Why was Matt Ryan benched? Inside Colts’ decision to start Sam Ehlinger

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Privately, this is a move they’d been mulling for weeks, unconvinced they were getting the consistency at quarterback they needed, worried the dam would eventually break on a season that’s felt wobbly from the start.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the most important voice in the room — that of owner Jim Irsay — was more than a little curious as to what his team would look like if the Colts made the bold decision to bench their 37-year-old starter, Matt Ryan, in favor of a second-year quarterback who’s never thrown an NFL pass.

General manager Chris Ballard, the man who shipped a third-round pick to Atlanta last spring in exchange for Ryan, didn’t necessarily disagree. He’s long thought Sam Ehlinger’s had something to him.

“We think Sam Ehlinger has a really bright future,” Ballard said back in August after keeping the 2021 sixth-round draft pick on his roster.

What he couldn’t know at the time: Ehlinger would be his starting quarterback eight weeks later.


The Colts hope second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger can provide a spark to build on their 3-3-1 record. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

In recent weeks, the third decision-maker, coach Frank Reich, wasn’t ready — “Matt’s our quarterback,” he said Sunday, after the Colts’ 19-10 loss in Tennessee, their fifth in a row to their division rival. And publicly, Reich billed Ehlinger’s promotion to the backup job 10 days ago as nothing more than a schematic move, something that would give the offense another weapon in short-yardage situations.

In reality, there was far more to it. Ryan’s inconsistencies early in the season were obvious to anyone watching. The fumbles were a problem, his interceptions were costing them games and his leash was getting shorter. It wasn’t all on the QB, not with an offensive line that’s regressed into one of the worst in the league and a run game that ranks third from the bottom, but some inside the building were starting to think a change was needed.

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That was the premise on which the Colts traded for Ryan in the spring, remember, what they sold the longtime Falcons QB on before he approved the deal: Behind an elite offensive line and with a dominant running back in Jonathan Taylor, he’d be the perfect fit.

“I told this to Matt,” Reich acknowledged Monday, “we did not hold up our end of the bargain.”

He’s right about that.

But no matter now.

This is a mess, and the Colts are grasping at straws in an attempt to clean it up.

Seven games in, the results are ugly, the issues damning: Ryan leads the league in fumbles (11), interceptions (nine) and sacks taken (24). Somehow, the Colts are 3-3-1.

But something needed to change, and Irsay knew it. He let his top lieutenants know over the past few weeks. Ballard was on board with the move. And deep down, after Sunday’s loss, Reich realized it, too. The only way the Colts would ever find out whether Sam Ehlinger could play is if they gave him a shot.

And so, nine months after the three of them huddled in Irsay’s office after the team’s stunning end-of-season collapse in Jacksonville — the very night Irsay made it clear the Colts would not, under any circumstances, bring back Carson Wentz for a second season — the three met again, after another dispiriting divisional loss, to map out another unforeseen change at the most important position on the field.

They spoke for an hour. The verdict: Ryan’s headed to the bench, and Ehlinger’s getting his shot.

The second-year QB will make his first career start Sunday against the Washington Commanders at Lucas Oil Stadium.

He’ll be the Colts’ sixth starter since Andrew Luck retired in August 2019, after Jacoby Brissett, Brian Hoyer, Philip Rivers, Wentz and Ryan.

“You want to measure twice and cut once,” Reich said Monday. “You want to make sure you make this move that it is truly the best thing for the team and you don’t want to rush into this kind of a judgment. I don’t think we did that. It wasn’t like we’re sitting here saying, ‘Let’s wait until he throws another interception and then we’re going to make a switch.’”

No, they didn’t rush into this, because this call was weeks in the making. And it was a hard one, because of the respect Reich has for Ryan and the admiration he’s earned inside the locker room.

But the coach, in his fifth year in Indianapolis, can feel his seat getting warmer, and Ryan — inconsistent as he’s been — probably gives him a better shot to win in the short term. Ehlinger, like any young quarterback, will make his fair share of mistakes in the coming weeks. But the upside is higher, and Ehlinger’s scrambling ability might prove to be a spark this offense desperately needs.

The offense had grown stagnant with Ryan. That’s undeniable. The Colts weren’t just unproductive — a 16.1 points-per-game average, 29th in the league — they were predictable. Ryan is averaging just 5.9 yards per throw, the worst of any starter in the league, and Sunday’s loss in Tennessee was especially revealing. The Titans defense knew the Colts weren’t willing to take any shots down the field, so they crowded the line of scrimmage and forced the Colts into a dink-and-dunk game, baiting Ryan into two brutal interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

To be clear, Reich is right: the Colts haven’t done much to help him. But the problem is Ryan’s often made it worse.

“This is another point that needs to be made crystal clear, and I told this to Matt,” Reich said. “’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.’ And that really starts with me.”

Ryan’s taken a beating this season: 80 hits, most in the league, on top of 110 pressures, and was slow to get up from a number of punishing shots Sunday. He’s dealing with a Grade 2 shoulder separation, Reich said, he wo n’t practice this week and will be inactive for Sunday’s game. Nick Foles, signed to be Ryan’s backup in the spring, will now back up Ehlinger. But Reich was adamant, this decision was made regardless of Ryan’s injury.


Frank Reich says the Colts haven lived up to the promise of a strong running game and a great offensive line that was sold to Matt Ryan. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

The Colts plan to keep Ehlinger as the starter for the rest of the season, even after Ryan recovers.

“This move was gonna be made either way,” Reich said.

It’s worth noting that the Colts always saw Ryan as at least a two-year answer, and Monday’s decision puts that in peril. Roughly $12 million of the $29 million he’s due in 2023 is guaranteed, and there is a $7.5 million roster bonus that kicks in March 17. If the Colts were to cut him, he’d cost $18 million against the salary cap.

He met with all three quarterbacks Monday morning and relayed the decision.

It’s clear Irsay has had his say in this. The owner rarely involves himself in personnel matters, leaving that instead to Ballard, Reich and the staff, but he has spoken up on both occasions, in January after Wentz’s disastrous end to the season, and recently, as Ryan’s early-season stumbles hindered the offense and the team.

Reich and Irsay typically speak in the locker room after each game, but meetings like the one Sunday night are extremely rare. When it comes to the quarterback position — something the Colts have n’t really gotten right since Andrew Luck retired five years ago — the owner wants his voice heard.

“He’s got a lot of wisdom, got a lot of good counsel,” Reich said. “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 through a decision of this magnitude.”

So the focus shifts to the second-year QB out of Texas who impressed in the preseason but remains a question. He’s spent the last month running the Colts’ scout team in practice, readying the first-team defense for Sundays. He got a vote of confidence Monday from one of the stalwarts of the Colts defense.

“I think it’s a great decision for us to have Sam back there, the way he done came along and make plays during the preseason,” defensive tackle Grover Stewart said.

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Now everything gets real.

How will the offense change with Ehlinger under center?

Will he give the team the spark Irsay is hoping for?

“We’ve always thought from day one that Sam had some kind of special sauce,” Reich said. “He’s got that about him, he carries himself in a way, he practices in a way. 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. He’s going to make plays.”

The Colts better hope so. Otherwise, a disappointing, disjointed season will get worse, and Matt Ryan won’t be the only person who loses his job.

(Top photo of Matt Ryan: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)

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