The Indianapolis Colts might have found another short-term answer at quarterback by trading for Matt Ryan.
How much longer the soon-to-be 37-year-old, four-time Pro Bowler sticks around isn’t clear.
On Monday, Indianapolis acquired the 2016 NFL MVP from Atlanta for a third-round pick in this year’s draft (No. 82 overall).
The Falcons wasted no time finding Ryan’s possible replacement—announcing they’d signed free agent Marcus Mariota to a two-year contract.
For Indianapolis, the deal completes a two-week search for a successor to Carson Wentz, who was traded to the Washington Commanders after just one season with the Colts.
For Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard, it’s also the latest attempt to plug a hole created by Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement at age 29 just before the start of the 2018 season.
“Matt’s leadership and skill set will complement our roster’s growth and success,” Ballard said. “He’s long been a great ambassador for the NFL and the Atlanta Falcons, and we’re excited he can continue his accomplished career in Indianapolis.”
For the Falcons, it was the end of an era.
Ryan had started all but three games for the team since he was drafted No. 3 overall in 2008, leading Atlanta to only the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
His fate was effectively sealed when the Falcons made an ill-fated bid for Deshaun Watson as their new quarterback.
“Matt Ryan has been the epitome of a franchise quarterback,” team owner Arthur Blank said. “It is difficult to overstate what he has meant to me personally, our organization, his teammates and our fans.”
But the Falcons decided to move on with a major rebuilding job that was only made more difficult by Ryan’s onerous contract, which was restructured multiple times in recent years as the team kept pushing a difficult decision down the road without drafting a possible successor.
The Falcons will carry a roughly $40 million cap charge in dead money this season, while Ryan’s salary cap hit for the Colts is a reported $23.75 million in 2022, rising to $28 million if he’s still on the team next year.
“This business is not without its difficult decisions,” Blank said in a statement. “While this is one of the most difficult decisions we have faced as a club, we feel it is in the best long-term interests of both the Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan.”
Ryan will become the sixth quarterback to start in Week 1 for the Colts in six years, adding his name to a list that already is composed of Scott Tolzien, Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Wentz.
He joins a franchise in which vice chairman Bill Polian once said he considered Ryan the most similar player in the league to Peyton Manning.
The Falcons put themselves in quite a bind with their pursuit of Watson, surrendering the long-time face of the franchise for a single, second-day draft pick.
As soon as they made a pitch to acquire the embattled Houston quarterback, it became clear Ryan would not want to return to a team where he had played his entire NFL career that then openly tried to replace him.
Watson supposedly narrowed his potential choices for a trade to New Orleans and Atlanta—with speculation the Falcons were the favorite because Watson is a Georgia native. But he changed his mind and accepted a $230 million, fully guaranteed deal with the Cleveland Browns, who sent three first-round picks to the Texans in the deal.
Ryan is undoubtedly the greatest quarterback in Falcons history, arriving from Boston College at a pivotal moment to replace Michael Vick. He steadied a franchise rocked by coach Bobby Petrino’s departure after 13 games and Vick’s imprisonment for running a dogfighting ring.
With Ryan taking over the offense as the starter from Day 1, the Falcons rebounded from a 4-12 mark in 2007 to make the playoffs in his rookie campaign—the first of five consecutive winning seasons and three postseason trips. Until Ryan’s arrival, Atlanta had never even managed back-to-back winning seasons since joining the NFL as an expansion team in 1966.
After several down years for the team, Ryan turned in his greatest season in 2016, throwing for a career-best 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns. Atlanta appeared headed for its first Super Bowl crown when it built a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots by late in the third quarter, only to see Tom Brady engineer the greatest comeback in title game history for a 34-28 overtime victory.
What the Colts are getting in Ryan is a model of consistency—something they’ve lacked following the retirements of Luck and Rivers and the departures of Tolzien, Brissett and Wentz. Ryan has two seasons left on his current contract and the Colts are well-positioned to absorb the salary cap hits each season.
“I’ve long admired Matt for his steady, methodical approach to the game,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “He is one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league and has spearheaded numerous fourth-quarter game-winning drives.”
Ryan posted 10 straight seasons with more than 4,000 passing yards until just missing the mark last year with 3,968. He has thrown for at least 20 touchdowns every year of his career, totaling 367 in his career with 170 interceptions. And he has missed only three starts in his 14-year career.
His 59,735 career passing yards are No. 8 in NFL history, and he will likely pass Dan Marino (61,361) for the No. 7 spot on the list next season.
Even though the Falcons made one more playoff appearance with Ryan, in 2017, they never seemed to recover from the stunning collapse on the NFL’s biggest stage. Atlanta has since endured four straight losing seasons, including a 7-10 mark last year, and has several big holes to fill.
“As we’ve said since we’ve started, we’re always evaluating and looking for opportunities to improve our team for the long term,” said Arthur Smith, who is heading into his second season as the Falcons coach. “This move is another step in that and we’re looking forward to the future.”
Mariota joins the little-used Feleipe Franks as the only quarterbacks on Atlanta’s roster. Tennessee took Mariota with the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2015, but the 28-year-old played sparingly over the past two seasons as a backup to Derek Carr with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Mariota lost his starting job with the Titans after going 29-32 record in five seasons. He’ll apparently get a chance to resurrect his career with the Falcons, who are also likely to pursue a long-term solution in the draft even though this is not considered a strong QB class.
Ryan never publicly criticized the Falcons or demanded a trade after their courting of Watson, but it was apparent his days in Atlanta were done.
“This was a difficult decision, but it was made easier by Matt’s professionalism and understanding throughout,” second-year general manager Terry Fontenot said.
It was a jarring week for the city of Atlanta, which had just gone through the World Series champion Braves cutting ties with first baseman Freddie Freeman, Major League Baseball’s 2020 MVP, after a 12-year stint. He signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.