INDIANAPOLIS – Frank Reich was quick to drive home a few salient bullet points during this week of seismic midseason change for the Indianapolis Colts.
You’re free to agree, or not: the decision to bench an injured Matt Ryan and turn to unproven Sam Ehlinger was done in the best interest of the team.
“We just felt like offensively we were struggling,’’ Reich said Wednesday afternoon. “ . . . getting sacked too much, turning it over too much and not scoring enough points.’’
The decision doesn’t represent a waving-the-white-flag moment even though the Colts head into Sunday’s meeting with the Washington Commanders with a 3-3-1 record and, at least on paper, a reasonable opportunity to pursue one the AFC’s three wild-card spots. They’ve now turned to a QB who has taken a total of 18 snaps in two seasons and has yet to throw a pass in a regular-season game.
Reich seemed to stiffen a bit when “waving the white flag’’ was mentioned.
“I can tell you this for sure, there is nobody waving the white flag,’’ he said. “That is not in the DNA. It’s not in my DNA, it’s not in our players’ DNA. I would never do that in a million years. I just couldn’t do that.’’
At the core of Ryan’s demotion is his inability to protect the football. He leads the NFL with nine interceptions and 12 total turnovers. The 24 sacks are tied for most in the league.
Perhaps Ryan would have emerged from this seven-game mix of very good (three comeback victories and a fourth that was denied by an errant 42-yard game-winning field goal in the opener at Houston) and very bad (the turnovers and sacks).
Now, he won’t have that opportunity.
Wherever the Colts go from here, they’ll follow Ehlinger’s lead.
“Anybody who knows Sam knows he’s made for moments like this, right?’’ Reich said. “Is he going to go in and be offensive player of the week? I’m not saying that. Will he have growing pains? Absolutely, he’ll have growing pains.’’
The offensive staff believes Ehlinger’s mobility can help lessen the debilitating sacks and boost a 29th-ranked run game. It will tailor the game plan versus Washington and beyond to reflect his strengths, which are vastly different from Ryan’s.
Listen to Ehlinger, whose last meaningful start was Dec. 29, 2020 when his Texas Longhorns overwhelmed Colorado 55-23 in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
What does he have to offer?
“Well, a young quarterback that has an exciting style of play doing everything he can to move the ball, put points on the board,’’ Ehlinger said. “Our defense is playing great. Being smart with the ball, getting it out on time and limiting the mistakes and playing to our strengths.’’
When Reich informed Ehlinger he’d be the starter, he emphasized no one was expecting him to be a hero. Ehlinger agreed.
“Play the position, take care of the ball, but obviously play my game,’’ he said. “I think there’s an element to where the league’s transitioning to more mobile quarterbacks, and I think I am able to offer that.
“So, just being smart with the football, taking completions, getting the ball in playmakers’ hands. We have a lot of good players and even in the run game, give the ball to JT (Jonathan Taylor), Nyheim (Hines), Deon (Jackson). Let those guys work. Parris (Campbell) is playing great, Pitt’s (Michael Pittman Jr.) playing great, Alec (Pierce) is playing great.
“Get the ball in their hands and let them be the stars.’’
Reich informed Ehlinger of the promotion Monday morning, which was followed by a position meeting that included offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, position coach Scott Milanovich and pass-game specialist Parks Frazier.
“We talked to him a little bit about ‘Relax, play your game. You don’t have to be a hero,’’’ Reich said. “Sam’s played a lot of football. He hasn’t thrown an NFL pass, but he played at Texas, big-time football state, big-time football.
“He’s played and won a lot of games. He’s a winner. He’s got a great opportunity in front of him. I think it’s unfair to say, ‘Hey, everything hinges on how he plays.’ We play as a team. He’s got to play good football. He’s got to play winning football and that’s what we expect him to do.’’
After meeting with Ehlinger and Ryan and before announcing the decision at his 1:45 p.m. Zoom press conference with the media, Reich met with the team’s Leadership Council. The 12-player group included Ryan.
“I didn’t want them to hear it in a press conference or in a Tweet,’’ Reich said.
Three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly’s reaction to the Ryan-to-Ehlinger move? Some level of surprise?
“Yeah, I guess so,’’ he said. “The guy’s been in the league for 15 years, so yeah. All 11 of us (on offense) haven’t played good enough to have a better record than 3-3-1.
“You just have to roll with it as it comes.’’
When the Colts selected Kelly with the 18th overall pick in the 2016 draft, the idea was he and Andrew Luck would develop into the type of quarterback/center tandem the Colts had with Jeff Saturday and Peyton Manning.
Obviously, that never happened. Ehlinger represents the eighth different starting quarterback Kelly will have worked with, joining Ryan, Carson Wentz, Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Brian Hoyer, Scott Tolzien and Luck.
“You just roll with whatever change is made,’’ Kelly said.
History lesson, Part I
If history is a reliable indicator, Ehlinger is in for a difficult debut. The last Colts’ quarterback to win his first career start: Chris Chandler in 1988.
In fact, Chandler is the only one since 1966.
Colts’ QBs are 1-15 in that scenario since ’66, and the list includes Luck, Manning, Curtis Painter, Kelly Holcomb, Paul Justin, Jeff George, Blair Kiel, Jack Trudeau, Matt Kofler, Art Schlichter, Mike Pagel and Bert Jones.
History lesson, Part II
Reich has been where Ehlinger is about to go. He made the first start of his 13-year NFL career in his fourth season with the Buffalo Bills.
It was Oct. 16, 1989 at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium against the Los Angeles Rams.
“Monday Night Football against the Rams,’’ Reich said. “It was a home game. I remember going in just saying, ‘Play the game. You don’t have to be a hero. Just go in and play your game. This is a team. We win as a team, we lose as a team. Just go in and do your job.’’’
Reich completed 21-of-37 passes for 214 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He struggled for the first three quarters, then directed a fourth-quarter comeback with TD passes to Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed for a 23-20 victory.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.