INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 26 for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
- Starter: Matt Ryan
- Backup: Nick Foles
- Depth: Sam Ehlinger, Jack Coan
- The right man?: We’ve been down this path before. Several times, in fact
Another year, another starting quarterback. For those who’ve lost track, Matt Ryan is the fifth starting QB as Frank Reich heads into his fifth season as head coach. He follows Carson Wentz, who followed Philip Rivers, who followed Jacoby Brissett, who followed Andrew Luck.
That’s no way for a franchise to grow. The revolving door has forced Reich to adapt his offense each offseason and tailor it to the strengths of his next triggerman. Clearly, the results have been mixed: a 37-28 record, two playoff appearances, one playoff win, but none since that 21-7 dominance of the Texans in the 2018 wild-card matchup in Houston.
The failed Wentz decision and Atlanta’s serious pursuit of Deshaun Watson opened the door for the March 21 trade that delivered Ryan to Indy.
To put it bluntly, Ryan has to be the right man at the right time. Chris Ballard has fashioned a strong roster – yes, there are deficiencies, and they’ll be discussed in the coming weeks – but everything hinges on Ryan handling his responsibilities at a high level. He wasn’t brought in to be a game-manager. He was acquired to make the plays when they have to be made. It matters not that he turned 37 in May, is entering his 15th season and is on the downside of a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Do your job. Make the plays when necessary.
“You can argue (how) quarterbacks affect your franchise, somewhere between 30 and 45%,’’ owner Jim Irsay said. “They have profound effect, some more than others depending on their greatness and what surrounds them.’’
When it came time to seal the deal with the Falcons – the Colts parted with a 2022 3rd-round draft pick and assumed the final two years and $54 million of Ryan’s contract – Irsay was forceful with Ballard.
“We talked and I said, ‘We’ve got to get it done. You can’t mess around with something like this,’’’ he said.
“But we got it done. We couldn’t be more excited.’’
By all appearances, Ryan is exactly what the Colts need.
“Love him,’’ Nyheim Hines said during offseason work. “. . . kind of reminiscent of Philip with his command. He doesn’t know the playbook as well as Philip yet, but just his detail, his leadership, him just talking to us after every route, coming and talking with every guy.
“I think the sky’s the limit with Matt.’’
That’s a reflection of Ryan’s presence, his ability to be the man despite being a Colt for just a few months. Quarterbacks set the tone and the pace. They must ooze confidence. They must lead, new to the organization or not.
On the field, Ryan’s decisiveness and accuracy were on constant display, which are two of his unquestioned strengths. He ranks 9th in NFL history with a 65.5% completion rate and has topped 66% eight times in 14 seasons. Reich wants the ball to come out quicker and seeks more yards after the catch in the passing game, and Ryan should make that happen.
“With Matt, the ball is out,’’ tight end Mo Alie-Cox said. “You come out of your break, you’ve got to be ready because it’s not slow turn your head. The ball’s going to be on you, but it’s going to be on point.’’
Again, first impressions have been encouraging.
“Matt’s really excited for this chance, for that kind of second stage, a final act to what has already been an amazing career,’’ Reich said. “I just feel it’s the right time and the right place and it’s the right fit. He fits into our system well, and I think he’ll bring elements to our offense that will help us take that next step.’’
Ryan has balanced taking control of the offense with dealing with teammates who are much more versed on that offense.
“This is a big change, there’s no doubt about it, but there’s a lot of carryover,’’ he said. “One of the beauties of being at this point of my career and playing for the number of coordinators that I did is that at some point you’ve kind of done everything in some way, shape or form.’’
Reich finally got his wish.
“You guys know I wanted Nick,’’ he said in May. “I wanted Nick since I’ve been here to be on this team because I think he’s that good of a player.
“You’ve got a guy in Nick Foles who has proven that he can do it at the biggest level and the biggest stage.’’
Reich got his man May 23 when Ballard signed Foles, cut earlier in the month by the Chicago Bears, to a two-year, $6.2 million contract.
Not only had the Colts reloaded at the top of their most influential position, they also added a proven backup. In 10 seasons and with five teams, Foles was 33-29 as a starter, including the postseason, and came off the bench in 12 other games. His career 87.3 passer rating in the regular season reflects 82 touchdowns, 43 interceptions and a 62.4% completion percentage.
And, of course, his bio features that magical finish to 2017 in Philadelphia when he replaced an injured Carson Wentz and led the Eagles to Super Bowl LII where he was named MVP by engineering a 41-33 win over New England.
As was the case with Ryan, Foles considered the Colts a perfect fit.
“I wasn’t going to settle and go play somewhere this year,’’ he said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I really just enjoyed the grind.
“This was at the top of my list, but it doesn’t always mean it’s going to happen. It worked out, and I’m grateful to be here.’’
The Colts’ decision to add a reliable backup was critical considering all of the other moves to strengthen the roster. Ryan has missed just three of 225 starts in 14 seasons, but injuries happen and proven depth at every position can save a season.
Remember last season? The Colts opted not to sign a veteran behind Wentz, and that decision proved costly. Wentz suffered sprains to both ankles in the week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Rams but was deemed the best option the following week at Tennessee despite having zero mobility. The Colts lost 25-16 as Wentz could offer just 19-of-37 passing for 194 yards.
And if Reich had a veteran backup at his disposal as last season unraveled, perhaps he would have yanked Wentz in the season-ending 26-11 meltdown at Jacksonville that cost the Colts a playoff spot.
“In a perfect world,’’ Reich said, “you get a proven backup.’’
By the numbers, Part I
Since being named NFL MVP and leading the Falcons to the Super Bowl after the 2016 season, Ryan is 35-45 as a starter and has endured four consecutive losing seasons in Atlanta. But how much of that can be attributed to him, and how much falls at the feet of his supporting cast?
Over the past four seasons and among QBs with at least 30 starts, Ryan ranks 3rd in the league in yards (17,939), tied-6th in touchdowns (107), 8th in completion percentage (66.9) and 16th in passer rating (96.0).
And about that supporting cast. Since 2018, the Falcons ranked 28th, 20th, 29th and 26th in total defense and 31st, 27th, 30th and 27th in rushing.
In 64 games over the past four seasons, Ryan has been sacked 171 times, including a league-high 48 times in ’19. Only Russell Wilson has been sacked more often (179).
By the numbers, Part II
Despite the revolving door at quarterback, Reich has managed to oversee productive offenses. Since 2018, the Colts rank 8th in scoring (26.1 points per game) and 15th in net passing yards (230.5).
By the numbers, Part III
In the Interesting Trivia category, the Colts are the only team in the NFL with two QBs who have started a Super Bowl game.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.