INDIANAPOLIS – After a disappointing season that forced him to confront new and humbling realities, you might expect Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan to happily embrace the idea of retirement.
But even after being traded from the only team he’d ever known (the Atlanta Falcons), being benched twice in Indianapolis and receiving no assurances about his future, Ryan left the door to playing a 16th season.
“I still love playing,” Ryan said after the Colts’ 4-12-1 season ended. “I’m obviously not committed to anything. Got to see how it shakes out. But I still love playing and still feel like, honestly, there's a lot of good football [left]. So, we'll see.”
At the same time, Ryan is also a realist.
That seemed evident from his decision to join the CBS pregame studio crew prior to the divisional playoffs, a possible preview of a postcareer option that might be available to Ryan. He looked comfortable on the set, giving television executives something to think about should he elect to quit playing and assume the lucrative role of former-quarterback-turned-broadcaster.
Ryan, 37, is very good about holding things close to the vest, and that remains true when it comes to revealing his future intentions. But we know this much about Ryan’s next move: It does not appear to be imminent.
There are multiple reasons for this. The first, as Ryan indicated, is that he’s not yet clear on what he wishes to do.
But there’s another critical component that will inform what Ryan ultimately decides: The ball is actually in the Colts’ court.
"[Kyle Shanahan] does a great job of asking [Brock Purdy] to play within his skillset."@M_Ryan02 is impressed with his former offensive coordinator & his rising star QB in San Francisco. pic.twitter.com/nWTwHcZbwm— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) January 22, 2023
Because Ryan is under contract and is owed a significant sum of money this spring, the smart business move for him is to do exactly what he’s doing right now – nothing.
“I’m under contract, and until that changes, you kind of go to work,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s going to happen here in the next six, eight weeks, whatever it is. Let’s see.”
There’s a lot of complexity to Ryan’s contractual situation.
Since the Colts restructured his contract after executing the trade with Atlanta, Indianapolis pushed considerable guarantees into 2023. Already, $12 million of Ryan’s more than $29 million in 2023 compensation is guaranteed. It would behoove Ryan to remain under contract and let the Colts make the first move before making any decisions of his own. That would ensure he gets the money he’s owed. From a business perspective, retirement is the wrong move for Ryan -- unless and until the Colts decide to move on and release him first.
Releasing Ryan would provide the Colts with $17 million in cash and cap savings.
But the situation is not only complex from a contract perspective. There are other complicating factors for the Colts, like whether it makes some sense to retain Ryan as a backstop to a potential rookie quarterback.
The Colts have the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft and are widely expected to select one of the top quarterbacks available, a group that includes Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s CJ Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis. Whether current Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger could fill the role as a veteran to accompany the presumed rookie remains to be seen.
But the Colts, it seems, haven’t closed the door on Ryan.
His 2022 season was undoubtedly ugly. Ryan ranked 25th in QBR (43.1) and 28th in yards per attempt (6.6). He also threw 13 interceptions, sixth-most in the NFL. But when reflecting on Ryan’s play after the season, general manager Chris Ballard kept an open mind.
“[This season] is not an indictment on Matt Ryan,” Ballard said. “Matt Ryan is as professional a player that I’ve ever been around. I still think he’s got something left in his body to play. He’s smart, knows how to play the game.
“Looking back, early in the season we had some changes to the offensive line, and that’s where our struggles occurred early and we just never really recovered from them. It took us a while to get some continuity. I probably underestimated that.”
The Colts entered the season with high hopes for Ryan after his run in Atlanta, and like most, were shocked at how poorly it went. Asked what went wrong, one team source pointed to Ryan’s inability to trust his protection early in the season as a major factor.
But that individual also cited a miscalculation by the Colts in projecting how quickly Ryan would adapt to an offense that was markedly different from those in which he’d previously played. Ryan’s immediate predecessors – Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz – had spent multiple seasons with former Colts coach Frank Reich on previous teams, giving them a critical foundation that Ryan did not have.
Is there enough context to justify bringing Ryan back? We’ll see. But keep this in mind: If the Colts were to go on the open market and acquire a different veteran quarterback, they’d still be on the hook for at least $12 million with Ryan in addition to paying whatever their new quarterback commands.
But for now, the Colts have a coaching search to resolve before any other consequential decisions are made. And while the team hashes it all out, Ryan intends to keep his distance from football even while keeping the possibility of playing next season on the table.
“I think all of us,” he said, “need a little bit of a break.”