Colts camp: Process being stressed above all as Andrew Luck remains sidelined
Both GM Chris Ballard and coach Chuck Pagano are exercising caution with Luck's recovery
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Colts have added a whopping 53 new players to their 90-man roster since the end of last season and are perhaps the most overhauled roster in the entire NFL, but good luck sitting through one of their practices and not fixating on the most familiar face who isn't taking part.
The Colts have long lived and died with quarterback Andrew Luck, and, in Year 1 of rookie general manager Chris Ballard's regime, that's as true as ever. Ballard -- ever-positive, always brimming with energy like a battery that's been charged overnight -- wasted no time diving into the arduous task of transforming this team, but all anyone wants to talk about is the strapping franchise quarterback with the monster contract and the throwback Amish beard who is trying to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.
If the Colts are going to return to the top of the pedestrian AFC South, Luck's arm will have everything to do with it. If this becomes a more steady, incremental rebuild -- well, the quarterback's health will have everything to do with that as well.
What's clear, having watched the likes of potential Week 1 starter Scott Tolzien and young backups Stephen Morris and Philip Walker operate for even one morning training camp session, is the uber-import of Luck. He is the franchise, he is the reason this GM opening was so enticing following the ouster of Ryan Grigson and he is the single-greatest element Ballard inherits as the new head of football operations.
"We want to make sure we handle the process right with Andrew, and continuing to do the things the doctors and trainers have told him to do, and we're going to follow that process," Ballard told me. "And as for everyone saying Andrew is down, well, every season is special in my mind, You don't ever want to take these for granted. They're too hard to come by. So we'll do everything we can to put a team on the field that will compete their butts off and play winning football.
"He's going through his throwing program right now, making sure he's got his motion back right and the next step is getting him to practice. And once we get him to practice we'll keep taking steps from there."
The uncertainly with Luck -- I've heard plenty of rumblings about him starting the year on the physically unable to perform list -- comes at a unique nexus for this franchise. As a first-time general manager just on the job, Ballard has time on his side, and undoubtedly Luck is the greatest thing this organization has going for it. This roster is far from the finished product, and with Ballard just beginning a five-year contract, the long view -- or at least the medium-view -- has to dictate the vision of the front office.
It's a vastly different scenario for head coach Chuck Pagano, who now for two straight years has managed to stave off the ire of wild-card owner Jim Irsay, first getting a contract extension along with Grigson after a tumultuous 2015 season and then surviving the cutting block after 2016 ended without a playoff appearance as well. Pagano, working with a young GM he has no prior relationship with, is very much among those who would enter 2017 on the proverbial hot seat, and for whom winning ASAP would seem to be imperative.
(Some experienced GM like, say, Ballard's former boss in Chicago, Jerry Angelo, might say the best thing for the long-term would be for the Colts to be so-so this year so as not to inflate expectations too high. Ask Jets brass how well winning 10 games their first year has worked out for them.)
The dichotomy could perhaps bear monitoring this season -- coaches of all backgrounds and shapes and sizes would line up to get their hands on Luck -- while it's hard to imagine the Colts doing much without getting close to a full season from the former first-overall pick.
"Right when the doctors say he's ready to roll, then that's the date," Pagano said of the nebulous timetable with Luck. "There is no timeline. It was yesterday for all of us, but that's not really the case. So these things take time, and it's a process. Our trainers are doing a great job and Andrew is doing a great job. We're going to listen to those guys, but the last thing we want to do is rush him or any of our players back too soon and have a setback. So we're going to be diligent in the process."
No one knows precisely when Luck might be cleared to return to practice, or subsequently how long it might take him to be fully cleared for contact. Luck, generally ever-available to the media, is understandably staying relatively mum until he's back practicing, though in his one meeting with the media on Saturday he cast a relatively somber tone.
"I will be better than I was coming into this," he said at the time. "I'll be better coming out of it. I know that. I don't know what day it's going to be. I don't know what week. I don't know when it's going to be, but I definitely will be."
Pagano knows the type of competitor he is dealing with here, and how driven Luck is. He's a natural sponge, always wanting to learn more and watch more film and practice longer. And now he's had to spend months watching far less accomplished quarterbacks run his offense; that's not how Luck would view it, but that's the honest truth. The weight of absence wears on the young man.
"It's hard," Pagano said. "It's been a challenge on him mentally. not only physically, but mentally. He's talked to us about it. He's a great player and great competitor and he wants to be on the football field."
Without him, the Colts don't look the same. There are limitations to the other quarterbacks, though Pagano was adamant that save for tweaks to fit a skillset they aren't changing their overarching goals of philosophies on that side of the ball. The reality is, Luck could flash a wink or a nod or a hand sign at top receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief and it would convey everything. That chemistry, to say nothing of throwing acumen, isn't there with the others.
"That's what we have OTAs and minicamp and now training camp for, to build that bond with Scott or Stephen or whoever else is back there," Hilton said. "But for me, we're just working on that timing and understanding, so when they give me that look I'll know what that means."
"When 12 (Luck) come back, we know he'll be all the way back," Moncrief said. "We know he's ready … And right now we've got Scott and Morris and we've got to get the timing down with those guys until 12 comes back, and we've got to make them feel special. So that's what we're going to do."
As for Ballard, he'll be tireless in his task as well. Expect the Colts to be among the most active teams in the NFL utilizing the waiver wire to restore the back-end of their roster. Ballard has an eye for finding diamonds in the rough, and particularly with his staff having strong ties to the robust Seahawks and Chiefs organizations, there will be treasure to mine in those discarded by those contenders (the early turnover rate here rivals that of Seattle, when stud GM John Schneider took over; one of Schneider's former top evaluators, Ed Dodds, is now with Ballard in Indianapolis).
The young GM is intent on instilling a culture of daily competition, from what I gather, a robust interchange of ideas where staff members are eager to creatively challenge one another with ideas, concepts or personnel to acquire. That will be particularly imperative on defense, where this team needs to continue to find an influx of pass rushers and impact players. I'm intrigued by what they have accomplished thus far, finding what could be great bargains, though the process of transition is far from complete.
"We had work to do when we walked in the door, and we had an older roster on the defensive side," Ballard said. "And spending that first month with our coaches, making sure I knew exactly what they wanted in a player, and the identity they wanted to create, and then we went out and found it.
"We were patient in free agency and I didn't want to just jump in and do something crazy, because I think that happens a lot in our league. We wanted to make sure we were getting good value and I think we did, especially with (Jonathan) Hankins, (Jabaal) Sheard, (John) Simon, Al Woods, Margus Hunt. So we think we were able to make some progress, especially along the front seven, because it's hard to win in this league when your defensive line is not good."
It will be an even bigger challenge to win without Luck, for even a few weeks. But I wouldn't bet against him missing time into September, and I wouldn't knock the Colts for taking every bit of time to try to ensure a smooth and steady return when he is back playing again.
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