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

Privately, it’s a decision they’ve been pondering for weeks, unconvinced they’re getting the consistency they need at quarterback, fearing the dam might eventually break in a season that seems 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 about what his team would look like if the Foals made the bold decision to bench their 37-year-old starter, matt ryanin favor of a sophomore quarterback who has 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 thought for a long time Sam Ehlinger‘s had something going for it.

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

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

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

In recent weeks, the third decider, coach Frank Reich, hasn’t been ready — ‘Matt is our quarterback,’ he said Sunday, after the Colts’ 19-10 loss at Tennessee, their fifth straight against their division rival. And publicly, Reich presented Ehlinger’s promotion to substitute 10 days ago as nothing more than a schematic move, something that would give the offense another weapon in close-range situations.

In reality, there was much more than that. Ryan’s inconsistencies early in the season were obvious to anyone watching. Fumbles were a problem, his interceptions were costing them games and his leash was getting shorter. It wasn’t all about the QB, not with an offensive line that has become one of the worst in the league and a running game that ranks third from bottom, but some inside the building were starting to think that a change was needed.

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That was the premise the Colts traded Ryan on in the spring, remember, what they’ve been selling for a long time Falcons QB before approving the deal: behind an elite offensive line and with a dominant running back in Jonathan Taylorhe would be the ideal person.

“I told Matt,” Reich acknowledged Monday, “we didn’t keep our end of the bargain.”

He’s right about that.

But it doesn’t matter now.

It’s a mess, and the Colts are clinging to straws in an attempt to clean it up.

Seven games later, the results are poor, the problems overwhelming: Ryan leads the league in fumbles (11), interceptions (nine) and sacks taken (24). In a way, the Colts are 3-3-1.

But something had to change, and Irsay knew it. He’s been letting his top lieutenants know over the past few weeks. Ballard was okay with the move. And deep down, after Sunday’s defeat, Reich realized that too. The only way the Colts know if Sam Ehlinger could play is to give him a chance.

And so, nine months after the three of them huddled in Irsay’s office following the team’s astonishing season-ending meltdown in Jacksonville – the same night Irsay made it clear the Colts won’t under no circumstances would bring back Carson Wentz for a second season – the three found themselves, after another disheartening divisional defeat, to plot another unplanned change to the most important position on the pitch.

They talked for an hour. The verdict: Ryan heads for the bench and Ehlinger gets shot.

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

He will be the Colts’ sixth starter since Andrew Luck retired in August 2019, after Jacoby Brisset, Brian HoyerPhilip Rivers, Wentz and Ryan.

“You want to measure twice and cut once,” Reich said Monday. “You want to make sure that you make that gesture that it’s really the best thing for the team and you don’t want to rush into that kind of judgment. I don’t think we did that. It wasn’t like we’re sitting here saying, ‘Let’s wait for him to throw another interception and then we’ll make a change.’

No, they didn’t rush, because this call took weeks. And it was difficult, because of the respect Reich has for Ryan and the admiration he earned inside the locker room.

But the coach, who is in his fifth year at Indianapolis, can feel his seat warming up, and Ryan — as inconsistent as he has been — is probably giving him a better chance of winning in the short term. Ehlinger, like any young quarterback, will make his fair share of mistakes in the weeks to come. But the advantage is higher, and Ehlinger’s jamming ability could prove to be a spark that this attack desperately needs.

The offense had stalled with Ryan. It’s undeniable. The Colts weren’t just unproductive — averaging 16.1 points per game, 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 to Tennessee was particularly telling. The Titans the defense knew the Colts were unwilling to shoot 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 was sent back for a landing.

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

“That’s another point that needs to be perfectly clear, and I’ve told Matt that,” Reich said. “And it really starts with me.

Ryan has taken a beating this season: 80 hits, most in the league, in addition to 110 pressures, and was slow to recover from a number of penalty shots on Sunday. He is facing a Level 2 shoulder separation, Reich said, will not practice this week and will be inactive for Sunday’s game. Nick Foles, signed to be Ryan’s replacement in the spring, will now replace Ehlinger. But Reich was adamant that decision was made regardless of Ryan’s injury.

Frank Reich says the Colts failed to deliver on the promise of a solid running game and great offensive line that was sold to Matt Ryan. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today)

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

“This move was going to be done anyway,” Reich said.

It’s worth noting that the Colts have always seen Ryan as a two-year-old answer, and Monday’s decision puts that in jeopardy. About $12 million of the $29 million owed to him in 2023 is guaranteed, and there’s a $7.5 million bonus that kicks off March 17. If the Colts were to cut it, it would cost $18 million over the salary cap.

He met with the three-quarters on Monday morning and shared the decision.

Clearly Irsay had his say on this. The owner rarely gets involved in personnel matters, leaving that to Ballard, Reich and staff, but he has spoken out twice, in January after Wentz’s disastrous end to the season, and recently as the stumbles from Ryan at the start of the season hampered the offense and the team.

Reich and Irsay usually talk to each other in the locker room after every game, but encounters like the one on Sunday night are extremely rare. When it comes to the quarterback position — something the Colts haven’t quite done since Andrew Luck retired five years ago — the owner wants his voice heard.

“He’s got a lot of wisdom, has a lot of good advice,” Reich said. “His vote is always going to carry…he’s a one man crew in that regard.

“But what I appreciate about him is that it’s a collective decision. It’s, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ He can lead the way in some ways, but it’s really the owner, the general manager, the head coach who talks about a decision of this magnitude.

So the focus shifts to Texas’ second-year QB who impressed in the preseason but remains a question. He’s spent the past month leading the Colts’ scouting squad in practice, preparing the first-team defense for Sunday. He obtained a vote of confidence on Monday from one of the pillars of the Colts defense.

“I think it’s a great decision for us to have Sam there, the way he’s come and made plays in pre-season,” defensive tackle Grover Stewart said.

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Now everything becomes real.

How will the attack change with Ehlinger under centre?

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

“We always thought from day one that Sam had some kind of special sauce,” Reich said. “He has that in him, he behaves a certain way, he trains a certain way. He will be ready. He will be ready. Will he have growing pains? Sure. Will he make mistakes? Of course, he will make mistakes. But I think Sam will make games. He’s proven that everywhere he’s been, and we think that’s what he’s going to do for our offense. He’s going to play games.

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

(Matt Ryan top photo: Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

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