The NBA is supposed to be the superstar-driven league with the NFL serving as the ultimate team sport. The exception always proves the rule, however, and the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck is the living, breathing embodiment of that.
The Boston Celtics, without arguably their two biggest stars this season, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Heyward, made a run at proving team basketball could overcome all until running into LeBron James with a supporting cast so poor it was mocked by “Saturday Night Line.”
Over in the NFL, you probably can’t get to the promised land with just the elite QB but Luck has already proven what a difference it makes, entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft and paying immediate dividends by turning a 2-14 team into a double-digit winner. In fact, the former Stanford star began his career with three consecutive 11-win seasons with the high-water mark to date being the AFC Championship Game after the 2014 campaign.
At the bare minimum Luck was on his way to being a superstar and arguably was already there.
Then came the injuries. A lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle limited Luck to seven games in 2015 as the Colts missed the postseason for the first time since he arrived from Palo Alto. By the next season, Luck was on the field for most of it but probably shouldn’t have been as he gutted through a mediocre campaign with a bad shoulder which really had been a lingering from the star-crossed 2015 campaign.
Ultimately the shoulder required surgery for a torn labrum which tabled Luck for the entire 2017 campaign and still has people questioning what’s going on because the three-time Pro Bowl selection still hasn’t been able to throw during the Colts’ spring work and will not be taking part in mandatory minicamp this week.
Luck has already been to Europe looking for treatment and was out in Los Angeles on a rehab program but no additional surgery was ordered and Indianapolis hopes to have its on-field leader for training camp and obviously the regular season despite the fact it’s been 16 months since his last NFL game and his valuable right arm remains in mothballs.
The good news — if there is any — is that Luck has been around the team and doing some conditioning work so he will be ready to hit the ground running when the all clear is finally sounded.
New Indianapolis coach Frank Reich, coming off a Super Bowl season as the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, is taking the glass-is-half-full approach, largely because what else can he do?
“I think we’re real close,” Reich surmised, a long-time former backup of Jim Kelly in Buffalo. “Again, I’ve never been through what he has been through. I could sit here and say what I think but It has to come from down in here [points to his heart]. There’s an instinct as a player that you know when you’re ready to go and you keep testing it and testing it and you work with the people you’re working with and you trust your instinct when you’re ready to go.”
That’s all fine and good but the Colts are expecting their fans to watch 16 months turn into 17 and assume the pre-injury Luck shows up for training camp no worse for wear after a year and a half. Even when you mix in the obvious rust that will be in play, that’s pie-in-the-sky thinking.
And it’s also fool me once, shame on me-type thinking but fool me twice? Remember Indy fans were getting similar intell from former coach Chuck Pagano last year at this time after Luck had his surgery in January of 2017. He ultimately started throwing in October, well into the regular season, only to be unceremoniously shut down after two weeks of trying with persistent soreness.
The Butterfly Effect from there is obvious. Pagano could still be in the big chair in Indy had Luck’s European vacation worked but much like the stilted National Lampoon sequel, it was a failure and now Reich has been handed the baton when it comes to spinning the narrative for the future.
With injuries of this nature often the mental hurdle is much more difficult to get over than the physical one. Remember no doctor has recommended more surgery so the elephant in the room has to be addressed. Maybe Luck needs to trust the medical people, throw caution to the wind and let ‘er rip.
“[Luck] certainly has a big say in it,” Reich said when discussing the timetable. “He has to. Got to trust the player. Really, any player who’s injured goes through the same thing. The doctors kind of give the thumbs up and there’s a lot to say and you get the tests and you feel all that stuff, but at the end of the day the player’s got to feel ready to go. That’s been my experience at every position.”
What is clear is that the Colts still have all their eggs in the Luck basket, failing to take a QB back in April’s draft despite having plenty of opportunities with 11 overall selections, a franchise record, although some of that could be traced back to the presence of Jacoby Brissett, who, in a low-key fashion, has probably developed into one of the better backups in football and is only 25.
The end game here is simple. If Luck is healthy and ready to go the Colts are relevant in what is all of a sudden a very difficult AFC South.
With a healthy Luck, the Colts were at 33 wins with three playoff appearances over three years and 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl. As the injuries arrived, it was back to mediocrity and consecutive 8-8 seasons before the floor fell out completely without him in 2017 (4-12).
That means if he’s not on the field, Reich might as well use the season to see what’s he’s got for 2019 because Indy is an afterthought with Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Houston all pointing upward.
Conversely pairing Reich, who helped develop Carson Wentz from small-school standout on the college level to NFL MVP candidate by Year 2 and then contributed to the reimagining of a dynamic offense in record time to help the limited Nick Foles when Wentz went down, with Luck could be intoxicating.
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