Colts hoping Ryan solves QB carousel in 2022 season


Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich and his staff have adapted to the quirky circumstances of NFL quarterback life over the last several years by playing roulette. Each year they put all of their chips on red in a gamble and hope they don’t end up playing Russian Roulette instead of Las Vegas Roulette.

For the most part the coaches have had a run of decent luck, if not hit-the-jackpot luck. And as opening day of the 2022 season looms Sunday at Houston, here they are again, their trust and futures invested in another new guy.

Make that an old, new guy, Matt Ryan, late of the Atlanta Falcons, where he was a mainstay from 2008 to 2021, threw for almost 60,000 yards and 367 touchdowns, nearly 100 more TD’s than interceptions. He is 37 years old and on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Ryan is the latest in a string of bet-the-franchise QB leaders to follow Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz. Luck, projected as the Colts’ quarterback forever, instead retired at 29 before the 2019 season, triggering this scramble for a perfect leader for a very solid all-around team. Now comes Ryan, whom Atlanta deemed expendable and considered old. As long as he stays in one piece, the recent showings of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers at Ryan’s age or older, should support the belief Ryan can still play.

Although Ryan will play his first real game with a horseshoe on his helmet Sunday, he has been a Colt for months, mingled with and practiced with receivers, absorbed coaching wisdom and game plans. He is new to the franchise, but not new to the league, nor any kind of newbie to the game. He has seen just about everything a pro can see.

Ryan has been a Pro Bowl selection four times, won the league’s Most Valuable Player award, and led the Falcons to a Super Bowl. He also thinks he can still play and was pretty insulted when he learned Atlanta did not think so. This is a fresh, late-in-career start for Ryan and he and the Colts may be a perfect, timely match. Ryan wants to prove that right from opening day.

“As far as long-term expectations, we have an understanding of where we want to go,” Ryan said during training camp, “but the only way you get there is to attack week after week. It has to be about playing well week one. That’s the expectation we have to have for ourselves to be ready, to go down there to Houston, play our best football and find a way to get a win.”

The Colts could have gone in a different direction — drafting a new quarterback and lived or died with a rookie this season. But the availability of someone seasoned like Ryan seemed a wiser way to go to win now. Last season ended in stunningly disappointing fashion for players and fans. Anything perceived as a step backward, or requiring spending more time waiting to make a playoff run, could have soured observers even more.

A final record of 9-8 in 2021 didn’t cut it, especially with seven players chosen for the Pro Bowl. The Colts had a playoff spot wrapped up at 9-6 on Christmas Day, and lost two games in a row, by three points to the Raiders and unbelievably, to the 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars. On another team, firings would have followed, but owner Jim Irsay had recently re-signed Reich and general manager Chris Ballard and spoken of his faith in their savvy.

Now Reich and Ballard must produce. The Colts must qualify for the playoffs, at the least, or Irsay will likely dynamite the whole thing out of frustration. As if the NFL isn’t an unforgiving atmosphere, anyway, that is the high-level pressure situation awaiting Ryan.

“I have no doubt he feels like that,” Reich said earlier this week of Ryan feeling he has something to prove. “I have no doubt we all feel like that. Every one of our players.”

If Ryan has an ill-timed off day against Houston and if the Colts don’t stampede out of the corral like a wild herd, fairly or not, there will be moaning and critics pouncing. It is always so much better being 1-0 and be compared favorably to Johnny Unitas, than being 0-1 and be compared unfavorably to Curtis Painter.

Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]

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