Is starting Sam Ehlinger a sign that the Colts are tanking?

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger (4) warms up as the team gets ready to face the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.Syndication The Tennessean
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger (4) warms up as the team gets ready to face the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.Syndication The Tennessean /

The Indianapolis Colts replaced quarterback Matt Ryan with Sam Ehlinger, but was the move actually made so Indy could win more games?

It’s very evident by now that the Indianapolis Colts have been running their own quarterback carousel ever since the unforeseen retirement of Andrew Luck. Others might consider the Colts’ situation to be what’s known as “QB Purgatory,” a unique football phenomenon that objectively represents a lack of continuity within a team’s quarterback room. With the recent decision to bench newly acquired veteran Matt Ryan, let’s dive into what exactly this means for the organization moving forward.

The blame starts at the top for the Colts

This is without a doubt a collective failure that starts at the top. General manager Chris Ballard is responsible for the perennial band-aids he’s put on the QB position ever since Luck’s departure. A franchise that saw back-to-back (generational) franchise QBs over the span of two decades is now on the precipice of yet another starting QB for 2023. The Colts haven’t seen such catastrophic and consistent dereliction at the position like that of the Cleveland Browns, but they sure have found themselves stuck in a revolving door of aged veterans, backups, and a media-proclaimed bust.

With the help of the ever-powerful hindsight, it could be argued that Ballard and Co. should’ve elected for a QB in the 2021 NFL Draft. Five QBs went in the 1st round (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones) and whether or not any of the aforementioned players would’ve been the guy for the Colts, it would’ve provided a fresh start that they so desperately need.

Again, we’re only having this discussion due to both fall-outs with Carson Wentz and Ryan. Had the Wentz-led Colts maintained their mid-season momentum through Weeks 17 & 18, made the playoffs, and gotten a win? Even with the reports that said team owner Jim Irsay and Chris Ballard were internally planning to move on from Wentz regardless of a playoff berth, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where an 11-6, playoff game-winning football team moves on from their QB, especially given this team in particular’s recent QB struggles.

League-renowned QB whisperer Frank Reich hasn’t held up his end of the bargain either. Aside from a strong campaign from Philip Rivers in 2020, Reich has yet to implement a QB into a sustainable situation in Indy— both for the entirety of a season and for said QB to be put into a position to retain the starting gig the following year.

Head Coach Frank Reich is also at fault for the acquisition and overall commitment to former Eagles QB and current QB1 of the Washington Commanders, Carson Wentz. Despite a rather impressive stat line on paper (27 TDs to only 7 INTs), the Colts ultimately moved on from Wentz due to leadership concerns on top of a dismaying collapse to punctuate the 2021 season. The Wentz-Reich reunion didn’t work out, however, the roller coaster ride to get to that understanding is what really rubbed salt into the wound of all Colts fans, as well as Chris Ballard. The Colts ended up missing the playoffs, losing their first-round pick, and the QB they traded capital away for. This trifecta put the organization, more specifically Chris Ballard and Frank Reich, in a position to fan the flames of mediocrity for at least two more seasons by bringing Matt Ryan in as a replacement.

The Indianapolis Colts failed Matt Ryan by giving him the keys to an apartment without working utilities when he was promised a condo with a view. As a result, the Colts are now riding the wave of uncertainty for the remainder of the season. Optimistically speaking, this mid-season shakeup provides an opportunity for the future of this football team. Although this move lowers the team’s ceiling at the forefront and ultimately decrees a white flag-waving to what was expected, this may actually be the best move for the organization moving forward.

How will the Colts look for the rest of the 2022 season?

Looking no further than what’s left on the schedule for the season, the Colts can truly only afford to go in one of two directions. The first, and most unlikely, is that former sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger becomes the future for Indianapolis, the franchise guy. This would obviously allow the Colts to expedite their process when it comes to rebuilding/retooling. The other scenario involves a lackluster debut from an Ehlinger-led Colts team, which ends up netting an early draft pick (1-14). The latter certainly seems most likely, and from a managerial standpoint, what the organization anticipates happening.

A third scenario, which cannot happen, is that Ehlinger provides such volatile play that the Colts finish somewhere around a .500 record. This would not only hinder the team’s ability in terms of potential draft capital to use on a QB in the draft, but it also puts Indy right back at square one— hapless mediocrity. With less capital to work with when regarding a potential move up in draft positioning, coupled with a QB who is maybe the answer, this would only halt the timeline further. This hypothetical would be the worst-case scenario given the team’s recent history at the position.

Atypical slow-starts for the Indianapolis Colts in 2022 are an underlying reason for the change at the quarterback position. Under Frank Reich, the Colts from 2018 through 2021 have been a top-seven scoring offense in the first quarter. Through seven games in 2022, however, Indy is the second-worst scoring offense through a quarter’s play, only totaling 10 points in seven first quarters.

The uncharacteristic turnovers from Ryan and unacceptable offensive line play have surely been the main issues thus far. The move to Ehlinger not only provides a breath of fresh air in terms of finding an offensive identity but also seems like it could pair better with the underperforming OL as Ehlinger’s mobility offers a bailout on a play-to-play basis whereas Ryan physically could not.

Regardless if this move pans out to be the right one for Ehlinger, I believe overall this is the right move for the Colts. Unless they somehow manage another mediocre season, the organization is truly in a win-win scenario. To be in a position where your franchise guy is either already in your QB room or is to be drafted in the upcoming draft is the definition of that. That’s not to say any quarterback in the draft will suffice, but to have an opportunity to be among the top pickers to secure a potential game-changer, the world is their oyster.

So are the Colts actually tanking?

To admit surrender at this point would be a death sentence for both the head coach and general manager, hence why they won’t do it. Via Stephen Holder of ESPN, Coach Reich has already provided his say on the matter, staking his claim on the QB change that, “nobody is waving the white flag. That’s not in my DNA… I would never do it in a million years.” Now I’m not saying Reich is waving the white flag himself, but I certainly believe that team owner Jim Irsay is doing the waving. Reich is sitting on the hottest of seats at this point in time, and whether or not he admits it, (disclaimer: he won’t because he’s classy and a professional) this decision very well could be out of his control.

In summation, from an organizational and managerial standpoint, the Colts are indeed tanking. However, I don’t think this tank job is as obvious as those you see in the NBA. I view this move as more of a tankette. You see, colloquially, a tankette is nothing more than a smaller version of a tank. I use this terminology because I don’t see this move as the boisterous wave of the white flag that we’re used to seeing in tanking.

For reasons I’ve mentioned, the move to Ehlinger offers an opportunity to reveal your future franchise QB, as opposed to opting out for the draft entirely. Even with that chance, the writing is on the wall. In my opinion, the only way Frank Reich remains the head coach after this season is if the Colts make a deep playoff run. Regardless, if Ehlinger looks to be the guy moving forward, and even if they miraculously make the playoffs, this team is ready for the future and that starts with a culture change at head coach.

The moral of the story is that history often repeats itself. That isn’t to say Sam Ehlinger will or will not be the guy moving forward, but there is certainly a flawed perception out there that journeymen or veterans at the QB position are a safer bet than drafting an unproven talent.

Seeing bust after bust in a draft causes people to fret when their team is in a position to land a top talent, but when their team brings in a proven, established player, expectations skyrocket. Even at times when there is a decade of film to refer to, that doesn’t mean that said film and play-style will seamlessly translate. Often, these veteran moves further the problem at hand, while interrupting the timeline for years to come.

The Indianapolis Colts are finally aiming to put a halt on the revolving door that has been the QB carousel of recent memory. The only question remains: are the Colts better off now after the QB change? I believe so.