Less restrictive COVID-19 protocols could benefit Colts, Carson Wentz

Indianapolis Colts
sam ehlinger

Sam Ehlinger #4 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball after getting pressured by the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter of a preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium on August 21, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts’ late-season playoff push has encountered a major obstacle. Or maybe not.

Quarterback Carson Wentz was placed on the COVID-19 list Tuesday. He’s the 15th player added to the NFL’s virus list on the last week, but clearly the most significant.

Under previous NFL COVID-19 protocols, an unvaccinated player who tested positive – Wentz confirmed his unvaccinated status last week – had to miss 10 days, which meant the Colts would be without their starting quarterback for Sunday’s meeting with the Las Vegas Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium.

However, ESPN is reporting the NFL and Players Association have agreed to adopt the new guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that reduce quarantine time for individuals who test positive from 10 days to 5 days.

That new set of protocols undoubtedly impacts several Colts on the COVID-19 list, perhaps Wentz. A player – vaccinated or unvaccinated – is allowed to return after five days of a positive test as long as he’s asymptomatic.

That reduced window could enable Wentz to start against the Raiders, as long as he’s asymptomatic. He would not be able to practice this week during his quarantine, but his experience should mitigate any preparation issues.

The Colts’ COVID-19 list includes linebacker Darius Leonard, left guard Quenton Nelson, right guard Mark Glowinski, right tackle Braden Smith, cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, safety Khari Willis, wideout Zach Pascal and defensive end Kemoko Turay.

Prior to Wentz being placed on the COVID-19 list Tuesday, six players were added to the virus list Monday: Smith, cornerback T.J. Carrie, running back Marlon Mack, linebacker Malik Jefferson, safety Jahleel Addae and practice squad cornerback Chris Wilcox.

The 9-6 Colts have won eight of their last 10 games, hold the AFC’s No. 5 playoff seed and clinch at least one of three wild-card spots with a win over the Raiders.

If Wentz is unable to play, the burden falls on rookie Sam Ehlinger. The sixth-round draft pick has played sparingly in three games without throwing a pass after spending the first six gams on the injured reserve list with a knee injury. Behind Ehlinger on the depth chart is a pair of practice squad QBs:

  • Brett Hundley. He has started nine games in four seasons, but none since week 17 of 2017.
  • James Morgan. He was a 2020 fourth-round draft pick of the New York Jets who has yet to step on the field for a regular-season game.

It’s been speculated the Colts might reach out to Philip Rivers in this type of scenario, but it’s believed they have not done so at this point. Rivers retired in January after leading Indy to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth last season.

Frank Reich was asked if the team had contacted Rivers with the COVID-19 outbreak depleting the roster.

“No,’’ he said. “Right now we’re just in the situation that we’re in. We’re happy with the guys that we’ve got here. Just continuing to monitor that day-by-day.’’

Ehlinger’s repetitions with the starting offensive unit have been limited while serving as Wentz’s back. But offensive coordinator Marcus Brady stressed the Colts always have made certain Ehlinger is ready, if and when he’s needed.

“You’ve always got a plan, just like we did in every other position, but especially the backup quarterback position,’’ he said prior to Tuesday’s announcement regarding Wentz.

Brady and Reich have talked with Ehlinger regarding which plays in the game plan better suit him and which ones he’s more comfortable with.

“We have a separate call sheet for him ready to go,’’ Brady said. “He’s ready to go.’’

Brady conceded Ehlinger possesses a “little bit different’’ skillset than Wentz.

“He doesn’t have as big of an arm as Carson,’’ he said. “He’s going to run around a little bit more than Carson.

“We’ll adjust to that. Our offense is set up to be able to that.’’

Ehlinger’s playing time has been limited to 10 offensive snaps in appearances against the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans. He’s yet to throw a pass but has picked up 9 yards on three rushes/kneel downs.

In the preseason, Ehlinger completed 21-of-31 passes for 288 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. He displayed his mobility with 55 yards on 11 rushes.

However, in the preseason finale at Detroit, Ehlinger sprained a ligament in his left knee that resulted in him opening the season on the injured reserve list.

Throughout training camp, Reich was impressed with the “it factor’’ Ehlinger brought to the offense.

“Well, Sam is really instinctive . . . plays really smart,’’ he said in mid-August. “Mentally, he’s very quick on his feet. He accelerates his vision, as we say, good at progressions, has a knack. He certainly is athletic and can make plays with his feet.’’

Reich admitted Ehlinger lacks top-level arm strength, but added it’s strong enough.

“Guys like Sam have a plenty good enough arm to play in this league and make all the throws,’’ he said, “but you have to be fast on your feet with your mind. You have to get the ball to the right spot at the right time and you have to be accurate.”

“Sam has good accuracy and he’s made good decisions and has been good on his progressions.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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