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Doyel: Jacob Eason or Sam Ehlinger? Colts have a quarterback competition, not a dilemma

Gregg Doyel
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS – The two guys are just so different. Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger, I’m talking about. The two Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks competing for the starting job until Carson Wentz returns from foot surgery. Eason looks special when the play unfolds as it should, dropping back and standing in the pocket and delivering lasers to open receivers. Ehlinger tends to look special when everything isn’t perfect, gently fitting the ball into a small space or just putting it under his arm and running for yardage.

We saw the best of both on Sunday, when the Colts beat the Carolina Panthers 21-18 in their NFL preseason opener. We saw Eason making throws you’d see on an NFL tutorial video. We saw Ehlinger making plays straight from the sandlot, though he did complete some beautiful passes, and we need to discuss those plays in a minute.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacob Eason (9) throws the ball on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during a pre-season game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Finals 19

But first, let’s reset the conversation.

Sunday was a great day for the Colts, because they saw they had two fine candidates to replace Wentz for however long is needed. For what it’s worth, Colts owner Jim Irsay was on the team’s radio broadcast in the second half and mentioned, several times, that Wentz could miss two or three games.

“Hypothetically,” Irsay said, which means that’s what the Colts are expecting, for now. Wentz’s return date is vague – original prognosis: five to 12 weeks – so we shall see.

But what we saw Sunday was a pair of quarterbacks who can get the job done. We didn’t know what we’d see, you know? Could’ve seen zero quarterbacks with NFL ability. Had the game gone differently on Sunday, the story you’re reading could have been begging the Colts to trade for Nick Foles or place a call to Andrew Luck. Maybe you’d be reading that the best arm at Lucas Oil Stadium belonged to former Colts backup P.J. Walker, who threw for 161 yards and a touchdown for Carolina, unless it belonged to Colts mascot Blue, who nailed another pass from the concourse to a barrel on the field below to win some Allegiant Air swag for a lucky fan.

Aug 15, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger (4) celebrates his two-point conversion in the second half against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, you’re reading utter confusion, the best kind of confusion, because I don’t know which fine-looking quarterback the Colts should choose. Eason or Ehlinger? Both had great moments. Sam Ehlinger showed all kinds of heart and athletic ability. Jacob Eason showed all kinds of arm, and surprising toughness.

Afterward, Colts coach Frank Reich wouldn’t name a winner, or even a leader. Why rush? The Colts play at Minnesota on Saturday, and Reich said he will stick to his original plan of starting Ehlinger against the Vikings, after starting Eason against Carolina.

“There’s no need to declare 60-40, or 50-50,” Reich said, declining to put one quarterback ahead of the other. “There’s enough reps, everybody’s going to get a lot. We’re always evaluating what we like and what we don’t like, but there’s no need to force that decision just yet.”

If you had to make a decision, I mean if you were forced to decide right now, well, you could do that. Because some of those throws…

Jacob Eason: Such a talent

Jacob Eason looked better than we expected, didn’t he?

Yes, this was a preseason game, and Eason was operating against a Carolina defense that played zero starters. But that goes both ways. Eason was playing with almost no starters himself, other than Marlon Mack, who technically doesn’t start anymore – Jonathan Taylor is the Colts’ No. 1 running back – but was a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019. Mack’s good.

The receivers Eason was targeting? Average, as a group, at best.

The offensive line Eason was playing behind? Terrible. Think of a word meaner than terrible. Use that one.

Jacob Eason, bless him, almost threw a perfect game. He was 15-for-21 for 183 yards, a 71.4% completion rate that doesn’t do his accuracy justice. Of those six incompletions, five were drops. Now, drops can be difficult to judge, but here’s my criteria: If you’re an NFL receiver and you get both hands on the ball, you need to catch it. If you do not, it’s a drop.

Eason makes a mess of my criteria, because he throws the ball so damn hard. Too damn hard? Maybe, sure. He throws 101-mph fastballs most of the time, and five times a teammate in an NFL jersey couldn’t make the grab. One, by rookie tight end Kylen Granson, was an obvious drop. The other four? Tough to call. Tougher, apparently, to catch.

But Eason threw a beauty of a catchable ball to Parris Campbell for 37 yards, finding Campbell a step behind the Panthers defense. He zinged a rocket, an eye-popper of a 26-yard pass, to Dezmon Patmon. He floated a 32-yard lob to Mike Strachan, giving the 6-5 rookie a chance to make the play in single coverage. Another time he zipped a 10-yard pass to Strachan into tight coverage as Panthers defensive end Marquis Haynes was leaping into Eason’s personal space.

“I told him 10 or 12 times he couldn’t throw that ball any better,” Campbell said. “We all saw that.”

We did. But we saw Eason’s imperfections, his inability to improvise. Generally, when plays broke down, Eason did nothing to salvage the situation. He was hit from behind on one sack, losing a fumble, and suffered another sack on pressure right into his face. Another time, on fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 40, Eason dropped deep into the pocket, was in trouble immediately, and suffered a 13-yard sack.

“Made one or two mental errors that we need to clean up,” Reich said of Eason, but added: “He hit some really nice throws. He had a couple of lasers in there, and looked really good.”

Yes, he did. But only when the play unfolded as it should. Football being football, plays break down. Chaos happens. And you know who can handle chaos?

This next guy.

Sam Ehlinger: Such a winner

Sam Ehlinger’s first series was terrible.

Full disclosure: I started writing in the third quarter. Hey, you saw the way Eason threw the ball in the first half. And then you saw Ehlinger throwing unimaginative short passes on his first three attempts and throwing a bad interception – the short throw was behind Granson, and the ball wasn’t moving very fast – on his fourth.

My story: The competition is over.

But then …

“Sam bounced back,” Reich said.

Ehlinger threw a deep ball to Tarik Black for 47 yards. Two plays later he threw a gorgeous pass to running back Benny LeMay on a wheel route, but the ball was a step long, perhaps because LeMay is a step slower than usual running backs Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor. Next play, third-and-5 from the 20, Ehlinger sees Tyler Vaughns inside the 5. I’m not calling Vaughns open, because he was not, but Ehlinger threw it anyway, and the ball arrived in the one spot where Vaughns could grab it, into his left hand, even as Panthers cornerback Troy Pride Jr. was hanging onto his right.

More:Doyel: Eason looks and throws like a QB, but Ehlinger thinks like one

Ehlinger also scrambled three times for a first down, and another time for the two-point conversation that tied the game at 18 with 7:46 left. After that he guided a long drive that ate up all but 11 seconds of the final 6:09, leading to Eddy Pineiro’s 30-yard field goal for the win.

While Eason was 15-for-21 for 183 yards, Ehlinger was 10-for-15 for 155 yards and the interception. And the interception, Reich suggested, wasn’t completely Ehlinger’s fault. It turns out one of the Colts’ receivers ran the wrong route on the play. Told that Reich had given him an out on his biggest mistake of the day, Ehlinger refused to accept.

“No, that wasn’t it,” Ehlinger said. “I just tried to aim it instead of letting it rip.”

So much to like about Sam Ehlinger. So much to like about Jacob Eason, too. Who knew this decision would be so difficult? Or so much fun?

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.

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