Sam Ehlinger faked the handoff and dropped back.
The Indianapolis Colts quarterback scrambled left to escape a collapsing pocket, keeping the ball tight and his eyes downfield. Then — while still in motion — he unleashed a spiral deep into the arms of receiver Dezmon Patmon. Patmon somersaulted into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown.
Colts 20, Detroit Lions 20. The preseason game deficit temporarily evaporated.
Around Lucas Oil Stadium, during this Aug. 20 game, some in the Colts organization saw what training camp practices had begun to indicate: His arm is now good enough to operate an entire offense.
This week, as the Colts host the Washington Commanders, Ehlinger has a chance in his first NFL start to prove it.
The 2021 sixth-round draft pick’s opportunity, in some ways, came suddenly: Four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan was benched just seven games into what appeared to be a multiyear stint as the Colts’ starter. Ryan had struggled — 9 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, 11 fumbles with 3 lost – but so had the league’s third-worst rushing attack (81 yards per game) and third-worst pass blocking unit (46% success rate, per ESPN Analytics). Even head coach Frank Reich seemed jarred when he told Ryan: “We did not hold up to our end of the bargain.”
Nonetheless, the Colts are hoping Ehlinger’s demonstrated mobility will compensate for shaky protection and threaten defenses sufficiently to create opportunities for the NFL’s defending rushing champion, Jonathan Taylor.
Fans can look forward to “a young quarterback who has an exciting style of play,” Ehlinger said.
“Being smart with the ball, getting it out on time, limiting the mistakes and playing to our strengths.
“Doing everything we can to move the ball.”
How can Ehlinger move the ball? The answer, those close to him say, has evolved since he was drafted.
How Sam Ehlinger marries the pass with the run
Declaring for the draft out of Texas, Ehlinger’s toughness was fairly established.
He’d racked up 11,000 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards for the Longhorns, just the second Power Five college player to achieve the mark. He had punched in 33 rushing touchdowns in addition to his 94 passing scores.
“It would be fair to frame it that nobody would bet against Sam the competitor and the person making it,” one NFL talent evaluator who scouted Ehlinger told Yahoo Sports. “But there was probably a split in the evaluations whether the arm talent would be enough.”
Ehlinger and those close to him didn’t dismiss that area for growth. They confronted it.
Ehlinger began working with Bobby Stroupe, whose player performance clients include Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, in December 2020. Stroupe’s assessment: Struggles with accuracy and deep accuracy stemmed not from a dearth of power but from inefficiency in throwing motion and consistency.
“His throwing motion was so long it made it look like he didn’t have arm strength,” Stroupe told Yahoo Sports. “What he had is a technical proficiency problem.”
They targeted a redistribution of Ehlinger’s upper body weight to better align with the NFL game. They began working on Ehlinger’s upper-body flexibility and acceleration in curvilinear movements to accentuate Ehlinger’s athleticism. The more Ehlinger could marry his scramble with throwing precision, the more he could spread the field while also frustrating defenders tasked with displacing his running back-sturdy frame.
This past offseason, Ehlinger also began working with former MLB pitcher and NFL/MLB throwing coach Tom House, whose clientele has included Drew Brees and Tom Brady. House assessed Ehlinger’s point-in-time capacities versus his projected capacities to determine that there remained a disconnect between how Ehlinger could be throwing and how he actually was. House and his 3DQB training colleagues outlined a series of routines to bridge the gap. By training camp, Reich was crediting those “few changes mechanically” as “showing up in accuracy.”
Could that close the deal on a quarterback with Ehlinger’s mobility compared to the more traditional pocket presence of Ryan, who also has also trained with 3DQB?
“In today’s game, there are throwers who can run the ball and running quarterbacks who can throw the ball, but very few who can do both,” House told Yahoo Sports. “Sam is one of those guys who can do both. He’s built like a linebacker and has got the mentality of a linebacker with the makeup of a quarterback, which is a great combination.
“If he can stay efficient with his throwing mechanics and continue to make plays when pockets break down or he’s actually called on to run the ball? If he can handle the abuse that a running quarterback takes? Then they might have something special.”
‘Made for moments like this’
Like many quarterback changes at the NFL level, Ehlinger’s opportunity doesn’t arrive amid ideal team circumstances. But this is hardly the first or worst time he has needed to rise to the occasion and assume responsibility unexpectedly.
Ehlinger was 14 years old when his father Ross died of apparent heart failure during the swim portion of the Escape to Alcatraz Triathlon.
“I just naturally had to step up and be a leader in my house,” Ehlinger said. “I had to be the man of the house and I wasn’t even a man yet.”
The Ehlinger family again found themselves supporting each other through tragedy when Sam’s younger brother, Jake, died at 20 years old — five days after Sam had been drafted.
Nearly 18 months have elapsed since then, and the responsibility that accompanies Ehlinger’s sudden on-field duties can’t compare. But sources of Ehlinger’s personal strength do contextualize the poise coaches and teammates cite as he prepares for his professional debut.
Ehlinger enters Sunday’s game against Washington after more time with the Colts' playbook than Ryan or backup Nick Foles has, members of the Colts' staff believing in his ability to make the right checks to help protection. The organization hopes to capitalize on how unpredictability and unscouted looks will challenge the Commanders. Will Ehlinger move the pocket, rolling out? Will he take off, or attempt a QB sneak on fourth-and-short? The more dynamic Ehlinger can be, the more defenses must redirect attention from Taylor. Empowering playmakers and avoiding turnovers will be key.
“Sometimes in a game it’s those one or two conversions on a scramble that can make the difference,” Reich said. “I believe he can be good in the pocket, so we can stay true to some of the stuff we like. But we can do a little bit more in some of the movement.”
For Ehlinger’s first game, that might be enough.
“Is he going to go in and be the offensive player of the week? I’m not saying that,” Reich said.
“Will he have some growing pains? Absolutely he’ll have some growing pains. But I can tell you this for sure: There is nobody waving the white flag.
“It’s a big step, but we think he’s ready. And this guy is special.
“He is made for moments like this.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein