The Indianapolis Colts have looked directionless ever since Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement before the 2019 season. And now, they’ve finally fallen off a cliff.
In three consecutive weeks, the Colts have benched veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, the team’s fourth attempt in as many years to replace Luck; fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady; and replaced head coach Frank Reich with former Colts center and ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday.
With the team sitting at 3-5-1 with a bottom-five offense, general manager Chris Ballard could be next after failing to keep the team’s playoff aspirations afloat in a post-Luck world.
Ballard trusted that the roster he constructed since taking over in 2017 could withstand the volatility at quarterback, especially with Reich fresh off winning a Super Bowl as the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator. And for a while, it did. The Colts went 30-27-1 and finished second in the AFC South three times despite starting four different Week 1 quarterbacks over the past four seasons. Philip Rivers even took them to the playoffs in the 2020 season.
That foundation finally crumbled in 2022 with Ryan under center.
Plenty went wrong for the Colts this year, mostly on offense. The 37-year-old Ryan looked like a shell of his former self for most of the season and still leads the league in turnovers with 12. The offensive line regressed mightily as well with a league-high 35 sacks allowed, and the Colts' rushing attack fell from a top-five unit in 2021 to a bottom-five one in 2022.
Some of this can be attributed to Ballard’s attempt to maintain competency under center after being blinded by Rivers’ playoff season in 2020. The Colts finished with a top-10 offense and defense that year with mostly the same roster as the 7-9 squad from the year before, except that 2020 team also had emerging rookies in running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Michael Pittman.
This is where the problems really emerged. After Rivers retired in 2020, Ballard tried to recapture the glory of the previous season by reuniting Reich with Carson Wentz. Ballard spent a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 first for the former Eagles quarterback, and that move failed spectacularly. Then, Ballard traded a 2022 third-rounder for Ryan. We already know how that story ended, too.
In all, no team has spent more in salary cap dollars on quarterbacks since 2019 than the Colts' $133 million, per OverTheCap.com.
They also left the cupboard pretty bare in the draft capital department, too, even after the Colts recouped some lost assets by shipping Wentz to the Washington Commanders. The Colts’ past two draft classes have not impressed, save for 2021 first-round pass rusher Kwity Paye and 2022 second-round wideout Alec Pierce. Good quarterback play can typically cover up glaring weaknesses on a team, but neither Wentz nor Ryan have been able to do that in the past two seasons.
Ballard’s decision is perhaps the biggest failure in one of the NFL’s hottest trends of acquiring a veteran quarterback instead of drafting one. The past four years have proven there is a huge risk involved in desperately trying to keep a team relevant rather than completely rebuild. This is even the case despite the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ and Los Angeles Rams' ability to win the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons the same year they acquired Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford, respectively. But even those two teams are staring at bad seasons only a year or two after their Super Bowl runs.
The Colts are a different story, though. They looked like a team built on a bedrock of a stable offensive line, power running and good defense. None of that is coming to fruition this year, and now the team has a massive hole at quarterback as it hurtles toward its fifth offseason since losing Luck to retirement.
This offseason will be pivotal for the franchise. The Colts have a good shot at landing one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft if they keep up their current downward trajectory. But the enticing allure of a quick fix at quarterback remains a possibility for a franchise that simply can’t step out of the shadow of Luck.