"The owner [Jim Irsay] was living in fairy-tale land for two decades with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck," a league executive told The Athletic's Mike Sando. "Then they had five different starters in five years, and it was, 'Welcome to the rest of the league, sucker.' ... Then Matt Ryan falls right into his lap. Unbelievable."
Irsay revealed the Colts didn't have a specific plan at quarterback. All they knew was they had to move on from Carson Wentz after last season's meltdown in the final game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which cost Indianapolis a playoff berth.
General manager Chris Ballard traded his former starter, along with 2022 second- and seventh-round picks, to the Washington Commanders for 2022 second- and third-round selections and a 2023 conditional third-rounder. In turn, Ballard sent this year's 82nd overall pick to the Falcons for Ryan after the veteran quarterback wanted to leave the franchise that drafted him 14 years earlier.
Ryan is clearly an upgrade, though he turns 37 next month. How long he can actually lead the Colts franchise remains in question.
"I think age has caught Matt Ryan," a different executive told Sando. "I had him with a big decline last year. Matt has had a phenomenal career, a great quarterback, but it wasn't like he was super big athletic or had a super strong arm. I see the skills declining a little bit quicker for him as a result. I think they could be looking at another quarterback in a year, and if they don't win, look out for Irsay."
Age should be a concern but not at the moment. Ryan helped lead the Falcons to seven wins last season despite the offense not having a consistent threat at wide receiver. Atlanta also had the 31st-ranked rushing attack (85.4 yards per game) and the 27th-ranked offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus. The defense finished 26th overall (364.4 yards allowed per game).
Despite those issues, the veteran signal-caller threw for almost 4,000 yards and posted his best completion percentage of the last three seasons.
Last year, an argument could have been made that Wentz entered the best possible situation to reignite a once-promising career. Obviously, the setup didn't work out.
"I wish Carson well. I think he has a chance to go into a different environment and play great in Washington," Irsay told reporters. "It's just, for us, it was something we had to move away from as a franchise. It was very obvious."
"You search for the right chemistry with any team," he said. "Football is as important as any sport that there is. If that chemistry is off, if it isn't there, it can be extremely detrimental and lower performance to a degree that is stunning and shocking."
The fact of the matter is that the Colts wanted to move on from Wentz. When an opportunity to acquire the four-time Pro Bowl selection and 2016 league MVP presented itself, Indianapolis pounced.
Apparently, the horseshoe on the team's helmet isn't just an iconic logo. The Colts got lucky once again.
"Damn right we did," general manager Chris Ballard admitted.
Irsay later told Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star: "I really feel strongly that Matt is what the franchise needs. I really think we have an opportunity, and he's young enough, to win a world championship with him. We feel like we have that capability."
Financially, the Colts are tied to Ryan through the 2023 campaign. Even when established veterans—who haven't take a significant beating over the years—experience a gradual decline with their physical tools, they can still be highly effective quarterbacks in a league geared toward the position.
Ryan may not be in the same tier as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Yet his calm presence in the pocket and his ability to consistently put the offense in the right play and know where to go with the ball based on pre- and post-snap reads is invaluable. Besides, declarations of Ryan's declining play may be a tad premature.
"I really didn't see any diminishing physical skills," head coach Frank Reich told reporters.
Reich should know. After all, he played 14 years in the league and retired—checks notes—after his age-37 season.
Ryan brings a proven veteran presence to the locker room. His leadership will be invaluable. But he's also entering a fantastic situation, with his surrounding cast dramatically better than anything he experienced in 2021.
The Colts ranked 13th in offensive DVOA last season despite the erratic Wentz under center, injuries across the offensive line—not a single projected starter made it through the season unscathed—and a suspect wide receiver corps.
However, the Colts feature the league's leading rusher in Jonathan Taylor, who should remain the focal point of the offense. The offensive line should be healthy, though reworked slightly with Matt Pryor and Danny Pinter taking over at left tackle and right guard, respectively. The Colts are also expected to draft a wide receiver with one of their top picks to add another weapon alongside Michael Pittman Jr., who's coming off his first 1,000-yard campaign.
Yes, Indy still has work to do. But the team has the league's fourth-most salary-cap space and the draft to help build an even better cockpit around Ryan. Taylor's presence alone will make a significant difference. Ryan's game hasn't been complemented by a 1,000-yard back since 2016 (when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl).
Reich also knows how to cater his system to whoever is under center. He explained:
"It starts with listening. Listen to the quarterback. Sit down and listen to what he likes, what has been successful at. Watch his tape. Get to know him—how he thinks, what he believes.
"The whole time you're sitting there listening and I know what we believe, I know what we've done well, and as he's talking I'm envisioning—that fits, that fits, I haven't thought about that, we can do that, that can fit here, that would be a little bit new, we have to think that through but maybe that works.
"And then probably somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of the offense is pretty similar and 10 to 20 percent of it is maybe a little bit nuanced or just a different point of emphasis."
Defensively, the Colts are talented too.
Last year's unit ranked eighth in DVOA. The group features All-Pro-caliber performers in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and linebacker Darius Leonard. Ballard also acquired defensive end Yannick Ngakoue in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders to add juice off the edge. The secondary still needs depth, but the unit should continue to perform well under new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
Nearly all of the pieces are in place for Ryan to succeed and for the Colts to claim a playoff spot while dethroning the Tennessee Titans as champions of the AFC South.