Matt Ryan returned to the lineup and guided the Colts to a victory in Week 10, but Indy has since dropped each of their past two games. Following the Colts’ loss last night to the lowly Steelers, head coach Jeff Saturday told reporters that the veteran quarterback will remain under center.
“Matt’s going to continue to be the guy,” Saturday said (via NFL.com’s Kevin Patra). “We’re going to keep moving forward, keep pressing forward with what we got. I tell the guys in the locker room, we’ve got the players in the locker room to do it. We’ve got the plays to do it. We gotta figure out how to execute in moments that matter. That’s really what we have to focus in on and hone in on.”
Following his unexpected hiring, Saturday gave Ryan an immediate vote of confidence by inserting the QB back into the starting lineup over Sam Ehlinger. The interim head coach has continually asserted that Ryan gives the Colts the best chance to win each week, and while the 37-year-old’s production has been down during his first season with the organization, he’s still completing passes at a 68.8 percent clip while going 4-5-1 as a starter.
On the flip side, the Colts’ offense was mostly responsible for each of the past two losses, with Ryan tossing one touchdown and one interception over that stretch. Plus, with the Colts sitting at 4-7-1, the team effectively has nothing to play for, so it makes some sense to give their second-year QB more playing time. In his two starts, Ehlinger completed 32 of his 52 pass attempts for 304 yards and one interception. He also added another 54 yards on the ground.
Irsay called Saturday during the Colts’ Week 9 loss to the Patriots, discussing the team’s protections. That discussion led to an offer to become Indianapolis’ interim HC. Had Saturday not accepted the job, Irsay would not have fired Frank Reich, Zak Keefer of The Athletic notes (subscription required). That points to Irsay’s conviction on the inexperienced coach while also revealing an obvious lack of desire to promote one of Reich’s assistants to the post.
Some of Reich’s assistants have expressed displeasure with Irsay’s call, and it is safe to say the Colts’ staff will look considerably different next season. Following last week’s report of quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovichturning down the opportunity to call plays, Rapoport and Pelissero confirm as much and note the Colts’ play-calling offer did not include any adjustments to his current contract. Milanovich, a former Grey Cup-winning head coach, has been Indy’s QBs coach since 2021, when the team promoted Marcus Brady to replace Nick Sirianni. The Colts fired Brady earlier this season.
Milanovich and running backs coach Scottie Montgomery — each of whom having play-calling experience, though most of it coming outside the NFL — will play a big role in game-planning, Saturday said. But Parks Frazier has made the unusual leap from assistant QBs coach to play-caller.
Saturday also had the freedom to bench Sam Ehlinger and reinstall Matt Ryanas the starter, a choice Irsay does not appear to have made available for Reich. The five-year Colts HC did not back the Irsay-driven pivot to Ehlinger, and Keefer adds the players were not behind the Ryan benching as well. Despite Ryan’s nine interceptions and 11 fumbles through seven games, Keefer notes the Colts’ roster viewed the veteran as the player who gave the team its best chance to win. Recovered from his shoulder injury, Ryan received first-team reps during Colts practice last week, Keefer tweets.
The Colts did enjoy the opportunity of facing a Raiders defense that has slipped from below average — under current Colts DC Gus Bradley — in 2021 to one of the league’s worst units. Las Vegas ranks 28th in both points allowed and total defense. The Colts still entered Week 10 as underdogs, and their Saturday-Frazier-Ryan direction nevertheless led to a victory. Moving to 4-5-1, the Colts remain a fringe AFC contender — record-wise, at least — and outings like Sunday’s will provide ammunition for Irsay’s hope of Saturday sticking around beyond 2022.
No interim HC has been retained since Doug Marrone kept the Jaguars’ reins, after the team fired Bradley, in 2016. Saturday moving into position to buck this trend would add to the scrutiny engulfing the Colts, but it is safe to say traditional norms regarding interim HCs do not apply here. This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting interim stretches in modern NFL history.
Today marks the beginning of the Jeff Saturday era in Indianapolis, after a controversial and nearly unprecedented move to replace Frank Reich as head coach. Saturday’s first game in charge will see a familiar face under center.
The Colts announced in advance of today’s contest that Matt Ryanwill once again operate as the team’s starter. That decision comes after Saturday had announced earlier in the week that Sam Ehlingerwould remain the No. 1, as he had for the past two weeks.
The 2021 sixth-rounder came in to replace an injured Ryan, though Reich insisted that the move was performance-related. The fact that it was Ehlinger, and not veteran Nick Foleswho took over raised questions regarding whose decision it ultimately was to bench Ryan. It was later revealed that owner Jim Irsay – who was, of course, the central figure in naming Saturday as Reich’s replacement – drove the switch to Ehlinger for what was supposed to be the remainder of the season.
The Colts lost each of the Texas alum’s starts, including a 26-3 defeat to the Patriots last week. That marked the end of Reich’s four-plus-year tenure, but was not expected to produce a return to action for Ryan. The 37-year-old struggled mightily to begin his Colts tenure, one which the team initially stated they hoped would provide them with multi-year stability at the QB position. The longtime Falcon led the NFL in interceptions, fumbles and sacks allowed at the time he was benched, so it will be interesting to see how much of an improvement is made after time to heal and the installation of assistant QBs coach Park Frazier as offensvie play-caller.
Also of note in this situation is the notion that Ryan had playing-time incentives in his deal, and that it factored into the decision to replace him. Irsay recently rejected that, insisting that the many moves made within the organization in recent weeks have all been pointed at rescuing the team’s 3-5-1 season. Today’s contest against the Raiders will prove insightful with respect to Saturday’s and Ryan’s ability to accomplish that goal.
Saturday is going with assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier as his offensive play-caller in Week 10, but Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post reports Frazier was not the first choice. QBs coach Scott Milanovich, a former Jaguars play-caller who helmed the Toronto Argonauts to a Grey Cup as head coach in 2012, turned down the chance to call plays.
Milanovich called plays in Canada and for a short stretch with the Jaguars. He has been on Reich’s staff since last year. While Frazier has been with the Colts since Reich’s 2018 arrival, the 30-year-old does not have play-calling experience and was on the quality control level as recently as 2020. The Colts also have former East Carolina HC and Maryland OC Scottie Montgomery on staff as running backs coach; Montgomery was on the Panthers’ OC radar this offseason.
Irsay’s decision to hire Saturday has caused tumult among staffers and players, according to La Canfora, who adds Matt Ryan and other veterans were “irate” when informed of the Reich-for-Saturday swap. Some vets have said they do not want to play for the team any longer, though the trade deadline having passed limits players’ options. GM Chris Ballard, whom Irsay said was not in danger of being canned, told players the Saturday decision came “directly from the owner.” Irsay made that plain with his comments this week.
Irsay being behind the firing of offensive coordinator Marcus Brady is not surprising, but La Canfora notes the owner overruled Reich on quarterback selection. Reich did not view Sam Ehlinger as ready to play, and although the since-fired HC did not want to bench the struggling Ryan, he would have gone to Nick Foles before Ehlinger. Reich said this offseason he had wanted to acquire Foles in previous years. Prior to Ehlinger replacing Ryan, he moved past Foles as Indy’s QB2. It does not appear Reich backed that move.
The Colts are 0-2 with the 2021 sixth-round pick starting, and although Ehlinger drew praise from Reich, some around the league believe the Colts are tanking with their Saturday-Ehlinger-Frazier strategy. Irsay vehemently pushed back on that notion (via The Athletic’s Bob Kravitz), but the Colts — who also traded Nyheim Hines‘ through-2024 contract to the Bills at the deadline — will be far less experienced in key spots when they face the Raiders on Sunday.
“That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard, that we’re tanking,” Irsay said. “That’s bulls—. We’re in this thing; 9-7-1 get us in, no question about it. … We’re not tanking the season. Whoever says these things, that we’re not playing Matt because [of an effort to tank], that’s all bulls—. That’s not true. … We’re going to do what it takes to win. I don’t know who people think we are, they don’t know us. We don’t tank in Indianapolis.”
The Colts won the Andrew Luck sweepstakes 10 years ago, going 2-14 in 2011. But the team losing Peyton Manning for a full season led to that pick, rather than a full-fledged tanking effort. Though, the Colts certainly benefited from losing at the right time. Indianapolis has yet to find a Luck replacement; the team will certainly be linked to first-round passers in 2023.
Reich’s staff also includes DC Gus Bradley, a four-year Jaguars HC who has been on the coordinator level for over a decade, and former Panthers, Broncos and Bears HC John Fox, a senior defensive assistant. Special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone is viewed as a rising talent in the coaching ranks. The Saturday decision and Irsay’s defense of the choice has drawn criticism from other staffers around the league, Kimberley Martin of ESPN.com tweets.
The Rooney Rule does not apply to interim hires. Rod Graves, the director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said (via CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson, on Twitter) that should change going forward. The NFL’s expanding of the Rooney Rule in recent years certainly points to the possibility it will later apply to interim hires. It is not yet known if the league will discuss that matter for potential 2023 application.
Saturday said (via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero, on Twitter) he is still determining who will call plays when the Colts face the Raiders on Sunday. Saturday, 47, said he will interview coaches on staff this week for this rather important role. Quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich and running backs coach Scottie Montgomery, an ex-East Carolina HC whom the Panthers had on their OC radar this year, would seem the top candidates. Milanovich called plays as the Jaguars’ interim OC in 2018.
Sam Ehlinger will remain the team’s starting quarterback, Saturday said. The 2021 sixth-round pick has struggled since replacing Matt Ryan. The former MVP’s turnover woes and his 2023 injury guarantee contributed to the Colts’ Ehlinger promotion. Nick Foles remains on the roster and worked as Indianapolis’ backup to start this season. With Jim Irsayhaving helped drive Reich and Chris Ballard to bench Ryan, it is unsurprising Saturday will stick with Ehlinger.
Regarding Ballard’s role, Irsay said (via ESPN.com’s Field Yates, on Twitter) there is “no question” the GM will return in 2023. Irsay hired Ballard during Chuck Pagano‘s HC tenure, and the former Bears and Chiefs exec initially chose Josh McDaniels to be the Colts’ HC in 2018. The Reich backup plan worked well at points, but Andrew Luck‘s shocking 2019 retirement decision changed the franchise’s trajectory.
A coveted GM candidate prior to his 2017 Colts commitment, Ballard signed an extension last year. Of course, so did Reich. Ballard and Irsay did not appear in lockstep regarding the Reich firing, but the former said Monday night the Colts tried to hire Saturday to be their offensive line coach in both 2019 and this offseason, Pelissero tweets. The Colts also tried to give Saturday — a six-time Pro Bowler who played with the team from 1999-2011 — a front office position in 2012. Saturday instead signed with the Packers and wrapped his 15-year career that season. Saturday has been with ESPN since 2013.
The Colts bypassed former head coaches Gus Bradley and John Fox, who are respectively on staff in defensive coordinator and senior defensive assistant roles, for Saturday. Peyton Manning‘s longtime center indeed indicated shock upon being offered the position. Irsay hopes Saturday will be the Colts’ coach beyond 2022 (Twitter links via Pelissero and The Athletic’s Zak Keefer). While Saturday said Monday he was auditioning for other teams’ HC jobs as well, he has never coached at the NFL or college levels. Saturday has coached at the high school level. Irsay said there was “no other candidate.”
Saturday will become the first man without college or NFL coaching experience to lead an NFL team since Norm Van Brocklin, h/t CBS Sports (on Twitter). The Hall of Fame quarterback went straight from leading the Eagles to the 1960 NFL title to becoming the expansion Vikings’ first head coach. Van Brocklin lasted six years in that post and caught on with the Falcons in 1968, holding that job for seven years. Of course, the NFL is a bit more scrutinized since the fiery QB made that leap; a vast news-cycle difference between that era and this one obviously exists. That sets the stage for a fascinating interim tenure for Saturday.
Irsay’s decision has stunned several Colts decision-makers, Keefer adds (on Twitter). Expanding on his Saturday choice Monday night, Irsay said the former All-Pro will not resemble a nervous NFL coach that will lean on analytics, Mike Garafolo of NFL.com tweets. That certainly adds an interesting wrinkle here, increasing anticipation for Saturday’s interim HC stay.
This has been a big year for Irsay-driven headlines. As is his right, Irsay pushed Ballard and Reich to both jettisonCarson Wentz — after the Colts gave up first- and third-rounders for the ex-Eagles QB — and trade for Ryan. This has been a big year for the longtime owner, whose team came into the season with a sixth starting QB in six years. Not many teams have matched that accomplishment, and only two — the Chargers from 1987-1993 and Browns from 2013-19 — have started seven Week 1 passers in seven years since the 1970 merger. The Colts are trudging toward joining that exclusive club. Judging by how 2022 has played out, Irsay stands to have a major say in how the Colts proceed on that front next year. It will be interesting if the owner has Saturday in the picture when that QB decision comes.
The Colts will have a new face under center when they take on the Commanders in Week 8. Head coach Frank Reichannounced on Monday that Sam Ehlingerwill serve as the team’s starting quarterback in place of Matt Ryan.
The move was first reported by Mike Chappell of Fox59. The fact that Ryan was announced to have a grade 2 shoulder sprain (which, Reich confirmed, will keep him from practicing or playing this week), led to initial speculation that the switch would be temporary. However, as Reich explained, the QB swap is meant to be permanent moving forward.
“Right now the move is for Sam to be the starter for the rest of the season,” Reich said, confirming that the change would have been made even if Ryan had been healthy. The latter was acquired this offseason in a trade with the Falcons; that deal cost the Colts a third-round pick, and represented the latest in a long line of moves aimed at providing the team with its first long-term Andrew Luckreplacement.
Even at the age of 37, Indianapolis’ front office viewed Ryan as just that. The longtime Falcons starter is under contract for one more season after this. He is due a 2023 base salary of $21.7MM – more than half of which is guaranteed – and has a scheduled cap hit of $35.2MM. The Colts would see just over $17MM in cap savings by releasing the former league MVP this offseason.
Such a decision would not have seemed possible heading into the campaign, but his struggles have been at the forefront of the team’s underwhelming offense. Ryan leads the league in interceptions (nine), fumbles (11, three of which have been lost) and sacks taken (24). Overall, the team ranks sixth in the league in passing, but 29th in scoring at an average of 16.1 points per game.
The decision also sheds light on the move the Colts made earlier this month, elevating Ehlinger to the backup role. Doing so relegated veteran Nick Folesto being inactive, despite Reich commenting on his multi-year desire to sign the former Eagles Super Bowl winner. With Ryan unavailable in Week 8, at a minimum, Foles will serve as the backup on Sunday.
A 2021 sixth-round pick, Ehlinger has yet to attempt a regular season pass in the NFL. The Texas alum will make his league debut not against the injured Carson Wentz, whom the Colts traded away prior to Ryan’s acquisition, but Taylor Heinicke instead.
“It’s a big step but we think he’s ready,” Reich added of Ehlinger. “This guy’s special… Sam, he’s got that about him. He plays, he practices in a way [that] he’ll be ready.”
Suiting up for a game is not new to Ehlinger, a sixth-round pick out of Texas last year. He stood as Carson Wentz‘s backup last season. Wentz made 17 starts during his one-and-done Indianapolis season, but the Colts have consistently praised Ehlinger. His stock continues to rise within the organization, Zak Keefer of The Athletic notes (on Twitter).
While Chappell adds Ehlinger is not viewed as a threat to Ryan, the promotion is certainly interesting given how the 15th-year veteran has fared as a Colt. Ryan’s 11 fumbles are the most through five games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and his 10 turnovers (seven interceptions, three lost fumbles) lead the league. The Colts have also seen teams submerge their immobile starter; Ryan has taken 21 sacks this season. The Colts are averaging a league-low 13.8 points per game.
A consistent presence for Big 12 buffs throughout his college career, Ehlinger worked as the Longhorns’ starter from his 2017 freshman season through 2020. He posted two seasons with at least 25 touchdown passes compared to five INTs and offers far superior mobility compared to Ryan or Foles. Ehlinger totaled 16 rushing touchdowns as a sophomore and amassed 663 rushing yards as a junior. He still lasted until the No. 218 pick last year, carrying a project label upon joining the Colts.
The Colts, who traded a third-round pick for Ryan this year and want him to start for at least two seasons, have run into persistent issues along their offensive line. The once-elite unit has seen uneven play affect Ryan. Indy has already relocated Matt Pryor from left tackle to right tackle and benched Week 1 right guard Danny Pinter. Pryor, who has allowed five sacks this season, did not play well at right tackle last week in Denver. It is possible the Colts make another move at that spot in Week 6.
Ehlinger may be positioned as the backup due to his mobility behind this unusually shaky front, though it would be interesting to see if the Colts would turn to he or Foles if Ryan suffered an injury that required a multigame absence. Ryan has only missed three starts due to injury in his career. Foles is signed through 2023 on a $6.2MM deal.
The biggest stories of the day for the Colts come in the linebacking corps. In addition to adding star linebacker Leonard off the PUP, Indianapolis acquired second-year player Grant Stuardin a trade with Tampa Bay today. Stuard was primarily a special teamer with the Buccaneers last year, playing in every game as a rookie. He’ll go from one stacked linebacker room to another, likely backing up Leonard upon his arrival.
The Colts have quite an interesting rookie class. A sixth-round defensive tackle, Brooks is the only drafted rookie not to make the final roster besides sixth-round tight end Andrew Ogletree who will start his NFL career on injured reserve. None of this is spectacular, though. The interesting part is that Indianapolis will roster four undrafted rookies to start the 2022 NFL season.
Former SMU safety Trevor Denbow finds his way onto the initial 53 after leading the NFL this preseason with five special teams tackles. Cornerback Dallis Flowers can also thank his special teams value as his athleticism was supplemented by a 53-yard kickoff return to help him make the team out of Pitt State. Former Cornhusker JoJo Domann joins Leonard and Stuard in the linebackers room. And the French-Fries offensive line combination stays alive as Wesley French makes the final roster out of Western Michigan.
There were a number of other players who have special teams’ ability to thank for their roster spot in addition to Denbow and Flowers. Running back Deon Jackson played on all punt/kick return/coverage units for the Colts last year, earning him a tightly contested roster spot over Lindsay and Williams. Cornerback Tony Brown was the team’s highest-graded special teams player in the preseason, according to Pro Football Focus, and safety Rodney Thomas II played the third-most special teams snaps on the team.
Finally, the biggest performer of the Colts’ preseason was likely quarterback Sam Ehlinger whose stellar preseason led Indianapolis to roster three quarterbacks going into the season. The former-Longhorn’s impressive preseason play helped him earn a spot on the initial roster despite the Colts already rostering starter Matt Ryan and one of the league’s top backup quarterbacks in Nick Foles.
The Colts will have the opportunity tomorrow to announce any moves to form their 16-man practice squad. Players cut today who have not vested will have to clear waivers before returning to the team.
December 29th, 2021 at 10:42am CST by Sam Robinson
The NFL revising its COVID-19 protocols yet again may allow the Colts to dodge a bullet. Carson Wentz is unvaccinated and tested positive Tuesday, but Frank Reich said he would start Sunday if he is asymptomatic, Stephen Holder of The Athletic tweets. Current Colts backup Sam Ehlinger would start if Wentz is experiencing symptoms at that point.
Reich has also remained in contact with the Colts’ 2020 starter, Philip Rivers. The two discussed the current Colts QB bind, Zak Keefer of The Athletic tweets. However, it does not seem like Rivers will come out of retirement to replace Wentz. Reich said nothing is developing on that front.
Rivers, 40, retired after spending last season with the Colts, but the current high school coach has said he would consider a return to join a contender. He was open to joining the Saints once Jameis Winston went down earlier this season. In his one Colts season, Rivers completed 68% of his passes and finished with a 24-to-11 TD-INT ratio. The Colts traded for Wentz not long after Rivers’ retirement.
Had the NFL not revised its protocols for a second time this month, Wentz would be shut down for Week 17 due to his positive test. Previously, unvaccinated players who tested positive were forced into 10-day quarantines. The NFL has reduced that to five, opening the door for Wentz to play Sunday. A sixth-round rookie, Ehlinger took first-team reps for a stretch after Wentz went down with a foot injury during training camp.
The Colts received more good news regarding their COVID-19 situation Wednesday. They activated offensive line starters Quenton Nelson and Mark Glowinski, along with cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and defensive end Kemoko Turay. However, right tackle Braden Smith is now on Indianapolis’ virus list. Smith could rejoin his teammates Sunday, however, regardless of vaccination status. Like Wentz, if Smith is not displaying symptoms, he could return Sunday against the Raiders. Smith was the Colts’ lone O-line starter available by the end of Week 16, but the team will have more of its starters on hand against Las Vegas.