The Indianapolis Colts are a mere half-game out of first place in the AFC South, but the seats are warming on head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard.
The Colts benched Matt Ryan, much to the surprise of a Colts team that clearly recognizes he's the better quarterback option when healthy. Indianapolis is turning to second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger, and the move is widely considered around the league to be owner-influenced.
Jim Irsay hasn't hidden his discontent dating back to the end of last season when the Colts saw their playoff dreams dashed in the final two weeks of the season. Since the start of the 2015 season, the Colts have been to the playoffs twice and have not won what is considered to be the weakest division in football on a regular basis.
"I'm concerned for them," one AFC executive said of the Colts brass. "They're already being questioned about how they evaluate quarterbacks, and if [Ehlinger] comes in there and doesn't play well, it'll reflect poorly."
Andrew Luck retired in 2019 and the Colts haven't been able to figure out the position since. They were forced to hastily trade for Jacoby Brissett. Philip Rivers lasted just one year. They sent a first-round pick and more to Philadelphia for Carson Wentz and Irsay could barely stand to look at the man after Week 18.
They traded for Matt Ryan thinking he'd be the missing piece to a playoff run. He was benched by Halloween.
When asked earlier this week if he could believe what the Colts did at quarterback, one source responded rhetorically: "You mean what the owner did?"
Ehlinger will be able to provide a more mobile presence behind what's been one of the most disappointing groups in all of football: The Colts' offensive line. It's the highest-paid line in all of football, and it helped get Ryan benched this past week.
The fact that the highly paid group is performing poorly is part of a larger issue. Many of the players getting paid the most are the ones playing under expectation. Ryan ($18.7M cap hit) is benched, Quenton Nelson ($10.2M) and Ryan Kelly ($9.8M) and Braden Smith ($11.6M) are part of that line, Shaquille Leonard ($11.2M) has unfortunately been injured the majority of the season.
But Ryan's contract is the one to pay attention to. Already the Colts will have to pay Ryan $12 million of his base salary in 2023. If he sustains an injury this season that won't allow him to pass a physical by mid-March, more than $17 million more will be guaranteed for 2023.
It's strongly believed those injury guarantees are the reason the Colts are sitting Ryan, who already has a Grade 2 shoulder separation.
"You should never let the contract dictate what you're going to do on the field," a rival AFC exec said. "Once you do that, you can't win like that."