Discussion: Matt Ryan Benched by the Colts

In a shocking move, the Colts have benched QB Matt Ryan for the rest of the season. The team says that Ryan has a grade-2 separation of his throwing shoulder, but this move is independent of the injury. While surprising, it might not be entirely unjustified. Let’s take a look at how we got here, why they’re making this change now, what we can expect from new starter Sam Ehlinger, and what Matt Ryan’s future looks like.

Why make the move to bench Matt Ryan now?

This question is the easiest to answer: the Colts aren’t scoring and they turn the ball over. The team currently sits at 3-3-1, but they lost both of their divisional matchups against the Titans, with yesterday’s being particularly ugly. Ryan is having the worst season of the career, with 9 TDs, 9 INTs, and a whopping 11 fumbles. The Colts have topped 20 points just once, and they were shut out by the Jaguars in week 2.

The timing is a bit peculiar; Ryan’s best game of the season by far was in week 6, and the Colts do not have their bye yet. Jim Irsay also just compared Ryan’s leadership to Peyton Manning’s. The injury might have had an impact, and I suppose the Colts want to make a move while they’re still in contention. Ehlinger played in the preseason and knows the offense, so the transition shouldn’t be complicated. The team is in need of a spark, and coach Frank Reich is never shy about changing QBs.

It’s important to notethat Wentz was the starter when Ehlinger was drafted, and Ehlinger was already there when the team acquired Ryan. They knew what they had and still preferred other options, even at the cost of premium draft picks and salaries. That tells me that this is not really an audition for Ehlinger; Reich wants him to push this team toward the playoffs before diving back into the QB market again after the season.

How Did the Colts End Up with Matt Ryan?

Ironically enough, Indianapolis pursued Ryan due to their dissatisfaction with their previous trade acquisition: Carson Wentz. Interestingly, Wentz’s new team plays the Colts this week, and neither Wentz nor Ryan will be in the game. Wentz had decent stats last year, but the front office hated his leadership and propensity for making poor throwing decisions. Despite trading first- and second-round picks to acquire him, GM Chris Ballard tossed a 3rd-rounder at Atlanta for Ryan.

The aim of this move was to provide stability under center. Matt Ryan’s veteran poise was supposed to let the Colts off the roller coaster of Wentz’s highs and lows. That has been true, but mostly because the highs have been eliminated. Frank Reich wanted someone who could manage the offense and distribute the ball while operating through RB Jonathan Taylor. Indianapolis thought they had a win-now roster and just needed a quality QB to get over the hump. It feels like they’ve been saying that since Andrew Luck retired.

Is Sam Ehlinger an Upgrade (and Does it Matter)?

I’m not 100% sure that Ehlinger is even the second-best QB on this roster. Nick Foles is there, and while he has basically only performed well in Philadelphia, I’ll note that he played best with Frank Reich as his OC. Ehlinger is an unproven option, but the flip side is that he also possesses untapped potential. His best trait is his mobility. The Colts have not replaced retired LT Anthony Castonzo for years, and aside from Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly, the line has been terrible. Jonathan Taylor, last year’s leading rusher, can’t even generate any traction. Ehlinger’s movement will be key.

That said, Ehlinger was a 6th-round pick for a reason. He’s considered undersized at 6’1″, but I don’t see that as an issue. The bigger concern is his accuracy. He doesn’t tend to turn the ball over a lot, but he misses throws. Some are so bad that they’re the reason he doesn’t get picked off: even defenders aren’t in range. I think the Colts are betting on his elusiveness providing the biggest leap over the statue-like Ryan, but Ryan and Foles are both better passers. Though Ehlinger played great in the preseason, I never make player judgments based on performance against backups. You also can’t count out Ryan’s clutchness.

In the end, the QB change might not matter. Indy doesn’t have a lot of weapons. I consider WR Michael Pittman overrated, WR Parris Campbell can’t stay healthy, and all they have at TE is a developmental prospect in rookie Jelani Woods. Jonathan Taylor should be providing fantastic support, but the offensive line is too inept even for him. That has made the offense one-dimensional at times, which doesn’t benefit any QB. The answers to these questions aren’t likely to be found during the season unless the Colts trade more draft capital. This QB carousel is likely to spin again come season’s end.

What is Matt Ryan’s NFL Future?

This is the hardest question to answer. Ryan is 37, and he’s definitely past his prime and in decline. He can still be an above-average signal caller, but that would only be possible on a team that can provide him with stellar protection. You wonder if Tampa Bay becomes an option once Tom Brady retires. Ryan can definitely land a job as a backup if he wants it, but he’s made a lot of money and might not be amenable to such a situation. I’m sure Indy wants to trade him, but his contract complicates matters. Ryan is due almost $22M next season, and $12M of that was guaranteed during the trade.

Ryan’s most likely options are a trade, a release, a backup job, or a retirement. A trade would almost certainly demand a restructure, though Ryan probably won’t go below the $12M he already has guaranteed. Indianapolis can decide to eat the money and release him or keep him as an overpriced backup; he’d instantly be one of the best backups in the league. If he is released, Ryan will have no shortage of suitors. A starting job will be much more difficult to come by at this stage of his career, but an open competition is possible. After all is said and done, he could choose to call it a career, and an illustrious one at that.

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