A second act found in 4 days: How Matt Ryan ended up with the Colts

Nate Atkins
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS -- Matt Ryan took the news conference stage in Indianapolis wearing a navy blue suit in front of a horseshoe backdrop. The four-time Pro Bowler spoke of how he grew up wanting to be just like Peyton Manning and how he could feel his presence on his first day on the job.

Then he held up a No. 2 Colts jersey as the cameras clicked.

In just a few weeks, he and this franchise have come further than they ever could have imagined.

A different quarterback wore that jersey when the month began. It belonged to Carson Wentz, a quarterback the franchise turned to because coach Frank Reich believed in him but who never fit the presence, the talk, the walk and the play of the men who played before him. Despite having traded a first-round pick for him a year ago, the Colts were ready to move on. They had no idea to whom.

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Ryan was enjoying his 15th offseason with the only NFL franchise he'd ever known. He'd started 232 games for the Falcons since they drafted him in 2008. Despite recent down seasons, they gave no indication to him or anyone else that they were ready to say goodbye. And so neither was he.

But a match lit somewhere in the transfer of energy. Both were slipping away -- Indianapolis from the security it once held at the game's most critical position, Ryan from that position as the one and only quarterback his team wanted to build around.

The match hit a puddle of gasoline last week, when embattled Texans star quarterback Deshaun Watson reached out to the Falcons to talk about a trade. They then decided to roll out the red carpet for a 26-year-old with 22 unsettled civil cases alleging sexual misconduct. They made a blockbuster trade offer the Texans approved and then recruited local rappers Lil Baby and Quavo to help them win Watson's blessing.

New Indianapolis Colts QB Matt Ryan takes questions during a press conference on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center in Indianapolis.

For the first time, the Falcons had to tell Ryan that they liked another quarterback more than him. Then they told him who it was.

"I didn’t like everything I heard, but you don’t always like what you hear sometimes," Ryan said. "They were professional and handled it really well.

I knew at some point, I was going to need to make a decision on whether or not I wanted to stay."

Watson ended up shocking the Falcons and many of those watching by choosing the Browns, a team he had reportedly eliminated from contention. Seemingly, that took Atlanta out of the quarterback market.

The Colts had been prepping on Ryan, deciding how much to go in on this option after failing to fall in love with any of the others. They'd reportedly talked with the 49ers about a recovering Jimmy Garoppolo and with free agents Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, but none had become Plan A. Due to a lack of assets and other factors, they'd never had a shot at Russell Wilson or Watson.

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They didn't think they had a lane for Ryan either until Watson decided to blow one open. Once inside, they saw a player in Ryan who, at 36 years old, still had the physical tools that made him a four-time Pro Bowler and the 2016 NFL MVP. They knew his reputation as a competitive but gracious leader who took over as a Falcons quarterback in the aftermath of Michael Vick's dogfighting sentence and held tight through three coaches and 14 seasons.

He wasn't Wentz, a 6-foot-4-inch bull in a china shop who lost the ability to reign himself in. Ryan was something more static and believable than that.

In him, the Colts saw flashes of Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers, the ghosts of franchise quarterback past:

“Ultimately, it’s the most scrutinized position in sports," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. "You’re playing a position where you’re trying to make accurate throws with people trying to actually hurt you. Then, the scrutiny that comes into play week to week.

"So, handling the ups and downs of it and staying the steady course, there’s so much that goes into it."

The Watson decision blindsided the Colts along with everyone else. When they regained their senses, they were still fixated on Ryan.

Ryan hadn't moved on either.

"Ultimately, it came down to a decision between staying in Atlanta or coming to Indianapolis," Ryan said. "As I looked into it I knew there was only one spot I wanted to go."

When Watson chose the Browns, it shrunk the list of potential quarterback destinations to the Colts, Seahawks, Panthers and Saints. The latter two were NFC South teams, meaning the Falcons wouldn't do business with them. The Seahawks were in a rebuild after Wilson forced his way out.

Matt Ryan spent 14 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, where he threw for 367 touchdowns and nearly 60,000 yards.

The Colts were long a misfit toy, armed with cap space and stable leadership and stars in their prime with one quarterback position hamstringing it all. They believed they were far better than the implosion against the Jaguars that ended their season at 9-8, but without a man everyone believed in at quarterback, it was getting harder to be sure.

The absence of the franchise's identity had begun to feel like a curse.

"I'd like to quit band-aiding it," Ballard said. "Sometimes it doesn't work out that way, man. I can dream about it and wish about it and do everything I can to figure out the solution, but you do the best you can do at the time."

Ryan was not a perfect solution; the league didn't have one left. He was a 36-year-old who had yet to win a Super Bowl. He wasn't some portal back to a 29-year-old Andrew Luck, when time felt limitless.

But he was a realistic solution, hardened by the experiences that broke their last option. He tugged at a bygone era of Colts quarterbacking, to men who displayed consistency, intellect, bravery and belief.

Back when agonizing questions didn't exist.

Sometimes, the heart wants what it wants. So as Atlanta went back to its high trade demands for Ryan, the Colts set up a Saturday night meeting to see how Ryan felt.

In a Zoom chat room, the Colts had Ballard, coach Frank Reich, offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier. Ryan joined from the upstairs of his Atlanta home.

Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have worked together since 2018 and have had four starting quarterbacks in those four seasons.

The Colts pitched him on their roster, which he'd been studying. They had cornerstone players they wanted to keep around in Pro Bowlers running back Jonathan Taylor, guard Quenton Nelson, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, linebacker Darius Leonard and cornerback Kenny Moore II.

They needed a quarterback to lead them out of purgatory.

Ryan was intrigued, but he also wore his stress on his face. He was one of the few NFL veterans who had never been made a transaction. He'd been a starter with the same team since 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected President and when Andrew Luck arrived on campus at Stanford.

Reich empathized. He played 14 years as an NFL quarterback, the same number as Ryan. Reich spent nine seasons in Buffalo before he had to say goodbye, but he was a backup. He didn't get the choice Ryan has now.

Ryan's wife, Sarah, has been by his side these 14 years and jokes that he thinks of the NFL like it's 2010. It was time to at least watch what was happening with Brady and Wilson and Watson and Stafford and the realities they created for themselves.

"Everything changes," Ryan said. "Times evolve."

Reich represented a piece of that evolution. In 2017, he was the offensive coordinator of the Eagles, who hosted the Falcons in the divisional playoffs. Reich's team won, and he went on to win the Super Bowl and was rewarded with a chance to coach Luck and the Colts.

That was Ryan's final playoff game with the Falcons.

But here was Reich, asking him to be his fifth quarterback in five seasons since Luck shockingly retired in 2018.

Ryan said he needed to think it over. He came downstairs and Sarah noticed a different look on his face: Where the stress of that loss of control had built, optimism now peeked through.

"I knew kind of at that point that was the direction we wanted to go," Ryan said.

The Indianapolis Colts boast a proud quarterback history but have been searching for stability ever since the abrupt 2018 retirement of Andrew Luck.

He asked the Falcons for a trade to the Colts. The Falcons had long treated him with respect and saw this as an opportunity to cement it. He was asking the same that his friend, Stafford, has asked the Lions for last year.

Through one trade, and one Super Bowl with a loaded Rams team, Stafford shed the narrative of his career that he couldn't win big games. Ryan's career has been similar, as beneath the 60,000 yards and MVP trophy is a scar:

His most recognizable game ever was a 28-3 collapse in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.

"In the back of my mind, that’s what I’m thinking about right now, is this opportunity that I have for the rest of my career to try and catch that spark and go," Ryan said.

The Falcons moved swiftly ahead of a $7.5 million roster bonus it owed Ryan on Monday. The Colts were willing to pay it, so they agreed to move Ryan for a third-round draft pick.

By Tuesday morning, just four days after Watson's decision, Ryan entered a new NFL facility for the first time.

His twin 4-year-old sons buzzed around the building. Then they went downstairs for the introductory news conference.

Ryan spoke about a new beginning with a franchise built on the past. He said he felt as energized as ever, his age of 36 just a number in this binary life of a quarterback.

The first act just ended in Atlanta.

In Indianapolis, the second act can finally begin.

Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at natkins@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.