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New NFL COVID-19 protocols mean Colts QB Carson Wentz still could play vs. Raiders

Joel A. Erickson
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts might not have to find out what it’s like to play without Carson Wentz at quarterback this weekend.

The new COVID-19 protocols the NFL implemented Tuesday — the same day Wentz was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list with a positive test — opened the door.

Wentz can return to the Colts in time for kickoff Sunday, provided he hasn’t had a fever for 24 hours and the Indianapolis team doctors clear the team’s quarterback based on his other symptoms.

“In theory, he would be available for the game if he clears,” Reich said. “In the meantime, he’ll be in meetings virtual, preparing, so that if he does clear, he could play.”

If Wentz does not clear, the Colts will turn to rookie Sam Ehlinger, the sixth-round pick who fought his way into the battle for the backup job with Jacob Eason in training camp and took it over from veteran Brett Hundley after Ehlinger recovered from a sprained knee suffered in the preseason finale against Detroit.

Reich acknowledged that he did talk to Philip Rivers, the team’s retired 2020 starter, about the team’s current quarterbacking situation, but he declined to reveal the nature of those conversations, saying only that there is nothing to report.

Ehlinger is the team’s No. 1 quarterback until Wentz returns.

“At this point, Sam’s our starter,” Reich said. “I think Sam’s made for moments like this. I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s got that special ‘it factor,’ he’s got really good quarterback skills.”

Ehlinger has never thrown a pass in the NFL.

But the Colts love his makeup, intelligence and leadership skills, and Ehlinger has earned the backup job with the way he’s improved this season. Ehlinger does not have Wentz’s arm strength, but he has a good command of the offense, excellent mobility and Reich made it a point to note that the rookie has significantly improved his fundamentals as a thrower this season.

When the Colts coaches were watching the quarterbacks warm up in Arizona last week, Reich turned to quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and mentioned that it might be the best Ehlinger has looked while throwing a football.

Even if Wentz is able to return, Ehlinger will take all of the team’s No. 1 snaps in practice this week. The Colts protected veteran quarterback Brett Hundley on the practice squad; Ehlinger and Hundley are currently the only two healthy Indianapolis quarterbacks after the other practice squad passer, James Morgan, was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday.

“It’s a great opportunity for Sam to get reps,” Reich said. “He’s been getting his share of reps, and scout team reps, and all the fundamental work. This will be a good opportunity for him to get the team reps.”

Ultimately, though, the Colts are still Wentz’s team, and all eyes in Indianapolis this weekend will be centered on whether Wentz is able to recover from his COVID-19 infection in time to play against the Raiders in a game that could clinch a playoff berth for the Colts.

Wentz will spend the week preparing to play, and Indianapolis has been in this position before.

When Wentz sprained both his ankles against the Rams in September, he did not practice all week, then started against Tennessee. Wentz struggled against the Titans, but there are two key differences between that game and the one he might be playing against the Raiders on Sunday.

First, Wentz is battling a respiratory illness, rather than sprains in his ankles, and he won’t be hampered by limited mobility the way he was in Nashville.

Maybe more importantly, Wentz has spent a lot more time in the Colts offense since then. Fully rehabilitated under Reich’s care, Wentz is coming off of a signature moment on Christmas night in Arizona, delivering a win with a gorgeous throw to Dezmon Patmon for the game-sealing touchdown after the Cardinals slowed down MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor.

More:Insider: Carson Wentz finally gets his signature moment, carrying Colts to Christmas win

“The good news is, unlike when this happened in Week 3, where Carson wasn’t available the whole week, he had barely practiced at this point,” Reich said. “Now, we’ve had a whole year of practice, we have a lot of accumulated reps. … If Carson can get himself back, get ready, I feel like we’re in a much, much better spot than we were.”

Indianapolis has already activated five players off of the reserve/COVID-19 list due to the NFL’s new rules.

If Wentz is able to recover in a similar way, he’ll be the man under center at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.

Follow IndyStar Colts Insider Joel A. Erickson on Twitter at @JoelAErickson.