INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts thought Matt Ryan would help them make a playoff run, maybe even win a championship.
Instead, the bruised-and-battered 15-year veteran, who spent 14 of those seasons with the Falcons, is getting benched.
Coach Frank Reich announced Monday that second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger will make his starting debut Sunday against the Commanders.
“Right now, the move is for Sam to be the starter the rest of the season,” Reich said. “It’s a big step, but we think he’s ready. This guy’s special. You all know it; everybody knows it. Just talk to anybody in that locker room.”
The move comes one day after a 19-10 loss at Tennessee left Indy 1 ½ games behind the Titans in the AFC South. Ryan threw two interceptions and was sacked three times, the first apparently resulting in a separated throwing shoulder late in the first half.
He was 18-of-21 passing with 123 yards and one touchdown in the second half but couldn’t complete his fourth fourth-quarter comeback this season. Even if Ryan wasn’t hurt, Reich said, the decision would have been the same.
“The shoulder injury is real, but this move was going to be made either way,” he said.
Ryan did not speak with reporters Monday. He is usually available on Wednesdays.
Indy (3-3-1) sent a 2022 third-round draft pick to Atlanta for the 37-year-old Ryan in March.
General manager Chris Ballard thought Ryan was playing well as recently as last season. In April, team owner Jim Irsay said he thought Ryan could make the Colts a contender for up to four more years.
But this season has not gone the way many anticipated.
Ryan has thrown nine interceptions and has 11 fumbles, both league highs.
The Colts’ usually strong offensive line has struggled, allowing 59 hits and 24 sacks — tied with Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow for the most in the NFL entering Monday.
And with Indy’s traditionally strong ground game becoming ineffective, Ryan has thrown more passes (297) than anyone other than Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (308).
The combination has made Indy the NFL’s fourth-lowest scoring team (16.1 points) and in need of a change.
“Excited for Sam and the opportunity this presents him,” Reich said. “We’ve always thought Sam had some special sauce. We feel this is the best decision for our team.”
Ehlinger’s surprising ascent on the depth chart has come rapidly.
The former Texas star was a sixth-round pick in 2021 but opened his rookie season on injured reserve because of an injured knee. In October that season, he beat out Jacob Eason for the No. 3 job and wound up appearing in three games, though Ehlinger did not throw a pass.
An impressive second exhibition season had some openly wondering whether the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Ehlinger may supplant Super Bowl 52 MVP Nick Foles, a longtime friend of Reich’s, at No. 2.
Reich made that move before the Week 6 victory over Jacksonville and kept Ehlinger in the backup spot Sunday.
Ehlinger thought the move was made primarily for using him for a few plays.
“We haven’t discussed a package this week, so I don’t know what the plan for that is,” Ehlinger said last Wednesday. “Last week, there were a few situations we talked about. Obviously, didn’t end up running any of them.”
Another good week of practice continued to turn heads inside the organization, and when Ryan struggled again Sunday, Reich, Irsay and Ballard huddled again to debate the move.
Reich said he told the quarterbacks and their teammates Monday and that Ryan responded like a pro, promising to help the Colts. The hope is Ehlinger’s mobility can help him evade pass rushers, make plays down the field and make plays with his legs.
“I think it’s a great decision for us to have Sam back there, the way he’s come along and made plays,” defensive tackle Grover Stewart said. “I think it’s a good decision for us.”
Ehlinger will be the seventh different starting quarterback Reich has used in his five-year tenure with the Colts.
Ryan ranks among the NFL’s top 10 all time in yards passing, career completions and fourth-quarter comebacks, a late-game mastery that earned praise from Reich just last week.
And with another year left on Ryan’s contract, potentially costing the Colts $21.7 million in 2023, Ryan may no longer be part of Indy’s long-term plan, either.
“I told this to Matt, ‘We did not hold up our end of the bargain here. I mean, you came here and we promised you one of the top NFL rushing games and we promised you great protection, and we haven’t really, as an offense, delivered on that, and that starts with me,’” Reich said. “We thought the marriage of Matt Ryan and his history with our running game, we just thought there was going to be a natural marriage.”