Tale of the tape: How Matt Ryan can help the Colts

Frank Reich has never been able to settle on a quarterback in Indianapolis. That is no fault of his own since the good ones keep retiring, but it has created a steady stream of tweaks and accommodations to the offense in order to fit each new quarterback. Some of each offense’s particular identities were worth leaning in to, such as the Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers schemes. Others were not, like the Jacoby Brissett and Carson Wentz attacks.

Reich is getting another crack at things with former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. While Ryan may not be the most outright talented passer of the bunch—it’s hard to beat Luck, and even Rivers is a fellow Hall of Very Good member—he may bring the most balance and flexibility that Reich has ever had to work with. Luck is the only one with a real case against that, and even then, as we’ll get to, that may not have been as true in 2018 as it had been earlier in his career.

Flexibility is a particular asset for Reich, whose best stretches of play calling often revolve around keeping formations and personnel fresh and uncertain for the defense. As good as Luck and Rivers were, they necessitated a certain type of offense more often than not, while Brissett and Wentz necessitated a different style of offense because they were not good enough to succeed on their own.

With Luck and Rivers behind center, the Colts offense favored more shotgun looks. They used shotgun formations on 74% and 75% of snaps, respectively, and both figures were in the top 10 each year. Luck and Rivers also used play-action at a slightly below-average rate, sitting at 25% (21st) and 22% (19th) respectively. Both Luck and Rivers played with fairly quick time-to-throw averages, each placing inside the top 10 in their respective seasons. Lastly, both produced top-10 DVOA figures when passing without play-action. The offenses were more spread out, quicker on the trigger and less dependent on manipulating defenders with play fakes. The gun usage and time-to-throw averages make sense given Rivers’ age and lack of athleticism as well as Luck’s declining health and desire to be kept cleaner than in years past, while the lack of play-action tracks with the higher shotgun use and the fact that both quarterbacks were more than smart enough to handle a full dropback game.

Both offenses had success, placing inside the top 12 by DVOA, but it’s worth wondering how much better they could have been on the ground and/or explosive through the air if they had been more comfortable working more from under center. That’s not a comment on Reich doing the wrong thing or Luck/Rivers being secretly bad, just that there were some limitations amid an otherwise effective offense.

Let’s flip to the other end. With Brissett and Wentz, the offense was more focused on getting under center and funneling the passing game through play fakes, both standard play-action and RPOs. The offense fell to an average shotgun rate—68% for Brissett and 64% for Wentz—which in turn meant more under-center formations. Coincidentally, Reich’s best two years of rushing DVOA came with Brissett and Wentz at quarterback, particularly last year when the Colts finished second. There are just more rushing concepts an offense can get to from under center than from shotgun, so that correlation isn’t a surprise. Reich also kicked up the play-action for each quarterback, a natural byproduct of an under-center offense. Brissett used play-action 30% of the time (eighth) in 2019, and Wentz used play-action 34% of plays (third) last year. The run game and play-action (as well as RPOs, in Wentz’s case) were Reich’s answers to his subpar quarterbacks.

However, their subpar abilities still shined through, particularly in the areas Luck and Rivers thrived. While Luck and Rivers got the ball out quickly, Brissett had the second-slowest average time to throw in 2019, and Wentz was the 13th-slowest among 39 qualifying passers last season (via Next Gen Stats). While they also outpaced Luck and Rivers in average depth of target by about half a yard, both Wentz and Brissett were still only about average in depth of target themselves, so it’s not as though they were hanging on to the ball in order to let loose down the field all the time. Moreover, both Brissett and Wentz were below-average producers without play-action. Neither has a quick trigger nor particularly impressive accuracy. Wentz used to be better without play-action, particularly back in 2017 and 2018, but it’s clear he isn’t that level of player anymore.

Ryan factors in to all of this as a bridge between the two offenses. Given Ryan’s production over the past year and a half, it’s hard to imagine how he has enough in the tank to do that, but when you watch Ryan on film, it becomes evident that this is still a good, complete quarterback who would make a lot of offenses better, including Indy’s. It’s just hard to prove that when your best wide receivers are Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus.

From a schematic standpoint, Ryan is extremely comfortable with the under-center, play-action format. Ryan has played in an offense with at least 40% under-center usage every year since at least 2012. Until very recently, he was largely a productive player under those parameters and played like a top-10 quarterback more often than not. At his best, Ryan won an MVP and nearly a Super Bowl with Kyle Shanahan under those schematic guidelines. From that angle, he can be the best parts of the Brissett and Wentz offenses.

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