INDIANAPOLIS -- It wasn't supposed to be this way for Matt Ryan.
The Indianapolis Colts sold him on offensive balance, great offensive line play, effective play-action -- all the primary ingredients of efficient quarterback play.
Instead, Ryan's reality since joining the Colts via a trade with the Atlanta Falcons has been much the opposite -- a one-dimensional offense, a flailing offensive line and nonexistent play-action.
And, now, Ryan has yet another obstacle to contend with: His own inexplicable lack of ball security.
Ryan deserves credit for rallying the Colts (1-2-1) in the second halves of games against the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs and -- Sunday -- the Tennessee Titans. But, conversely, he has earned just as much blame for his inability to protect the football. Ryan fumbled twice more on Sunday (losing one) in a 24-17 loss to the Titans, giving him nine fumbles for the season. That's the most fumbles by a player in his team's first four games since Kurt Warner accomplished the dubious feat in 2006 with the Arizona Cardinals.
Ryan also threw his fifth interception of the season, contributing further to the Colts' ugly minus-6 turnover margin. The Colts have never finished with a negative turnover ratio in coach Frank Reich's four previous seasons, but now rank among the worst teams in the NFL in that regard.
"Turnovers are ... one of, if not the, most important one or two most critical stats when it comes to winning ballgames or at least giving yourself a chance to win," Ryan said. "I've got to do a better job protecting it. We collectively have to do a better job protecting it."
The turnovers are making it difficult to accurately assess Ryan's play. For every downfield completion -- and there were many on Sunday, including a 44-yard strike to rookie receiver Alec Pierce -- there seemingly is a deflating fumble or interception from Ryan that overshadows it.
Ryan, to be fair, has been roughed up this season because of the Colts' startlingly poor offensive-line play. The unit has been so subpar that the Colts replaced right guard Danny Pinter on Sunday with 2021 seventh-round pick Will Fries.
But hanging onto the football in adverse situations is a central part of a quarterback's job. And few quarterbacks know what that's like more than Ryan, who has been sacked 465 times in his 15 seasons. Both Ryan's fumbles on Sunday happened in sack scenarios.
But here again, judging Ryan becomes a delicate dance. He has, at times, looked uncomfortable and uncertain in the pocket. That's odd for a quarterback who has always displayed good pocket presence. It's hard not to wonder if some of this results from problems with pass protection, which was admittedly a bit better on Sunday.
"You definitely have to trust all the players around you," Ryan said when asked if he trusts his protection. "I think that's what makes winning in this league so rewarding, is that it's never just one player. It's the collective that gets the job done. So you have to trust other players to make plays and to do their responsibilities.
"But with that said, the ball is in my hand every snap, so it starts with me."
That does not mean that Ryan is the source of every problem that ails this offense. In fact, his contributions on Sunday -- 27-of-37 passing for 356 yards and two touchdown passes -- are among the primary reasons the Colts got back into a game they once trailed 24-3.
It certainly isn't Ryan's fault that the Colts, implausibly, have experienced epic struggles in their running game of late. Indianapolis has averaged 58 rushing yards in its past three games, including 38 yards on 23 attempts against the Titans (1.7 average). That’s the worst yards per carry mark by the Colts since Nov. 13, 2013.
Running back Jonathan Taylor, the NFL's rushing leader in 2021, is in the midst of one of the worst stretches of his career. His day was summed up neatly when he was stuffed in a huge pileup on a third-and-1 with 8:49 left, causing him to fumble and sending him to the sideline with a lower-leg injury. Taylor was noncommittal when asked whether the injury might keep him out of Thursday night's game at Denver.
"The run game has got to get better," Reich said. "It's just hard to (understand). The way we do things, the way we scheme it, the way we block it, we've had a process in place for five years that has been very productive."
Running back Nyheim Hines, who had just one carry, was adamant: "It's not about J.T.," he said, referring to Taylor. "J.T.'s done well. He's been grinding. But his supporting cast around him has to be better."
So, too, does Ryan.
"It's been a very uncharacteristic four-game stretch," Ryan said. "It's something I've got to clean up and got to be better at. Find a way this week. I think if we can put together a clean game, just go out there and put together a clean game where we're not turning it over, executing the way we can, I think we can be very good."
So far, saying it and actually doing it have been two very different things for the Colts.