Since Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement during the 2019 preseason, the Indianapolis Colts have been salvaging every down-on-his-luck quarterback they find. During the 2020 season, they took a flier on Philip Rivers. Rivers became available in his 17th season and led the Colts to an 11-5 campaign, logging 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions along the way. In 2021, the Colts acquired Carson Wentz. Wentz was a bonafide success story until he flushed Indy’s postseason aspirations down the toilet in the final three weeks of the regular season.
On Monday, the Colts and Atlanta Falcons finalized a deal for Matt Ryan to Indianapolis in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick. Ryan’s final days as a Falcon were a mixed bag. He was disposed of after 14 years while being used as a pawn in Atlanta’s pursuit of Deshaun Watson, a less accomplished quarterback facing 22 civil cases. Every expectation was that Ryan would be returning for his 15th season until the Falcons found themselves in the running for Watson.
On the one hand, the interest in Ryan’s services illustrated his value even as Atlanta was willing to eat the highest dead cap charge in NFL history. Their $40.5 million dead cap charge eclipses the $33.8 million Philadelphia ate for trading Carson Wentz in 2021.
The Colts were reportedly Mayfield’s ideal destination, but apparently, the interest wasn’t reciprocated. However, the Watson saga encapsulated the difference between Ryan and Baker Mayfield. While Mayfield journaled on Twitter, Ryan quietly navigated his way to Indianapolis by pushing back his roster bonus date to Monday at 4 pm EST, giving Atlanta the weekend to shop him to a playoff squad.
Ryan’s exit was also appropo. After the scandal-ridden but rollercoaster ride that was the Mike Vick era. Ryan was a bore who never gave columnists anything to work with outside the lines. In Indianapolis, he finds his soulmate, a dull franchise that makes boring but pragmatic moves. Ryan won’t be the ignition for a high-octane offense.
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His best receiver will be Michael Pittman, possibly the slowest 1,000-yard receiver in the NFL. Their second-leading receiver in 2021 was Zach Pascal, who caught 38 passes for 384 yards. The Colts are the only team in the NFL whose top two receivers couldn’t eclipse a 4.5 40. Ryan’s safety valve will be running back Jonathan Taylor, who hauled in 51 catches for 360 yards last season. Running routes isn’t his strength though. Taylor led the league in rushing, with 552 yards more than any other back.
After operating behind one of the NFL’s soggiest offensive lines,Ryan will take snaps behind a monster offensive line that was considered the NFL’s second-best before the 2021 season began, according to Pro Football Focus. The Falcons dropped in at 24th and lived down to that billing.
He may also have an offense geared to his strengths. Ryan thrived under Kyle Shanahan in 2016 when they led the NFL in play-action usage (27 percent). Ryan’s yards per attempt off play-action ranked first among quarterbacks in 2016 while his passer rating was fourth.
Arthur Smith was brought in from Tennessee to implement play action into the Falcons offense. In Smith’s final season as the Tennessee offensive coordinator, Ryan Tannehill faked handoffs on 32 percent of pass plays, but you need an effective rushing attack for play-action and bootlegs to work. For each of the last five seasons since their Super Bowl crescendo, Ryan handed the ball off to a different running back who rushed for fewer than 1000 yards. Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley’s degenerative knee, and Cordarelle Patterson in a gadget role couldn’t establish a rushing attack for defenses to even consider biting on play-action. Conversely, Indianapolis used play-action 31 percent of the time in 2021, the third-highest rate in the NFL.
In the AFC South, he becomes the best quarterback in the division, including Mike Tannehill, Trevor Lawrence, and Davis Mills. In Indianapolis, Matt Ryan will be attempting to revitalize a career that’s stalled since he came one quarter away from being Super Bowl winner and stamping his Hall of Fame entry. Yet, since the start of the 2016 season, Ryan has led the NFL in passing yards (26,978) and is fifth in touchdown passes (165) according to ESPN Stats and Info. Compared to Matt Stafford, he stacks up incredibly favorably.
Rivers is a borderline Hall of Famer and Stafford’s Super Bowl upgraded his road to the Hall of Fame, but Ryan’s accomplishments are usually glossed over. Ryan has thrown 39 fewer interceptions than Rivers and 54 fewer touchdowns in three fewer seasons. He’s 265 yards from joining the 60,000 yards club and one or two seasons from eclipsing Dan Marino in passing yardage.
Ryan never inspired the same level of devotion from the Falcons fan base as his peers Stafford and Rivers did. Two NFC Championship Games, one Super Bowl, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, and an NFL MVP all gave way to disappointment about Super Bowl LI.
However, if Frank Reich was capable of reanimating Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers in consecutive seasons, Ryan may be in for a fruitful third act.