Maybe the surest sign that the Colts' quarterback competition between Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger went well is that there was a competition in the first place.
After a bone fragment became dislodged in Carson Wentz's foot during the second practice of training camp, requiring a procedure a few days later, Colts head coach Frank Reich went up to Eason and told the young quarterback: "Hey, man, it's your show."
But then Ehlinger, the sixth round rookie from Texas with a certain "it factor" and ability to process information pre-snap to simplify things post-snap, pushed his way on stage.
Ehlinger's strong play in training camp practices forced the Colts' hand. The competition between him and Eason was on — "This is meritocracy, and Sam has looked good," Reich said on Aug. 10.
Fast-forward two and a half weeks later and the 2021 preseason is over, ending Friday night with the Colts defeating the Detroit Lions, 27-17, at Ford Field in Detroit. The Colts had 20 practices and three preseason games on which they'll evaluate Eason and Ehlinger, plus walkthroughs and meetings and casual conversations over the last month.
"We'll make that decision here soon and but really happy with how our quarterbacks handled themselves in a unique situation," Reich said.
Friday night's final data point saw Eason complete 10 of 14 passes for 74 yards, while Ehlinger had the highlight of the game, slipping a would-be sack, keeping his eyes downfield and chucking a deep ball to a wide-open Dezmon Patmon for a 60-yard completion.
Ehlinger, though, did exit Friday's game with a knee injury. Reich said it "didn't look good" but cautioned he, Ehlinger and the Colts still needed to wait for team doctors to have the final say on it.
As for Eason, his highlight came in engineering an 11-play, 64-yard drive in the second quarter. Eason stayed on time and ahead of the chains, needing only one third down conversion on the first nine plays to march from the Colts' 24-yard line to the Lions' 20-yard line before settling for a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal.
"It's like when you get that perfect amount and mixture of peanut butter and jelly on a PB&J, add a little honey, maybe some nuts — it's just one of those, mom made it, she cut it diagonally for you," tight end Kylen Granson, who had three receptions on the drive, said. "It's just one of the simple things that you enjoy as a football player, man. Nothing better."
Eason finished his first preseason having completed 41 of 62 passes (66 percent) for 398 yards (6.3 yards/attempt) with no touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 83.3. Stats don't paint a complete picture, but for Eason, it was good just to have 62 pass attempts — along with a mountain of practice reps — one year after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out nearly all of his opportunities for on-field work as a rookie.
"The reps were everything," Eason said. "Actually being able to go out there and A, learn from my mistakes and B, get a live view of what's going on and how all the pieces are moving and all that stuff, it was huge. Every rep I was learning something from and trying to take advantage of it and obviously it helped me out exponentially playing these preseason games."
There were ups and downs for Eason throughout training camp, but the Colts saw a steady line of progress for the 2020 fourth round pick from late July through late August. Eason, too, felt his accuracy improved as he worked more with Colts pass-catchers — some of whom he had never thrown a pass to before training camp.
And Reich came away impressed with how Eason handled the moments in which he struggled — which'll happen for a quarterback lacking practice/in-game experience.
"The other thing I like about Jacob is he doesn't get rattled out there, he seems to be under control," Reich said. "There's always ways we can get better and things to get better at. He's a young player and he's made the progress that he should make and that he has made. So that's a credit to him."
Ehlinger only threw three passes before his injury on Friday, and he ended preseason play with 21 completions on 31 attempts (68 percent) for 288 yards (9.3 yards/attempt) with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 57.7. Again, numbers don't tell the whole story — not with the reams of data and observations the Colts collected at Grand Park during training camp.
But now a decision will be made on who Wentz's backup will be this season. While Reich said Wednesday the Colts feel "very good" about where Wentz is, he hasn't announced a Week 1 starting quarterback; the next step for Wentz will be fully participating in practices at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, where the Colts return next week.
Whether Wentz is back for the season opener or not, though, this quarterback competition will leave Eason and/or Ehlinger better prepared to step in if needed during the regular season. And that's the mindset both quarterbacks will take, no matter where they slot in on the depth chart.
"If you are a backup you never know when your number is going to get called, so at any given moment the opportunity could present itself and you gotta be ready to go and you got a whole team looking at you to hold up your end of the deal," Eason said. "I think if that is the case, I gotta prepare as if I am the guy and in case that happens I'll be ready to go. That was one of the things Jacoby (Brissett) taught me last year is stay engaged, know what you're doing, know the game plan in and out, prepare like you're the guy and be ready to roll."