And for a while, things went pretty much as scripted. Yes, Luck absorbed too many jarring hits in the pocket. And no, the Super Bowl triumphs did not come immediately. But all seemed on the proper course when Luck went from top overall choice in the 2012 NFL draft to three-time Pro Bowl selection by the end of his third season. The Colts made the playoffs in each of Luck’s first three seasons, reaching a later round each time en route to an AFC title game berth during the 2014 season.
Since then, however, things have gone decidedly off course. And now, as Luck’s sixth NFL season enters Week 2, he remains sidelined following shoulder surgery and the Colts have regressed into, by the current looks of it, one of the league’s more pitiable teams.
“Two years ago, if you’d said to pick a quarterback to start your franchise with, there’d have been almost unanimous agreement on Andrew Luck,” former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said. “I don’t think that’s close to being the case at this point. He’s been beat up. He’s been hurt a bunch. The team hasn’t done well around him.”
Luck has been plagued by a series of injuries. He has played 22 of the Colts’ 33 games since the start of the 2015 season. The team has a record of 16-17 over that span. Luck has thrown 25 interceptions to go with 46 touchdown passes in those 22 games.
The Colts, with Scott Tolzien starting at quarterback, were overwhelmed Sunday by the Los Angeles Rams, 46-9. Tolzien threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
“It’s just not a very good team,” a former NFL general manager said. “When Luck was in there, he covered for some of their deficiencies and kept them competitive. When he’s not in there, it’s going to be a struggle for them just to be competitive most weeks.”
Luck has been ruled out of this Sunday’s game at home against the Arizona Cardinals. Coach Chuck Pagano has not said whether Tolzien or second-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett, obtained just before the season in a trade with the New England Patriots for wide receiver and former first-round draft pick Phillip Dorsett, will start against the Cardinals. Luck’s return does not appear all that imminent.
“They’ve been patient,” Hasselbeck, an NFL analyst for ESPN, said by phone. “But if you don’t have someone in there, it’s easy to look up and say, ‘We’re not accomplishing what we thought we’d accomplish with you.’ They absolutely have failed him. Some people say, ‘Why are you messing with [Anthony] Castonzo at left tackle? He’d be an awesome right tackle.’ And you just traded a first-round pick for a backup quarterback. Whether you’re Peyton or [Tom] Brady or [Drew] Brees, you still need good people around you.”
That, it seems, is the major issue. The Colts, after losing to the Patriots in lopsided fashion in the 2014 AFC championship game — the Deflategate game — at the end of Luck’s third season, made a Super Bowl-or-bust push before Luck’s fourth season in 2015 by adding a group of veterans that included tailback Frank Gore, wide receiver Andre Johnson, offensive lineman Todd Herremans and pass rusher Trent Cole.
It went bust, as the Colts went 8-8 that season. Owner Jim Irsay surprised many around the league by retaining Pagano and General Manager Ryan Grigson, only to fire Grigson in January following another 8-8 season. The Colts hired Chris Ballard as their new GM. He has, in some ways, a tougher job than Grigson did, given the salary cap constraints of working around Luck’s six-year, $140 million contract as compared to the relative ease of building a team around a young quarterback on his original rookie deal.
“You can say that,” Hasselbeck, whose brother Matt formerly was Luck’s backup, said. “But when you’re fortunate to be able to draft someone like that and you have him on a rookie contract, that’s the time. And maybe some of the people to blame for that are no longer there. Not every hit he’s taken is the fault of a bad offensive line. But look at the roster without him. Is it better than the bottom five teams in the league? Without him, are they the worst team in the league? We can have that conversation. You can look at it through that lens and say they failed him.”
There even has been speculation, denied by Luck’s agent, that Luck might want out of Indianapolis. Assuming that doesn’t come about, the questions become: Will Luck, whenever he returns, work his way back toward being universally regarded as an elite quarterback with once-in-a-generation talent? And will Ballard and the Colts find a way to surround him with a team good enough to help him reach a Super Bowl?
“He could be one of the best of all-time with the right pieces around him,” Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians, the former interim coach of the Colts, said in a conference call with Indianapolis reporters, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Luck just turned 28. The end of his NFL career is nowhere in sight, in all likelihood. But he’s also not exactly a young player any more. The clock is ticking. Great promise must be turned into great results beginning sometime relatively soon.
“You take a step back and look at it,” Hasselbeck said. “A 12-year career is a long career in the NFL. He might be halfway done. You think back to the expectations — best prospect since John Elway — and I don’t know if any of them have been met. He’s good. That’s undeniable. But you compare him to some other people and you say: What’s the difference between Andrew Luck and Matt Stafford? It’s not all his fault. But you do have to be concerned a little bit. And I think the Colts are concerned a little bit.”