Imagine a world in which Andrew Luck never retired. You're probably seeing the Indianapolis Colts appear in at least one Super Bowl.
Luck shockingly retired just before the 2019 season. He didn't owe anyone anything and he seems content with his decision, rarely appearing in public since then. Nobody should ever blame him for walking away. But the Colts are still trying to figure things out in the aftermath (which was so big, The Athletic just produced a podcast series on his career and retirement). It was a moment that changed the franchise's history. The trajectory was clearly pointing up at the time.
The Colts have a fantastic roster and are still cycling through quarterbacks in their post-Luck world. Matt Ryan will be their fourth starting quarterback in four seasons since Luck retired. Jacoby Brissett took over for Luck, Philip Rivers got the Colts to the playoffs, Carson Wentz almost got the Colts to the playoffs before they fell short and the team unceremoniously booted him out, and now Ryan is the latest reclamation project.
This is not how NFL teams want to live, finding quarterbacks in their 30s and praying they have one more good year left in them. The Colts keep hoping to put off the long-term answer for another day because the roster is too good to start over (and too good to get a top-five pick to land a great QB prospect in the draft). Luck's retirement has set the Colts back for three seasons, going on four, with no end to the carousel in sight. That's not blaming Luck for retiring. But it is the truth.
The Colts have done as well as possible with their stopgap quarterbacks — they could have turned into the 2016-21 Denver Broncos, after all — and Ryan isn't a terrible option.
Ryan is coming off a bad season with the Atlanta Falcons, but he had a terrible offensive line, almost no running game to help and his No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley played just five games. Ryan might be in severe decline at age 37, but it's fair to give him a pass for last season. He has a much better team around him this time. He was a good quarterback for most of his 14 seasons with the Falcons. Maybe this can work out, at least for a year or two.
The Colts clearly blamed Wentz's mistakes for not making the playoffs. They had an inexplicable season-ending loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when all they needed to do was win as a 15.5-point favorite to secure a wild-card spot. They not only lost, they were never in the game. The Colts lost 26-11.
"We go into a game, this team [Jacksonville] is 2-14, not taking anything away from them, but how do we expect to win or want to get in [the playoffs] if we can't even beat the team we were supposed to beat?" linebacker Darius Leonard, one of the league's best at his position, told ESPN after the game.
Wentz was the scapegoat. The team refused to endorse him after the season and traded him to the Washington Commanders without a backup plan in place. Ryan became available after the Falcons started pursuing Deshaun Watson. The Colts gambled and ended up with a viable option at quarterback.
Ryan probably isn't ever recapturing his MVP level from 2016, but he doesn't have to. The Colts have Jonathan Taylor, the reigning rushing champion, running behind a good offensive line. Michael Pittman Jr. emerged as a viable No. 1 receiver last season. The defense is underrated, though losing defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to the Chicago Bears' head-coaching job hurts. It's a good organization under GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich. In an alternate universe, the Colts are the No. 1 team in these rankings with superstar Luck guiding them.
Then you remember they're patching holes at quarterback. Had Luck kept playing and continued on his career path, the Colts might be the Super Bowl favorites or close to it. They might have won a Lombardi Trophy already with him.
Maybe Ryan can lead the Colts there. More than likely, the Colts will come up short and keep wondering what might have been.
On March 9, the Colts traded Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders and got a pretty good return. Indianapolis got a 2022 second-round pick, 2022 third-round pick and a conditional 2023 third-round pick, shipping a 2022 second-round pick and a 2022 seventh-round pick back to Washington along with Wentz. The conditional 2023 third turns into a second if Wentz plays 70 percent of the snaps in 2022. On March 21, after a little less than two weeks of concern over who exactly would quarterback the Colts, they traded a third-round pick for Matt Ryan. That's a likely upgrade at quarterback, and the Colts stocked up on some extra picks as a bonus. That's how a good organization operates. The Colts traded cornerback Rock Ya-Sin to the Las Vegas Raiders for pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue won't help against the run, but he can get after the quarterback. That was a big need. In free agency the Colts landed cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who had an injury-filled 2021 and will be 32 years old this season but is still a capable player. They also signed cornerback Brandon Facyson on a one-year deal. That makes up for trading Ya-Sin. The Colts lost guard Mark Glowinski, and that hurts the offensive line, which took a step back last season. The draft was solid, with four day-two picks: WR Alec Pierce, TE Jelani Woods, OT Bernhard Raimann and S Nick Cross. All could play big roles right away.
The Colts just want a quarterback who won't wreck them at exactly the wrong time with a turnover. Matt Ryan should be better than Carson Wentz in that area, though he does have 37 interceptions the past three seasons. You might be able to blame that on a bad environment around him. He was under pressure way too often with the Falcons last season and his play fell apart against the pass rush. The Colts' line is better suited to run block, and they did struggle some in pass protection. But it's still better than what Ryan is used to.
The Colts' win total at BetMGM is 9.5 and the over is -160 odds. Rather than bet the over, I'll take the Colts at -110 to win the AFC South. I'll be fading the Tennessee Titans a bit this season, the Jacksonville Jaguars probably aren't ready to make a move and the Houston Texans are a non-factor. The Colts should have enough to win the division, as long as Matt Ryan is average.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "There is a buzzy element to Michael Pittman’s ADP this year, and he won’t be cheap in many rooms. He’s currently being drafted as the 13th receiver off the board in Yahoo leagues. That said, Pittman was WR16 last year despite the deteriorating play of Carson Wentz, and the Colts should be more balanced with new quarterback Matt Ryan. Keep in mind, Indianapolis merely ranked 27th in pass attempts and 26th in passing yardage last year. In the final weeks of the season, they turned Wentz into a game manager.
"Even if Pittman simply approaches last year’s production, he should justify his his draft cost. But if Ryan is the notable upgrade many expect, Pittman becomes a potential home-run pick as he enters that breakout-friendly third NFL season."
Jonathan Taylor had a dominant 2021 season and there are plenty of stats to prove it. Taylor became the youngest player ever to have 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. He tied an NFL record with eight straight games with 100 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. He set Colts records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a season. This is perhaps the most impressive stat: Taylor had 1,272 yards after contact last season, according to Pro Football Focus. His yards after contact alone would have led the NFL in rushing; Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns had 1,259 rushing yards to finish in second place of the NFL rushing race, 552 yards behind Taylor. As Taylor enters his third season, he's one of the true difference-making backs in the NFL.
Will the Colts' receivers let the offense down?
The Colts are a run-first team, which makes sense when you have Jonathan Taylor. But you need to pass it well to win in the NFL, and the Colts don't have a great passing offense. Part of that was due to the quarterback. The receivers are a question mark too. Michael Pittman Jr. had a nice second season, gaining 1,082 yards. He's about the only bankable asset Matt Ryan has to throw to. Second-round pick Alec Pierce could start at the other outside receiver spot, but he's a rookie. Maybe T.Y. Hilton eventually re-signs. Perhaps Parris Campbell stays healthy. At tight end, Mo Alie-Cox or rookie Jelani Woods might help out. But aside from Pittman, who is good but not a Davante Adams or Tyreek Hill who can carry a receiving corps by himself, there are a lot of question marks.
I was way too high on the Colts before last season, figuring Carson Wentz could resurrect his career with Frank Reich. That didn't happen. But I still like the roster as a whole and the coaching staff as well. Matt Ryan worries me a bit — we can't blame all his 2021 struggles on a bad Falcons team around him — but he's still an upgrade. I think the Colts will win the AFC South and if everything breaks right they could be in the mix for the AFC's No. 1 seed. They have the third-easiest schedule in the NFL according to analyst Warren Sharp, who uses win totals to project schedule strength. They could pile up wins while teams from the AFC West and AFC North beat each other up. And if you get the No. 1 seed, well, you're two home wins away from the Super Bowl. Let's just move on to the next section before I repeat last year's mistake.
Let's say Jonathan Taylor gets hurt. He's durable, but he's also a running back. The Colts offense could fall apart without him. He's that good. Phillip Lindsay, signed in the offseason, is capable but he's not carrying an offense. A 37-year-old Matt Ryan might not carry an offense either. Even if Taylor plays all season, it's possible Ryan was letting us know last season that he's washed up and that will show again in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis defense also could miss last season's coordinator Matt Eberflus. The Colts were 9-8 last season, missing the playoffs in an embarrassing way, and there's no guarantee Ryan will be better than Carson Wentz. Maybe it'll just be another mediocre season for Indianapolis.
Matt Ryan seems like the type of quarterback who can be a high-end game manager on a good team. At 37 years old, that's all you can really expect unless your QB is Tom Brady. That would be enough for the Colts. If Ryan can make an occasional play, avoid turnovers and capably hand off to Jonathan Taylor, the Colts will win the AFC South. I can see them winning a game or two in the playoffs too; they seem built for a postseason run. I'll stop short of last year's optimism and just say that they'll win their division, with Taylor winning NFL offensive player of the year, but they will probably never look like a Super Bowl contender.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
13. Philadelphia Eagles
12. San Francisco 49ers
11. Denver Broncos
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. New England Patriots
8. Los Angeles Chargers
7. Baltimore Ravens
6. Green Bay Packers
5. Dallas Cowboys
4. Kansas City Chiefs