of wisdom, a lot of good counsel,’’ Reich said. “Certainly his vote is always going to carry . . . it’s a one-man crew in that respect. But what I appreciate about him is this is a collective decision.
“This is, ‘Let’s talk this through.’ He might lead the way in certain ways, but it’s really owner, GM, head coach talking it through (with) a decision of this magnitude.’’
It’s not hyperbole to suggest Ryan’s stint in Indy has ended, especially with Reich’s insistence the move to Ehlinger isn’t temporary. Ryan turned 37 in May.
With the offseason trade, the Colts assumed the final two years of Ryan’s contract valued at $53 million. Releasing him would create approximately $18 million in dead money against the 2023 salary cap, but save the team $17 million.
Ryan is the fifth different opening-day starting quarterback in Reich’s five-year stint as head coach, following Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz. Ehlinger will be Reich’s seventh different starter (Brian Hoyer started one game in 2019).
“It’s frustrating,’’ Reich conceded.
Through it all, he pointed to Irsay’s “commitment to winning.’’
“And anything short of winning a championship isn’t going to be good enough,’’ Reich said. “No one’s exempt from that. Not the head coach, not anybody. He’s going to make decisions that he thinks is best for this team and this organization to win championships.’’
Reich informed his quarterback room of the seismic shift Monday morning, and offered a mea culpa of sorts to Ryan.
“I told this to Matt: ‘Hey, Matt, we did not hold up to our end of the bargain. You came here and we promised you a top-NFL rushing game and we promised you great protection and we haven’t really, as an offense, delivered on that,’’’ Reich said. “And that really starts with me.
“We thought the marriage of Matt Ryan and his history with our running game . . . we thought there was going to be a natural marriage there.’’
Instead, the NFL’s highest-paid offensive line has underachieved. Ryan has been sacked 24 times, tied for most in the league, and the running game ranks 30th in yards per game (81.0) and 29th in yards per attempt (3.5).
Ehlinger’s mobility might help mitigate the leaky protection.
During a prolific 46-game career at Texas, he complemented 11,436 passing yards and 94 touchdowns with 1,907 rushing yards and another 33 TDs. Ehlinger flashed his running abilities during the recent preseason by leading the Colts in rushing with 71 yards on six carries, including a 45-yard TD.
“Sometimes in a game it’s those one or two third-down conversions on a scramble that can make a difference in a game,’’ Reich said, adding “I believe he can be good in the pocket.
“We can still stay true to some of the stuff that we like, but we can do a little bit more with some of the movement stuff.’’
Reich reiterated Ehlinger’s intangible qualities.
“We’ve always thought from day 1 that Sam had some kind of special sauce,’’ he said. “He’s continued to show it.
“He’ll be ready. He’ll be ready. Is he going to have some growing pains? Of course. Is he going to make mistakes? Of course he’s going to make mistakes. But I think Sam will make plays. He’s proven that everywhere he’s been, and we believe that’s what he’s going to do for our offense.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.