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The Colts’ Rent-A-QB Era Is Over

With the switch from Matt Ryan to Sam Ehlinger, the Colts have seemingly admitted their plan to plug in a new veteran passer each year wasn’t working. But what comes next for the Colts as their QB carousel continues to spin?

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The Indianapolis Colts had a brilliant concept: What if they didn’t have to do the whole “quarterback development” thing? What if they could fast-forward through the trial and error (lots of errors) of scouting and developing young QBs, avoiding the possibility of draft busts? What if they could have quality QBs without having to wait for them to grow up? By acquiring veteran passers with an established history of success, the Colts figured they could compete year in and year out, skipping over some of the ugliest eras of struggling NFL franchises.

Despite bringing in three straight former Pro Bowl quarterbacks in three seasons, this era for Indianapolis has turned out ugly anyway. On Monday, the Colts announced that Sam Ehlinger, a sixth-round draft pick in 2021 with zero NFL passing attempts, will take over for 37-year-old Matt Ryan, a former NFL MVP. Ryan suffered a shoulder injury in Sunday’s loss to the Titans, but head coach Frank Reich made it clear that Ehlinger will be QB1 even when Ryan is healthy. (Ehlinger moved from third-stringer to backup last week, passing his fellow Austin Westlake High School alumnus Nick Foles, who will serve as Ehlinger’s backup this week against Washington.) “Extremely difficult decision given the respect and admiration that we have for Matt Ryan,” said Reich, making it sound less like Ryan is one of the players on his football team and more like Ryan is some sort of distinguished visiting professor. This seems to be an admission that Indianapolis’ rent-a-QB strategy has failed—and leaves the Colts in an uncertain place going forward.

The Colts were blessed by the QB gods for over 20 years. They had the first pick in the 1998 draft and used it on Peyton Manning, a Hall of Famer who redefined the Indianapolis franchise. The Colts had only made the playoffs three times in their first 14 years after moving from Baltimore in 1984; they made the playoffs 11 times in 13 years with Manning and won a Super Bowl. After a neck injury knocked Manning out of the 2011 season, they once again had the no. 1 pick in the draft and used it on Andrew Luck in 2012. The Colts made the playoffs in four of five seasons when Luck was healthy. But Luck stunned the football world by retiring ahead of the 2019 season at just 29 years old due to the multiple injuries he sustained during his career.

Luck’s sudden retirement left the Colts in an awkward situation. They had a playoff-caliber roster: In 2018, Luck’s final season, they had top-10 units on offense and defense, two first-team All-Pros in guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Shaquille Leonard, and arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. But for the first time in a long time, they didn’t have a QB to tie the whole thing together. They were too good to rebuild—their draft picks wouldn’t be low enough to get a top prospect, and their roster was too solid to potentially waste with a bad year from a not-ready-for-prime-time youngster under center.

And so began the Colts carousel. After a gap year with Luck’s backup Jacoby Brissett in 2019, Indianapolis signed longtime Chargers QB Philip Rivers for the 2020 season. It worked! Rivers finished top-10 in most passing categories, and rookie running back Jonathan Taylor established himself as a star. The Colts went 11-5 and made the playoffs—but Rivers was 39 years old and was unlikely to commit to a lengthy second chapter thousands of miles from his usual home. He retired after one season as a Colt, understandably.

The Colts still had a solid roster and no time to waste, so they once again acquired a former Pro Bowler. But the terms were … how do I say it politely … less favorable for the Colts. They’d gotten Rivers by simply signing him to a one-year, $25 million contract. To get their next QB, they had to give away their 2022 first-round pick and take on the QB’s $100 million contract. And their new QB was not Philip Rivers, but Carson Wentz, who… how do I say it politely … sucks. (OK, sorry, there was no way to say it politely.) In 2020, his final season in Philadelphia, Wentz led or tied for the league lead in interceptions and sacks despite starting only 12 games. But Reich, who had coached Wentz on the Eagles, felt he could rebuild his ex-protegé. It backfired. Despite Taylor leading the NFL in rushing and the defense actually improving from 10th to ninth in points allowed per game, the Colts dropped from 11-5 to 9-8 and missed the postseason. In 2020, Rivers had been ninth in the NFL in yards per attempt; in 2021, Wentz was 20th. It seemed impossible that the Colts could get out from under Wentz’s massive salary—but luckily, Dan Snyder exists. The Colts somehow got to dump Wentz to Washington and get multiple draft picks in return. They were free of their Wentz problem, but they needed a new QB, and had already dealt away their 2022 first-round pick to get Wentz.

So they made a trade with the Falcons to bring in Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP who had a pretty consistent track record of success in Atlanta despite the Falcons’ general franchise malaise. Unfortunately, Ryan has been a disaster. Through seven games, he’s pulling a Wentz by leading the NFL in interceptions, sacks, and fumbles. The Colts are 27th in yards per play and struggling in virtually every aspect of the offense.

The phrase “franchise QB” is commonly used—and perhaps the Colts show why you need one of those, instead of just a rotating cast of passers. Ryan was Reich’s sixth different starting QB since 2018 (do you remember the one game Brian Hoyer started for Indy in 2019?); Ehlinger will be no. 7. The Colts’ offensive players have had to adapt to different skill sets and rhythms every season— and it’s hard to rally around your guy when there’s a new guy every year.

But there are contributing factors to the Colts’ offensive struggles this season. The once-elite offensive line has totally fallen apart, and is now one of the worst in the league. Matt Pryor, who has been asked to play three OL positions this year, leads the NFL in pressures allowed with 28 in seven games, and the Colts don’t really have a left tackle. The Colts are tied for 29th in yards per rushing attempt, and the defense has dropped from ninth to 14th in points allowed per game since last season. The Colts have lost coordinators in each of the past two years—OC Nick Sirianni left to become the Eagles head coach in 2021, and DC Matt Eberflus went to the Bears this offseason. Reich said he told Ryan, “We did not hold up our end of the bargain. You came here and we promised you a top NFL rushing game and we promised you great protection. And we haven’t as an offense delivered on that.”

With constant pressure on the QB, it feels like a smart move to switch to a more mobile QB than the creaky Ryan—and Ehlinger can be that. The second-year Texas product had 33 rushing touchdowns in college and had a 45-yard running score this preseason. The Colts are somehow 3-3-1 and only 1.5 games back of the lead in the AFC South (though they have already been swept by the division-leading Titans). If Ehlinger gives them a better chance to win this season, they might as well take it.

But if the Colts’ idea was to avoid giving playing time to an unproven QB while their roster was still capable of contending, it has utterly backfired: They’re firmly in the playoff hunt, and turning over their hopes for the season to the 10th QB drafted in 2021, a prospect whose draft profile says “career backup looks like his ceiling.” Pro Football Focus concluded, “There’s not a lot about Ehlinger’s game that gets you excited about how he’ll look in an NFL offense.” Even if Ehlinger is a better option than a player literally leading the NFL in every bad QB stat possible, it’s hard to imagine he’s the answer going forward.

And the Colts would clearly be in better shape if they’d used a draft pick on a QB recently instead of dealing away assets for veterans while taking on their big contracts. The Colts did not have a first-round pick in this year’s draft because of the Wentz trade. Even if Ryan is no longer their QB next season, he will be their most expensive player, as he has a $35 million cap hit, and it will be almost impossible to deal him—even Dan Snyder probably isn’t interested in a guy who got benched for Sam Ehlinger. And unless Ehlinger has gotten significantly better at quarterback since we last watched him play for the Longhorns, the Colts will still find themselves in need of a QB next season. Maybe they’ll bring in somebody new—Geno Smith is set to be a free agent!— but I have to imagine they’ve finally lost their appetite for the annual QB cycle.

The Colts feel like an argument in favor of drafting QBs. After all, the Colts experienced two decades of success off of Manning and Luck, and have now had back-to-back years of chaos as they attempt to bring in new QBs via trades or free agency. But we’ve seen plenty of teams cycle through draft QBs in the same way—Bears, Jets, Browns, etc.—and that process often takes a lot longer than the Colts’ one-year turnarounds. And the logic still seems sound: If you have a good roster, why not bring in the best QB available? After all, we just watched the Rams do it and win a Super Bowl with Matthew Stafford.

The real lesson is that it’s just as easy to miss when acquiring a veteran QB as it is when drafting a prospect, even if the player does have a decade of NFL tape. And the consequences of missing might be even worse.