INDIANAPOLIS — Matt Ryan thought he had experienced virtually every conceivable situation during his first 14 NFL seasons.
He was voted the league's MVP. He came excruciatingly close to winning a Super Bowl. He overcame coaching changes, COVID-19 protocols and rebuilds.
Now he's starting all over again — in Indianapolis.
After four straight losing seasons and a highly publicized effort to find his successor in Atlanta, the veteran quarterback is getting acclimated to a new city, a new offense and an entirely new supporting cast for the first time since his rookie season in 2008.
"This is a big change, no doubt about it," said Ryan, who turns 37 this month. "I think one of the beauties of being at this point in my career and playing for the number of coordinators I have is that at some point, you've kind of done everything in some way, shape or form."
Breaking in new quarterbacks has become an annual tradition for the Indianapolis Colts. They've had a different starter in every season opener since 2017: Scott Tolzien, Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz. Ryan plans to join the list in September.
No, this is not what the Colts envisioned when they traded for Wentz last year or what Ryan bargained for when he signed a five-year, $150 million extension with the Atlanta Falcons in 2018. That deal made him the first player with a $30 million annual salary in league history.
Plans change, though.
The Colts saw Wentz, drafted No. 2 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016, as a franchise quarterback capable of plugging the void left by Luck's surprise retirement in August 2019. Wentz lasted one season before being sent back to the AFC East Division, this time with the Washington Commanders.
Ryan became available when the Falcons — among the teams who tried to swing a trade with the Houston Texans for quarterback Deshaun Watson before he wound up with the Cleveland Browns — went all in on rebuilding. Getting the four-time Pro Bowl selection for a third-round pick in March was the next-best solution for the Colts.
It came with Peyton Manning's full endorsement, the possibility of becoming the third straight longtime veteran to switch teams and win a Super Bowl, and perhaps another contract when this one expires after the 2023 season.
"We view this as very possibly a three-year thing," team owner Jim Irsay said. "We hope Matt can be here for even four years, maybe, as we continue looking for a young quarterback."
Why not? There is no indication Ryan's skills are waning. In former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's first season as Atlanta's head coach, Ryan completed 67% of his throws with 3,968 yards and 20 touchdowns despite attempting his fewest passes in four years.
Ryan joins a team that has reached the playoffs two of the past four years and just missed making it last season because of an inexplicable season-ending AFC South loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now, with a proven leader, the Colts think they may have found the final piece to make a deep postseason run.
"He's damn near a coach in himself," offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said earlier this month after watching Ryan in offseason workouts. "... He's really been coaching up the receivers like, 'This is what I'm looking for, this is what I expect, this is the body lean I want you to have.' It's kind of a breath of fresh air to hear that so the rest of the room is not just hearing it from the coaches."
While Ryan perfected that role in Atlanta, it has helped him gain instant credibility in Indianapolis.
Coach Frank Reich calls Ryan a "very accomplished leader." Irsay touted his professionalism. Center Ryan Kelly said the ability to stick around 14 seasons is reflective of Ryan's consistency and success. He ranks eighth in NFL history with 59,735 passing yards and ninth in career touchdown passes with 367.
Despite the compliments and accomplishments, though, Ryan's immediate priority is building bonds in the locker room and finding effective ways to communicate to a group of young receivers that got even younger during the draft last weekend. General manager Chris Ballard took receiver Alex Pierce in the second round and added two tight ends, Jelani Woods and Andrew Ogletree in the third and sixth rounds, respectively.
"We certainly want to be disciplined, we want to be detailed, but you don't want to take away the natural instinct guys have. I think I've gotten better at that," Ryan said. "Probably when I was younger it was, 'Hey, I need it my way. This is how it has to get done.' There's certainly still quite a bit of that, but you've got to allow guys to do it — to trust their instincts and go play."
The good news for Ryan is he has plenty to work with.
The team has three starters back from one of the league's top offensive lines and added left tackle Bernhard Raimann in the third round of the draft. Jonathan Taylor won the league rushing title in his second NFL season last year, when receiver Michael Pittman Jr. posted his first 1,000-yard season.
Ballard also has upgraded an already strong defense by trading for pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue and signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 defensive player of the year, as a free agent.
The combination could help Ryan celebrate another first-time experience: winning a title.
"You talk about it with Tom Brady or Peyton or any of those guys, they've had times where they had to transition, and both of them have had tremendous success," Ryan said. "In the back of my mind, that's what I'm thinking about, is this opportunity I have for the rest of my career to try and catch that spark and go."