As NFL training camps open, the single most impactful storyline centers not in Philly or Foxborough, not out in L.A. or with any of the rookie saviors who are trying to establish themselves.
It comes from the north suburbs of Indianapolis, where the Colts will find out if Andrew Luck is really back from a lengthy shoulder injury that derailed a star career and left the franchise in limbo.
“He’ll be full tilt and ready to go,” general manager Chris Ballard promised last week.
Luck hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since Jan. 1, 2017. If he’s back, the Colts will rebound from their dreadful 4-12 record a season ago. The AFC South will, in turn, become a full four-team dogfight. And maybe most important for the NFL, a proven, high-profile figure who can draw viewers, returns at the game’s signature position.
The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, so it’s easy to forget what Luck has done and potentially can do. He threw for 40 touchdowns in 2014. He was perhaps even better in 2016 despite dealing with the shoulder – 31 touchdowns against 13 picks, 63.5 percent completion rate, 7.8 yards per passing attempt and so on.
This is a former No. 1 draft pick who as a rookie led a league-high seven game-winning drives. In each of his first three seasons he was named to the Pro Bowl and led Indy to the playoffs where the Colts won a combined three games. He has even rushed for 14 touchdowns in his career.
He’s enough of a talent the Colts not only moved on from Peyton Manning, who would lead Denver to two Super Bowls (winning one), but traded out of the third overall pick in this year’s quarterback-rich draft, doubling down on their guy.
In a sport always desperate for great young quarterbacks, Luck is the only proven commodity potentially returning to the league among that bunch. Young faces such as Patrick Mahomes II, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Deshaun Watson, even Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, are just trying to get to the level Luck routinely achieved when healthy.
When healthy, of course. A lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle ended his 2015 season after seven games. The shoulder surgery after the 2016 season completely wiped out 2017 and is why all eyes will be on him this year.
Does that repaired shoulder hold up? Will the painstakingly slow and purposeful rehab plan pay off? Does it even matter if the Colts haven’t upgraded their porous offensive line from a year ago?
“I believe like I am going to be better than I was,” Luck said after June’s minicamp. “I really, really do. I believe I will be a better quarterback for this team, a better teammate.”
He maintained that optimism on Thursday, telling the NFL Network, “I feel a lot better, I think I’m much more honest about how I feel about myself. I’ve proven to myself this offseason – through my program, through throwing, through training – [that] I’ve earned the right to be here at this point, and to start practicing.”
For Luck, the Colts and the NFL, this has been a frustrating process. He was supposed to be ready for 2017. Then he was supposed to miss “games.” Then it became a mysterious soap opera about just how bad it was.
Well, it was bad, an entire season gone and no one certain they could fix it. Even now, what the Colts call “full-tilt” isn’t quite full tilt. Luck spent the offseason throwing a smaller and lighter football in an effort to ease into things – “it puts a little less stress on your shoulder.” He served tennis balls – it’s a similar motion to throwing a football. He rested and limited his repetitions.
Luck and new coach Frank Reich have laid a plan to protect the Colts’ most valuable asset. No need to throw a hundred balls six days a week in camp. Luck will have built-in days off – non-throwing days. He’ll do three practices a week with a set amount of reps. Then one day will be all-in – the way it will be on game days. Preseason action is still to be determined, although Reich said Wednesday that Luck will play in the first exhibition game on Aug. 9.
All anyone really cares about is Sept. 9 when Cincinnati visits.
“I’ll be there,” Luck predicted back in June. “I’ll be playing. I believe it in my bones.”
Indy certainly believes it. If not, it would have taken Darnold or Rosen or someone with that third pick overall. Instead, the Colts traded the pick to the New York Jets (who took Darnold) and wound up with five of the top 64 selections in the draft. They used those to fortify the trenches (two offensive linemen, two defensive linemen and one linebacker). Notre Dame OL Quenton Nelson was particularly well-regarded and will be critical to keeping Luck upright because, as the QB notes, even if the shoulder is healed, “we play a violent game.”
Luck is 28. This should be his prime, that ideal combination of youthful talent and hard-earned experience. He was a difference maker from the day he entered the league and the belief was that the Colts would hardly skip a beat in the post-Manning era. This was the can’t-miss-kid. For a while, it looked to be trending in that direction. Then it wasn’t.
Now all the buzz is about the young QBs who are beginning, or attempting, to take over the league as the Tom Bradys and Aaron Rodgers discuss potential retirement plans. Luck is the question mark in the middle.
If he can throw again, he and the Colts matter again. A great career is back on track. The AFC playoff race gets a lot more interesting. The NFL regains a quarterback fans want to watch.
It’s why, even though the hype and anticipation may be elsewhere, the biggest X-factor is the one to be revealed in Indiana.
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