After Sam Ehlinger's starting debut, Colts want to see more

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts on Sunday deployed their sixth different starting quarterback since Andrew Luck’s retirement in August 2019.

Unsurprisingly, after one game with Sam Ehlinger as their starting quarterback, the Colts have not resolved all their quarterback questions. This problem, now four seasons in the making, won't be solved overnight.

In the end, the Colts lost a 17-16 contest to the Washington Commanders. Their offense produced 17 or fewer points for the fifth time in eight games. The Colts had a negative turnover margin for the fifth time this season (going 0-4-1 in those games). And for the fourth time in 2022, the Colts scored one touchdown or fewer in a game.

That’s about as bad as it gets for a modern-day offense.

No, Ehlinger didn’t reverse all the negative offensive trends the Colts have established this season. But here is what he achieved on Sunday: He left the Colts wanting to at least see more.

Decades of history suggest that the 2021 sixth-round selection will not prove to be the Colts’ long-term solution at quarterback. But after being promoted to starter last week over an accomplished veteran like Matt Ryan, Ehlinger looked like he belonged under center against Washington.

Granted, the Colts employed a very different offensive attack with Ehlinger at quarterback. After they attempted an average of 42.4 passes per game with Ryan through the first seven games, Ehlinger attempted just 23 on Sunday. But he was efficient with those attempts, throwing for 201 yards on 17-of-23 passing. He didn’t muster a touchdown pass, but he didn’t throw any interceptions, either.

Is Ehlinger the answer? Who knows? But after one week, the Colts don’t know that he’s not, either.

“No disrespect to Matt because I thought he had some good moments,” coach Frank Reich said. “But I thought Sam looked good. He looked really poised. He threw it well. I thought he played well.”

Reich, the Colts' playcaller, called a very cautious game but gradually became more aggressive during the course of the day as Ehlinger settled in. But mostly, there were moments when it was obvious the coaching staff took a very specific approach given that it was playing with a second-year quarterback who had not previously thrown a pass in a regular-season game.

Case in point: On the first play of the second quarter, the Colts called an inside run with running back Nyheim Hines, right into the teeth of Washington’s physical defensive line. It gained 2 yards. That decision stated quite clearly the Colts had no intention of earning a first down considering it was a third-and-15 scenario.

Eventually, Ehlinger showed he had earned the right to take greater liberties and made good on those opportunities. First, he hit Alec Pierce with an impressive deep ball for 47 yards. He pushed another ball down the field in the fourth quarter, resulting in a 30-yard pass-interference call drawn by receiver Parris Campbell.

To be clear, Ehlinger can’t fix the Colts’ broken offensive line (even if he is more mobile and therefore can escape pressure better than Ryan). Sunday confirmed this fact. He also can’t fix the underwhelming running game (Jonathan Taylor’s aggravation of an ankle injury didn’t help, either).

Still, the Colts are telling themselves something about this game felt different. Time will tell if that was mere emotion from a new starter or something more tangible.

“I know we didn't gain, like, a thousand yards or anything like that,” Reich said, “but I felt today we could find a rhythm with what we have out there. I felt today that we can put something together and continue to get better.”

For his part, Ehlinger sounded all the right notes after the game. A four-year starter at Texas, he is extremely polished in the off-the-field aspects of being a quarterback -- like handling media.

“How do you know you’re ready?” he said. “You never know if you’re ready until you’re put in the situation. My goal now is just to improve every week. I understand that it wasn’t good enough, and there's a lot of things to clean up. Just keep improving every single week.”

Can Ehlinger improve enough to permanently change the Colts’ plans at quarterback? It’s way too early to say. But after one start, he’s at least earned the right to keep trying.