INDIANAPOLIS — In the 12 days separating the Indianapolis Colts’ trade of quarterback Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders and the day Indianapolis finally acquired his successor, the mood at Colts headquarters was dominated by anxiety and uncertainty.
The Colts, in the middle of a pivotal offseason, faced an uncomfortable reality: They had no starting quarterback, no first-round draft selection and nary a clue who would be under center in 2022.
Imagine the Colts’ relief when the Atlanta Falcons agreed to trade a decorated quarterback with four Pro Bowl selections and a Most Valuable Player award to his name. Yes, Matt Ryan seemed like an ideal solution for a team with a massive quarterback dilemma and no obvious answers.
The March trade was followed by the usual pomp and circumstance prompted by major quarterback moves. Colts owner Jim Irsay sent his private jet to Atlanta to collect Ryan and his family. The Colts moved the news conference that marked Ryan’s arrival to a larger room in their facility, indicating its significance. They also assembled a large portion of their office staff for the event, the employees greeting the quarterback with a hero’s welcome.
The feelings appeared mutual. Ryan had signed off on the trade because he was convinced he was headed to a franchise with a well-documented history of success and one set up for more.
“There was only one spot that I wanted to go to,” Ryan said that day. “This is exactly where I wanted to be.”
If Ryan only knew then what he knows now.
The 2022 season has become the most trying of Ryan’s distinguished career. He was benched Wednesday for the second time this season, giving way to fellow veteran Nick Foles, who will start Monday night against the Los Angeles Chargers (8:15 pm, ET, ESPN). The move seemingly ends Ryan’s ill-fated run with the Colts after 12 starts, 13 interceptions and an endless number of frustrating moments.
The Colts’ offense has been among the worst in the NFL. Ryan, 37, produced touchdown passes at the lowest rate of his 15-year career. Meanwhile, he threw interceptions more often than he has in any season since 2009. Most of all, the Colts (4-9-1) are enduring one of their worst seasons in the past decade.
How did it all go so wrong? And how has the stunning outcome affected Ryan, the 2016 MVP who ranks fifth in NFL history in completions and seventh all time in passing yards?
“It has been harder, I think, than any of us would have anticipated,” Ryan said of the Colts’ offensive struggles. “I felt confident coming into the year … But I’ve also learned you just never know how things are going to shake out.”
WHEN WENTZ WAS traded in March and Ryan was later added to the fold, there was arguably not enough attention paid to the strengths and weaknesses throughout the rest of the roster.
The Colts added defensive standouts Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue. But they also had key departures on their offensive line (including left tackle Eric Fisher, a past No. 1 overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs), lost an elite blocking tight end to retirement (Jack Doyle) and had one of the youngest groups of receivers and tight ends in the NFL.
The first signs that something was wrong came almost immediately.
In the season opener, Ryan was under consistent pressure. The only thing worse was the manner in which Ryan responded. He fumbled four times, losing one, and threw an ugly interception. Ryan’s second-half heroics allowed the Colts to secure a tie and allowed Ryan to save some face.
But in Week 2, when the Colts were embarrassed again in Jacksonville in a 24-0 loss, it was becoming clear that maybe they weren’t the team Ryan thought he was joining. By Week 7 against the Tennessee Titans, it was apparent the pass rush was getting to Ryan and severely impacting his decision-making. He was hit 10 times, sacked three times and threw a pick-six in the 19-10 loss. The synergy Ryan hoped to develop with his new teammates seemed nonexistent.
The next day, according to multiple sources, Irsay directed coach Frank Reich to bench Ryan in favor of 2021 sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger. Ryan, a proud starter since his very first NFL game in 2008, was blindsided.
“There is a little bit of that surprise and shock at the beginning,” Ryan said, “but it’s a decision they had to make, and as a player, as a teammate, you have to move forward.”
Ryan couldn’t argue in good conscience that he was playing well, even though the Colts were sitting at 3-3-1. He had an adjusted QBR of 41.3 (23rd in the NFL at the time) and led the league with nine interceptions. But he’d also been sacked 24 times, and the Colts, shockingly, ranked 29th in yards per rushing attempt. Too much of the load was falling on Ryan. That was never the intention.
In a private moment, Reich told Ryan just that.
“We did not hold up to our end of the bargain,” Reich said, recounting the conversation. “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.
“We thought the marriage of Matt Ryan and his history with our running game … he’s had 14 years of incredibly productive, great quarterback play with great play-action. So, we just thought there was going to be a natural marriage there. It made a lot of sense.”
Two weeks later, as the Colts’ offensive struggles persisted, Reich was fired.
RYAN HAD SUSTAINED a right shoulder sprain in the Titans game, but the quarterback change was initially intended to be made for the remainder of the season. That left Ryan trying to process his unfamiliar place with the team. He was asked by reporters whether he’d considered requesting a trade (he hadn’t) or asked for his release, seeing how he was third on the quarterback depth chart (he didn’t do that, either).
Instead, this was the moment in which Ryan’s character was highlighted.
He’s always done and said the right things in his career, whether that meant accepting blame for the Falcons’ historic Super Bowl loss — squandering a 28-3 lead — to the New England Patriots in 2017 or owning interceptions that were the fault of his receivers. Here, even while he was little more than a spectator, Ryan served as a study in leadership.
“Seeing him sitting there after the benching, it’s just an awful feeling,” center Ryan Kelly said. “The guy’s had such an incredible career, and it’s a hard pill to swallow. But his ability to come out and not sulk and not draw attention, to just be consistent … I think that was huge. And that takes a lot. You had to put your ego aside and put your pride aside, and that’s a hard thing to do — especially when you’ve been in the league for 15 years.”
Linebacker Zaire Franklin added, “I just feel like he took it with grace, as much as he possibly could. He’s had one of the best careers ever from a quarterback, extremely accomplished. And he comes to a new environment for the first time and things went the exact opposite of how he wanted.
“It’s been tough sledding, and I haven’t performed well enough consistently enough.”
“But I really appreciate Matt. He just gave me so much perspective on how to continue to be successful in the league from a leadership standpoint. I’ve learned a ton from him.”
Ryan’s consistency helped make for an easier transition when interim coach Jeff Saturday reinstated him as the starter in Saturday’s first game, against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 10. Jonathan Taylor, the 2021 rushing champion who’d battled a sore ankle all season, rushed for 147 yards, the offensive line performed well, and Ryan had an efficient day (21 of 28, 222 yards and a touchdown) in a 25-20 win.
But things have steadily devolved since, with the Colts losing their past four games, including last Saturday’s historic defeat in Minnesota. The Vikings pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history, rallying from a 33-point halftime deficit. The offense sputtered as Ryan struggled to make plays down the field. Despite the Colts’ nine possessions in the second half and overtime, they managed to cross midfield just twice.
Ryan’s 5.5 yards per attempt in the game matched a season low and was symbolic of the punchless Colts offense. There have been opportunities for more aggressive shots down the field that Ryan hasn’t always taken, and coaches have noticed. It’s why he ranked 32nd in air yards per pass attempt (6.2) entering Week 16. It seems the hesitation was brought about by Ryan’s apparent diminished arm strength — the shoulder injury hasn’t helped — as well as a desire to avoid the costly turnovers that helped kill the Colts’ season.
“He’s been sacked a lot, he’s been hit a lot, a bunch of turnovers and that’s not always on Matt,” Saturday said. “There’s a lot of different pieces and parts that haven’t gone to plan. It definitely changes you.”
ONE UNANSWERED QUESTION remains: Should the Colts have seen this coming?
Start with the numbers. Ryan had what was the lowest adjusted QBR of his career last season in Atlanta (52.2). That’s dipped even further this season, falling to 43.6. Taking it a bit further, the four lowest adjusted QBR marks of Ryan’s career have each come in the past four seasons, suggesting the decline began long ago. As for Ryan’s league-high 15 fumbles (five lost), they might seem surprising. Then again, he did have 11 last season.
But the Colts didn’t do Ryan any favors, either.
The decision to enter the season with Matt Pryor as the left tackle looks indefensible in hindsight. Ryan has never been mobile, and his immobility became a fatal flaw with Pryor playing poorly at a position he’d never played. Pryor gave up 12 sacks in nine starts before being benched. Instability at right guard exacerbated the problem and the weak links impacted the performance of remaining veterans like All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson.
Now, Ryan is left to contemplate his future after the Colts’ final three games. The team has some decisions to make, too. Ryan has a year left on his contract, with $12 million of his 2023 salary guaranteed.
But thoughts about next season have been mostly postponed given how the current season is playing out.
“It’s been tough,” Ryan said. “It’s been tough sledding, and I haven’t performed well enough, consistently enough.”
If this is it for Ryan, 2022 hasn’t been the ending anyone wanted. Neither Ryan nor the Colts could have been more wrong about what their partnership would produce.