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Matt Ryan’s Season of Change

The Indianapolis Colts have rotated through quarterbacks for the past few seasons. But this year’s training camp has indicated that their latest one can be more than just a Band-Aid.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

“I’m starting to figure out: Just do what Matt says. Good things will happen.”

That’s Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. talking. He just caught a touchdown pass in training camp from new quarterback Matt Ryan. But even as he’s telling Matt about his revelation on the sideline, Ryan is back to teaching him.

“Hey, you stutter ’em? You see how that throw is up-and-down, too?”

I’m not here to do what Matt says, but rather to listen to it. I talked with Ryan for about 10 minutes after practice in late August, and like most veteran quarterbacks this early in the season, he’s smart and selective with his answers. I asked him about the biggest influences on the Colts offense. “A smorgasbord,” he told me. I asked him if he’s bringing Kyle Shanahan designs from his 2016 MVP season in Atlanta to Indianapolis. “They already do it,” he responded. How do you like the Midwest? “Everyone is super nice.”

Ryan is as much a veteran with the team as he is with the press—that example with Pittman is one of several peppered throughout his mic’d up session for the Colts. And the Colts need him to bring these pass catchers along. With Pittman joined by rookie Alec Pierce, early-round reclamation project Parris Campbell, veteran Ashton Dulin, and developmental talents Dezmon Patmon and Mike Strachan, there are no big-money receivers on the depth chart. Only the Ravens are spending less at receiver than Indianapolis, and Baltimore has a star at tight end in Mark Andrews, who has a big contract. The Colts are paying starting tight end Mo Alie-Cox $6.3 million, which makes him the highest-paid skill position player on the Colts offense. Second? Backup running back Nyheim Hines, at $5.14 million. The highest-paid receiver is Dulin, at $2.43 million. All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor is still on a rookie contract that will pay him $2.1 million this year.

That the Colts’ receivers are largely young and inexperienced is one thing; that they’re all totally new is another. As Ryan went from Roddy White to Julio Jones to Mohamed Sanu in Atlanta, he tied together each year with some portion of normalcy. Maybe the Falcons’ coordinator changed, but the receivers didn’t; maybe the pass catchers were new, but the center was the same. For the first time since he was selected with the third pick in the 2008 draft, everyone around Ryan is new. “There’s so much to learn, so many new guys to get a feel for. Every day’s a new experience,” Ryan says. That’s what’s going on when he holds court with Jelani Woods and Alie-Cox; when he asks Pittman if he liked the trajectory of a certain pass; when he discusses route tempo with Taylor. It’s introduction, exploration, discovery. Like scores of actual rookies all across the NFL, Ryan is figuring out how this team works.

The Colts didn’t work too well last season. They’re still licking their wounds from a Week 18 loss to the Jaguars—whose fans, it bears reminding, were wearing clown costumes to mock their own team’s ineptitude—that kicked the Colts out of playoff contention. If you don’t think that face-plant still hurts, remember that team owner Jim Irsay was still talking about it four months later.

The Colts are also still reeling from the failed Carson Wentz experiment. Ryan isn’t the definitive all-in move for a franchise quarterback—he’s the course correction. The Colts sent only a third-round pick for Ryan, who hits their cap for $18.7 million this season. Last year, the Colts sent a first-round pick and a third-round pick for Wentz, who hit their cap for $20.4 million. Ryan is 37 years old, just a year younger than Philip Rivers was when he joined the Colts in 2020 after 16 seasons with the Chargers. Wentz was 28 when he reconnected with Colts head coach Frank Reich, his former offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. He was supposed to be the quarterback of the future here.

Turns out, he was just like Rivers and Jacoby Brissett before him: quarterback for the fleeting present, and nothing more. Wentz looked fine statistically—27 touchdowns and seven interceptions, 6.9 yards per attempt with a 62 percent completion rate—but failed to secure the job that GM Chris Ballard said in his postseason presser he’d like to “quit Band-Aiding”—a position that needed “stability.” In March at the NFL combine, Ballard spoke frankly on Wentz, saying “learning to handle the criticism is important. … Most of it’s been pretty fair. It’ll be interesting to see how [Wentz] grows from this. I think he will.” The issue wasn’t touchdowns or completions—it wasn’t even performances in big games, like the loss to the Jaguars. It was how Wentz responded to those inevitable bad moments—moments that every quarterback, every player in the league, has to endure. At the time Ballard was giving these quotes at the combine, there was still “good discussion”—read: disagreement—among Colts brass regarding whether to keep Wentz around. That is to say, months after the season ended, the Colts were still reeling.

All of this brings us back to Ryan: the stabilizing force, the cure instead of the Band-Aid, the guy who’s going to make everything better. Ryan won’t just be a lift for young receivers. He’ll be a seasoned vet who can ride the waves of a season. He wasn’t brought in because he’s familiar with the offense, but because he could influence the offense with his experience, his knowledge. He could hold down the job not just for this season, but for seasons to come. He could give the Colts the one thing they haven’t had since Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement: certainty.

But while the Colts are all about certainty, for Ryan, this season is all about change. Ryan was the starting quarterback of the Falcons for 14 seasons; he was going to retire a Falcon; he was going to raise his kids in Atlanta.

Ryan first realized that change was possible—not just coming, but possible—when it happened to the other stalwart signal callers of the 2000s. He watched Peyton Manning leave the Colts to join the Broncos in 2012 following neck surgery; then, he saw Tom Brady leave the Patriots after two decades to join Tampa Bay in 2020. “If it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody,” Ryan said. “Nothing’s forever. Be open to it, be excited about that. It’s bittersweet, you know, when you’re with the same place for a long time, but the openness that they both had, the excitement that they both had … I think those are things you take from it.”

Bittersweet is a word Ryan has used multiple times to describe this change. In his letter thanking Atlanta in the immediate wake of the trade, Ryan said “With all of this, I have long thought and often said that I would retire as a Falcon. But the changes and growth continue. As excited as I am about this next step in my career, this is a bittersweet moment.”

Bittersweet is a nice word, but it’s a euphemism. “It’s bittersweet because it’s hard,” Ryan tells me. That’s what bittersweet really means: it means sad. It means hard. “As time moves on, and you get to meet the people here … your focus becomes immediately on helping the organization win. And that requires a lot of energy, so you compartmentalize.”

Compartmentalize is a nice word, but it’s a euphemism. It means move on.

Ryan is moving on from the Falcons—putting a bad breakup behind him. And just like all of us after our bad breakups, he’s bringing what he learned in Atlanta with him to Indianapolis. That’s why Pittman “just does what Matt says” when it comes to a particular route; why Reich says “10-20 percent” of the offense is “a lot of input from [Ryan].” But Ryan is also bringing with him an acceptance of change, of unpredictability, of newness—realities with which he’s never had to contend so directly before. “That’s probably the one thing I’ve learned more so than anything: You don’t know when the ups and downs are gonna come,” Ryan says of learning a new offense and tweaking it to his liking—but “football is the easy part.” When Ryan talks about the most surprising part of changing teams, he doesn’t talk about football—“Football is where you feel the most comfortable … it’s like your safe space.” He talks about the facility. “You’re so tuned in to the building [in Atlanta]. I knew everybody in the cafeteria, you know? I knew all of the equipment guys for 14 years. Trainers, ticket ops people.”

Ryan is far from the first quarterback to endure this change. Manning and Brady did it, as did Rivers, landing here in Indianapolis two seasons ago. Matthew Stafford did it last year and won a Super Bowl with the Rams; Russell Wilson left Seattle for the Broncos. But just because the late-career quarterback relocation has become more frequent doesn’t mean it affects the individuals any less powerfully. Matt Ryan was Atlanta football—and that meant plenty of touchdowns and wins. But to Matt Ryan, Atlanta football was also community outreach, familiar faces in the building, and the comfort of belonging. All of that is gone. That’s not bittersweet. It’s just sad.

I have one final question for Ryan, then: Are you going to retire a Colt?

“I hope it’s here. I hope it’s a good run here. But you never know.”

I actually have one more question—though it’s not so much for Ryan as it is about Ryan and his new team: Did they finally get it right? No team deserves the carousel of quarterbacking the Colts have endured since Luck’s retirement, but it’s easy to miss the individual threads of NFL players and their struggles within the larger tapestry of NFL teams and their struggles, as the story of the season is told. Ryan is good for the Colts—he brings stability—and the Colts are good for Ryan—they bring “rejuvenation,” as he’d say. But only if this actually works out. If Reich and Ryan figure out the correct alchemy of offensive hybridization. If new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley holds up his end of the bargain. If Ballard can continue to hit on draft picks. Brady, Manning, Stafford—those guys all won Super Bowls with their new teams. Ryan has yet to win one in his career.

It’s a season of change for Ryan—he’d probably like to change that Super Bowl legacy, too. But before that, he has to trot out of the tunnel wearing a Colts uniform for the first time. He has to hand the ball off to Taylor and throw it to Pittman, tweak the offense with Reich, and after all of that is done, hear about what happened in the Falcons game. If you listen to Ryan, you hear how the change is hard, but how he believes it will be worth it. If you listen to Ryan, good things will happen. Just ask Pittman.