Colts leave door open to Andrew Luck’s return with stunning parting gift of $24.8M

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist


On his way out the door, the Indianapolis Colts gave Andrew Luck an immense parting gift: $24.8 million in bonus money that could have been clawed back by the team following his sudden retirement.

A decision that – if you read between the lines – cracks a door open in case Luck wants to resume his football career.

A league source confirmed to Yahoo Sports that Colts owner Jim Irsay surrendered his collectively bargained right to recoup a massive portion of unearned bonus money from Luck. Irsay’s gesture will allow the quarterback to keep the entirety of his remaining prorated signing bonus – $12.8 million – and another $12 million in guaranteed roster bonus money that was paid out to Luck six months ago. The move was first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Sunday.

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Luck was open to returning at least a portion of the money that had been paid to him, a source told Yahoo Sports on Sunday. But Irsay declined to go that route, instead allowing Luck to keep everything that had been paid out through this offseason. That ultimately places Luck’s final cash earnings at nearly $100 million over the span of his seven-year career.

Jim Irsay and the Colts won't be squabbling with Andrew Luck over salary this season. (AP)
Jim Irsay and the Colts won't be squabbling with Andrew Luck over salary this season. (AP)

What’s the motivation for Jim Irsay, Colts?

Did the Colts do it sheerly out of public relations and respect for Luck, or is this a move with a design on wooing the star quarterback to return in a year or two?

Interestingly, that $24.8 million is the largest amount of prorated bonus money ever surrendered by a franchise to a player following his retirement. And on some level, the gesture will speak volumes to the Colts’ locker room and NFL players in general, who typically notice when a team engages in less-than-palatable steps to strip back money it has already paid to a departing player. It also may speak to some of what Luck revealed during his retirement news conference on Saturday night – that he’s still dealing with lingering pain from his last foot injury, and has dealt with a significant mental and physical toll over the past four years of his career. A span that included multiple surgeries, multiple rehabs and even a trip to Europe in late 2017 to help remedy some of the shoulder issues that sidelined him the entirety of that season.

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There’s another thing that is certainly fair to ponder: Given Luck is retiring just weeks before his 30th birthday, the team could be letting him keep his bonus money in hopes that it maintains the kind of good will that keeps a door open should Luck ever recuperate physically and hope to return to the NFL. Irsay appeared to hint at that kind of hope in his news conference discussing Luck’s retirement, pointing out that the star quarterback has a long window of his prime left to reconsider this decision.

“This is an unusual situation,” Irsay said. “We see Tiger Woods come back and win The Masters. We see different things – Michael Jordan retire and unretire. In this case we just wish him the best and maybe that he finds some clarity and maybe, again, he’s just going to be 30 years old late next summer or right around there. So, obviously he has to find his way.”

Superstars who were forced to give back money

Regardless of the motivations – whether it’s a parting gift to Luck for the damage incurred to his body or simply a smart public relations move – it’s a stunning step by the Colts, who have seen their 2019 outlook (and beyond) thrown into uncertainty following Luck’s retirement. Not just because of the amount of arguably unjustified cash the team is allowing Luck to keep, but also because it goes against the grain of some other unexpected superstar retirements, which included ugly fallouts and hard feelings after franchises pulled back money from the retiring player.

The most prominent team to do that is unquestionably the Detroit Lions, who twice engaged in clawing back bonus funds from a generational player – first in a contested arbitration process with Barry Sanders and then a second time when the team forced Calvin Johnson to repay a portion of prorated signing bonus money. The Lions eventually pulled back a total of $5.5 million from Sanders in a few installments, while the team recouped just over $1 million from Johnson. In both situations, the business move widened a rift between the franchise and two of its most defining players.

The Colts apparently wanted no part of the public relations fallout and ensuing hard feelings that ultimately occurred in Detroit, choosing instead to let Luck walk away with a golden parachute.

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