INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts were able to overcome the toll COVID-19 took on their roster on Christmas night in Arizona.
But Indianapolis might be facing an even bigger absence on Sunday against the Raiders, a game that would clinch a playoff spot for the Colts with a win.
The Colts placed starting quarterback Carson Wentz on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday, immediately placing his status for Sunday’s game in doubt. Wentz is not vaccinated, and under the NFL’s current COVID-19 protocols, an unvaccinated player must sit out at least 10 days if he tests positive, and five days if he is designated a close contact of somebody who tested positive.
Indianapolis has placed 14 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list in the past week, including six on Monday, but Colts head coach Frank Reich indicated Monday that a close contact was not likely.
“It’s always fluid,” Reich said. “Right now, my understanding from the latest thing I’ve heard is that no one is being ruled out because of any close contacts at this point.”
According to the NFL Network, the NFL and NFL Player’s Association are discussing changes to the league’s protocols to reflect the CDC’s recent change in guidance that allows asymptomatic individuals who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 to end their quarantine after five days, but it’s unclear at this point if the NFL will make a change, when that change might happen and how it might affect unvaccinated players.
If Wentz is unable to play against the Raiders because of a positive test, the Colts would likely turn to his immediate backup, sixth-round rookie Sam Ehlinger, or veteran Brett Hundley, who served as the backup earlier this season and is currently on the practice squad.
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Unlike Chris Reed, E.J. Speed or George Odum, the Colts do not have a backup at the quarterback position who’s already proven himself in Indianapolis. Ehlinger, a rookie taken in the sixth round out of Texas, has never thrown an NFL pass, and Hundley hasn’t started an NFL game since 2017.
Ehlinger has been Wentz’s primary backup the past two months, a position he took over from Hundley after coming off of injured reserve. Hundley, in turn, had won the job from Jacob Eason, and when Wentz’s status was in doubt for the first Tennessee game because of his sprained ankles, the Colts moved Hundley into the starter’s spot.
Indianapolis could also try to bring back retired quarterback Philip Rivers, who has said he’d be open to joining a team now that his high school football coaching season is over, although Reich downplayed that possibility on Monday.
“No, right now, we’re just in the situation that we’re in,” Reich said. “We’re happy with the guys that we’ve got here.”
Ehlinger’s position as the only backup available on game days the past two months does give the Colts a handle on how they’d prepare a game plan with the rookie in the starting role. Indianapolis has to prepare Ehlinger every week in case Wentz goes down with an injury.
“We go through the plan, he goes through it and (we ask) ‘OK, what are your top calls that you feel comfortable with?’ Doesn’t have to be all of them,” offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. “We have that separate call sheet for him ready to go. He goes through all the reads just like Carson does. He may not get the live rep but he’ll get it on the side. So he’s ready to go.”
Wentz has been resolute in his decision to remain unvaccinated, even though vaccinated players face less frequent testing — unvaccinated players must be tested every day — and are able to return earlier than 10 days if they produce two negative tests 24 hours apart or test at a viral load below a certain threshold.
“I’m not going to go in depth on why, but it’s a personal decision for me and my family,” Wentz said in August. “I respect everybody else’s decision, and I just ask that everybody does the same for me.”
Wentz has played good football for the Colts, limiting mistakes and providing a big-play arm to an offense that has been carried by MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor at running back, all while playing 97.8 percent of the snaps to this point.
The Colts starter has thrown for 3,230 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. Twenty-seven quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions this season, and Indianapolis is tied for second in the NFL in sacks allowed, having given up just 25.
Wentz is also coming off of his best moment of the season, carrying the Colts on two critical second-half drives to beat a Cardinals team loaded up to stop Jonathan Taylor on Christmas night, capped off by a remarkable throw to Dezmon Patmon in the back of the end zone for the game-sealing touchdown.
If Wentz isn’t able to play on Sunday, whoever takes his place will have big shoes to fill.