INDIANAPOLIS – It’s been a week of a “Tale of Three Quarterbacks” for the Indianapolis Colts, and the central chapter remains unfinished.
Consider the leading figures as the Colts prepare for a Sunday meeting with the Las Vegas Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium that, with a victory, clinches a playoff berth.
- Carson Wentz, the starter: He’s on the NFL’s COVID-19 list, but has a window of opportunity to return for Sunday in the aftermath of the league’s new guidelines for unvaccinated players who test positive.
- Sam Ehlinger, the rookie backup: He’s the starter if Wentz is unable to gain medical clearance for what represents the most important game in a Colts’ season chockfull of them.
- Philip Rivers, the former starter: He’s enjoying retirement and life as a high school football coach in Fairhope, Ala. after leading the Colts to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth a year ago.
“All positions are important,’’ coach Frank Reich said Wednesday. “We understand the quarterback position, there’s a premium on it. Like every other position on our team, we’re always going to do what’s best for the best.’’
Wentz remains the central figure, and one whose status is uncertain. He was placed on the COVID-19 list Tuesday, but is one of dozens and dozens of players across the NFL landscape who might benefit from the league adopting the CDC’s altered guideline requiring individuals who test positive – vaccinated or not – to be quarantined only five days.
“If he clears, according to the protocol, his fifth day would be Sunday and in theory would be available for the game,’’ Reich said. “If he clears.’’
From a logistics standpoint, the Colts must activate Wentz from the virus list by 4 p.m. Saturday and then he must be cleared by the medical staff. He’s not allowed at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center this week and has been participating in all of the meetings remotely, as have all players.
“He’ll be in meetings virtually preparing so that if he does clear, that he could play,’’ Reich said.
If Wentz is able to make his 16th consecutive start, he’ll do so without a single practice rep. The team’s preparation won’t be too dissimilar to week 3 when Wentz only practiced on a limited basis Friday after spraining both ankles against the Los Angeles Rams, but started against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
“We didn’t know whether he was going to play or not,’’ Reich said. “At that time Sam was still not all the way up (from a knee injury), so Brett (Hundley) was getting ready to start, took all the reps and then Carson ended up making it back.”
“It will look much the same way.’’
Ehlinger, not Hundley, will handle reps with the starting unit. If Wentz isn’t cleared, Reich has total confidence in the team’s sixth-round draft pick.
“At this point, Sam is our starter,’’ he said. “I’m excited for Sam. I think Sam is made for moments like this. I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s got that special ‘it’ factor.”
“We’ll proceed accordingly with him as our starter and we’ll adapt and adjust as needed and as warranted.’’
And rest assured, there will be adjustments. Reich estimated there would be a 20-25% difference in the game plan with Ehlinger under center.
Wentz has at least matched expectations after being acquired in a February trade with Philadelphia. He ranks 13th in the league with a 96.4 passer rating and has 25 touchdowns against five interceptions. He has compiled a 100-plus rating in eight games, a career best.
Ehlinger has been on the field for 10 snaps in three games. He’s rushed for 9 yards on three attempts, but has yet to throw a pass.
“He’s got that ‘it’ factor,’’ Reich reiterated. “I mean, everyone who has ever been around the guy says it. Sometimes you say that (when) somebody flashes here or there. Sam has been flashing in these moments his whole life.”
“He’s come up big in moments like this time after time again. So, he has those innate characteristics and qualities that really I think he’s built for something like this.’’
“Well, I’ve had a lot of crazy life events thrown at me in times where I have to step up,’’ he said.
Ehlinger started 43 of 46 games at Texas and finished with a 27-16 record as a starter. He passed for 11,436 yards and 94 touchdowns and added 1,907 and 33 touchdowns as a rusher.
His ability to deal with personal tragedy, though, set him apart.
When he was 13, Ehlinger’s dad died of a heart attack. In May and on his first day at the Colts’ facility, he was informed Jake, his younger brother and a 20-year old walk-on at the University of Texas, had been found dead.
“Freshman in college, in situations where everything’s super uncomfortable,’’ Ehlinger said. “Then obviously in my family life, had very uncomfortable situations as well.”
“So with those things, I’ve just learned controlling what you can control is the only thing you can do. Don’t let the external factors of things around you influence the way you go about your daily business. In order for me to be the best that I can be, it’s controlling what I can control and preparing the best that I can to be as prepared in the moment as possible.’’
While the Colts’ quarterback options have been whittled to Wentz or Ehlinger, they at least considered Rivers.
Of course they did. When the Colts sought an upgrade at the position following the 2019 season, Reich endorsed the QB he had worked with during his stint with the San Diego Chargers.
Monday, Reich said he hadn’t reached out to Rivers regarding the Colts’ quarterback situation. That changed.
“Yes, I have talked to Philip,’’ he said before the topic could be broached by the media. “Obviously you guys know that I’m close to him. We’ve talked all year long. I kind of followed his coaching career, talking about his high school team that he coached.
“I did talk to him fairly recently. He was on a Christmas vacation with his family. I have talked to him about our situation here, but there is nothing to report and no further comment at this point.
“Sam is our starter and I’m happy for the opportunity Sam has. We’ll adapt and adjust as needed later in the week if Carson clears and is available for the game.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.