WESTFIELD, Ind. — The Colts believe they’ve finally found some consistency at quarterback.
Matt Ryan has stabilized the game’s most important position by improving the level of production and leadership at the offensive front. And since it appears Ryan will be doing it for at least a couple of years — he’s under contract through 2023 — the Colts should be able to generate some extended momentum, rather than seeking out a new starter in yet another offseason.
“Sometimes, I laugh,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard told The Athletic. “They go, ‘You’ve had all these different quarterbacks.’ Well, yeah, we’re trying to get it right. We’re just going to keep trying to get it right.”
Before the March 21 trade for Ryan, the 37-year-old delivered assurances that he was committed to playing beyond the 2022 season during a two-hour video call with Ballard and head coach Frank Reich.
“I had no doubt this guy has got a strong mind to play – and to play as long as he can,” Ballard said.
The early returns have been encouraging. Reich and Ryan began collaborating upon his arrival, with the quarterback insisting on opening the onboarding process by learning Reich’s offense. After that, he wanted to hear Reich’s plan on how they’d mesh their strengths.
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Reich, offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich and pass game specialist Parks Frazier pinpointed Ryan’s strengths through extensive film work.
“It’s a give-and-take,” Reich said The Athletic. “I really respect Matt, and I opened the door right away and said this was going to be collaborative. ‘We’re going to study your film and talk about what you like.’ He was like: ‘Great, I appreciate that, but let me learn your offense first, and then I’ll give you my thoughts. Then we can talk about my film.’ So that’s what we did. We presented our offense to him – put it in with him in the offseason.
“Then, as we were going … talking with him about what fits with us, what is a one-to-one fit, what is a close fit that we could just tweak a little bit. As coaches, we love that, to get to talk to a great quarterback about good offensive football and how we’re going to continue to build our system and be collaborative doing it together.”
And to think, this almost wasn’t the path.
Indy’s QB carousel started spinning in August 2019 when Andrew Luck abruptly retired. Backup Jacoby Brissett filled in that season before the Colts landed Philip Rivers in 2020. But Rivers retired after a season at the helm — earlier than the Colts initially expected — and the Colts traded for Carson Wentz, thinking a return to Reich’s familiar system could revitalize his career.
Wentz was not fit, and the Colts decided after the season to move in another direction. They just weren’t sure where it would lead.
The Colts agreed to trade Wentz to the Commanders on March 9, and they monitored the quarterback landscape from there. Once it became clear Ryan was done with the Falcons, who pursued a trade for Deshaun Watson, the Colts felt they had their guy.
“To say we had a plan in place to no doubt fix (the quarterback situation after the Wentz trade), no we didn’t, but we also knew there were options, and we knew we were going to be very patient,” Ballard said. “We weren’t going to just rush to sign anybody. With the quarterbacks who were going to be out there in free agency, with keeping an eye on what’s going on with Deshaun and where he might end up, we came up with a good option when it was all said and done. We got lucky that Matt was that option.”
Said Reich: “He was just the right guy for us. He was the right guy from a leadership standpoint, fit our offensive scheme and thinking from a philosophy standpoint, and then just the skill. In my mind, he was the best guy out there. We didn’t know he was going to be available, so it wasn’t like we were targeting (him). Once he became available, we had a bull’s-eye on him. Matt just kind of fell into our laps, and I give Chris Ballard a lot of credit. He didn’t flinch. He and I talked it through with Mr. (Jim) Irsay. The three of us said this was our guy, so let’s do whatever we’ve got to do to get it done.”
Ryan looks like an obvious upgrade over Wentz. The Colts ranked 27th in passing yards last season and missed the playoffs — thanks to back-to-back losses to end the season — despite the second-best rushing attack and the ninth-ranked scoring defense.
They were 11th in passing yards with Rivers in 2020, 30th with Brissett in 2019 and sixth with Luck in 2018. So clearly, with an effective quarterback, this offense is conducive to passing success. And with running back Jonathan Taylor and high expectations for the defense, Ryan could be the missing piece that gets the Colts back into the playoffs, where they’ve registered only one win over the past seven seasons.
Ryan finished in the top six in passing yards in each season from 2012 to 2020, although he dipped to 11th in 2021. He had some shortcomings, for sure, but the Falcons’ offensive personnel had plenty of other issues, too.
Ryan and the Colts seemed to find each other at the perfect time.
“(Ryan’s presence) settles everybody — like, ‘Hey, this is a guy we can count on,'” Reich said. “He’s done it for 14 years at a high level. He kind of fell into our lap, and we’ll take advantage of it. He’s got a great mindset. His passion for the game is as high as it can be. Physically, we aren’t seeing any diminishing skills, so we take it one year at a time. We’re thinking this is multiple years at the level we think he can play at and lead us as a team. We’re very excited about it.
“It’s been great. It’s been seamless. He’s such a leader, such a professional, a coach on the field, all those things that you hear about guys like this. He’s the epitome. Guys feel his experience. They feel his leadership. But yet he’s not sucking up all the energy. He’s a team guy. It’s just a really good fit. … This is the right guy at the right time for us, and we feel very fortunate to have him. I’m looking forward to this season.”
And if all goes according to plan, it should extend beyond this season, thereby opening the Colts’ window as a contender. They haven’t had the same quarterback lead them in passing yards for consecutive seasons since Luck from 2012 to 2016.
It could eliminate one of the Colts’ biggest questions since Luck’s retirement.
“Now getting Matt, who we think has a lot left, how long that is, I don’t know,” Ballard said. “But being able to get some consistency added is something that we’re striving for and keep working at.”
(Photo of Matt Ryan and Frank Reich: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)