The greatest commodity in all of football, and maybe all of sports, is a franchise quarterback. A franchise in possession of one has a chance to win a Super Bowl. If there were sports crimes, wasting the prime years of a franchise quarterback would be up there as the worst. And if there were sports jail, the Indianapolis Colts would be heading there for life, because they have supremely wasted the prime of Andrew Luck, a generational franchise quarterback who was gifted to them on a platter.
Luck was placed on injured reserve Thursday, ending his 2017 season before it began and now, despite optimism from Luck, we are faced with serious questions about his long-term health and future as an NFL quarterback.
How Luck came to Indy is, well, luck: Peyton Manning (their old franchise quarterback) needed to take the 2011 season off with neck injuries. The Colts secured the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and were handed Luck, one of the most gifted and intelligent quarterbacks to enter the NFL over the past 20 years.
Getting Luck is like getting a high-paying government job. You grab that thing with all your might and make someone pry it out of your cold-dead hands. Protect it with your life. The entire premise of building the Colts roster should have been centered on one singular question: "How do you help and protect Andrew?" At all costs, the Colts had to make sure that Luck stayed healthy and that he had weapons around him.
"Your job is to protect the franchise. Everything else is superfluous," former Colts general manager Bill Polian said Thursday after the news broke that Luck was headed for injured reserve. "That wasn't the case when Andrew first came in there and that contributed to this."
Credit then-GM Ryan Grigson for finding a couple of weapons. T.Y. Hilton was an excellent choice in the same draft. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen looked like viable weapons as well. Remove all credit for the offensive line, however. The Colts tried, I guess -- they drafted a tackle in the seventh round in 2012, took Hugh Thornton (third) and Khaled Holmes (fourth) in 2013, Jack Mewhort (second) in 2014 and Ryan Kelly (first) in 2016.
You can quibble aggressively with the quality of the selections; whiffing on Bjoern Werner in 2013, Trent Richardson (via trade!) in 2014 and Philip Dorsett in 2015 as first-round picks is not arguable in terms of disastrous decision-making that directly impacted the quarterback's ability to do his job and to stay healthy.
Maybe there is even a case that the Colts had things on the right track. Luck registered a career high in touchdown passes (40) and a career low in sacks (27) in 2014 while making his third straight Pro Bowl to start his career. The Colts were a trendy Super Bowl pick and Luck was one of the preseason front-runners for MVP.
That's when the Colts really bungled things. Three games into the 2015 season, things came off the rails when Luck suffered a shoulder injury against the Titans. This is the injury Luck is still dealing with -- he suffered it 15 days after he turned 26 years old. Now, best case scenario, he is not going to play until around or about Sept. 9, 2018, three days before he turns 29 years old.
The Colts have effectively set Andrew Luck's athletic prime on fire.
Comparing the Colts' stats from 2012-14 against '15-17 is extremely sobering. Via NFL Research:
Andrew Luck games missed
*Worth noting that the Colts could make the playoffs this season. (Spoiler: They won't.)
**Luck will actually have missed 27 games by the time the Colts finish the 2017 season.
This is not a "QB wins" situation either. This is about a football team propped up by the quarterback for far too long. It was the case under Manning for many years (again, see 2011) and it has been the case with Luck.
Back to the borderline malpractice issue at play here. Luck suffered the injury early in the 2015 season. It is difficult to argue the shoulder injury did not create a cascading effect on his body too. Anyone who has a back or foot injury knows about overcompensation to battle the pain. The body does weird things. Luck's stats went in the tank in 2015 as he struggled with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
And he battled a litany of injuries that season, including a lacerated kidney and an abdominal tear. Those injuries occurred Nov. 8, 2015, and were akin to Luck being involved in a car crash. It was reported that, after missing just two games with the shoulder injury, Luck was still dealing with pain and that he was battling a cartilage tear as well. Luck should not have been on the field at the time.
The Colts did him a disservice by allowing him to play. Both Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano were on the hot seat and it makes you wonder if there was a pressure to put him out there. After the season, it was a shock when owner Jim Irsay decided not to fire Grigson and/or Pagano. It was often reported that season that the coach and the GM were operating with separate agendas and worried about their own jobs. You look at it two years removed and it is difficult to imagine them having their young quarterback's long-term interests at heart. It's the nature of the NFL, but it's not how quality organizations operate.
The Colts eventually shut him down after the additional injuries, but elected to have Luck rehab in between the 2015 and '16 seasons instead of undergoing surgery. By April 2016, Luck was still admitting publicly that he was not completely healthy and that he still had "some work to do."
Two months later, in June 2016, the Colts would reward Luck with a blockbuster contract. Good on Luck for getting it at the time -- it was a no-brainer deal because no one thought he was still injured. I wrote about his contract when he signed it and didn't mention his shoulder once.
There wasn't any reason to worry, because everyone assumed the Colts and the doctors involved were taking care of Luck. Luck himself said he felt "as good as I've ever ... felt going into a training camp" before the 2016 season.
And then Luck appeared on the Week 1 injury report. Major red flag there. A bigger red flag? The Colts front office and coaching staff flat-out lied to the media about the situation.
Pagano said at the time that "Andrew is fine," an empirically false statement in hindsight.
Grigson was even worse, getting defensive about people wondering whether Luck was healthy. Grigson pointed out that "people don't have a league-wide perspective" on how injury reports work and that people were looking "for something that's not there."
"No. He's all good. I mean the guy's thrown a zillion balls. The media's seen it. [He was] in Anderson day in and day out throwing a ton of balls with a lot of velocity -- even knocking some guys over," Grigson said. "I don't know. I guess you could sit there and look for something that's not there, but I'm just saying he's going to be ready for the game this weekend, and we have a plan that we think's best for him, and one he feels good about, and that's what we're doing."
Spoiler: Something was there.
Another red flag came from Jim Irsay in October 2016 when he pointed out there were "no surgeries planned" and that Luck's shoulder injury "just disappears into the woodwork when he wins his next MVP or Super Bowl." That's not how injuries, MVP awards or Super Bowl victories work. At all.
Luck would actually play all but one game in 2016 and play pretty well (31 touchdowns to 13 interceptions). He missed a Thanksgiving blowout loss to the Steelers with a concussion, but the Colts said he would have played if the game was Sunday that week. (Which, frankly, is another giant red flag.) He was rarely a full participant in Colts practices and consistently battled injuries, including: "right shoulder, right elbow, right thumb, left ankle and a concussion." According to Pro Football Focus, Luck was the most pressured quarterback in football last season, coming under fire for a whopping 44.4 percent of his dropbacks.
So let's pause real quick and catch up here. The Colts did a terrible job surrounding Luck with talent on the offensive line, put him in a drama-heavy situation where the coaching staff and front office weren't on the same page and allowed him to keep playing through pretty severe injuries, not just within the course of a season but over the course of multiple seasons. Oh, and the GM said he couldn't build a proper defense because of the contract he gave Luck.
Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
One day after the 2016 season, Luck told fans not to worry about his shoulder. . Don't worry, season ticket holders who might be considering whether to pay huge sums of money for the 2017 season, Luck will be back.
Andrew recovering from successful outpatient surgery to fix right shoulder injury that had lingered since 2015. Will be ready for season!— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) January 19, 2017
Two days later, Grigson was fired as GM. That timing could best be described as ... odd.
You know what's happened since. The injury was handled with a disturbing amount of nonchalance throughout the offseason. The Colts kept acting like Luck might be ready for Week 1 (!?!) and never put him in the PUP list just in case he could come back before Week 6. Pagano ruled Luck out each Monday, with the Colts ostensibly saying he wasn't really close while still dangling the idea of him returning to the public in a vague way each week. A late September discussion about Luck returning to practice feels laughable now, although he did get back with the team and begin throwing.
Then Luck suffered a setback and here we are, facing a lost season in the prime of a potentially great quarterback's career.
Expect the Colts to downplay the long-term concerns for Luck and to politely insist it's time to move forward and not to worry about what happened in the past with their quarterback's shoulder. "Stick to the process and keep working." "You're dealt the hand you're dealt." Stuff like that -- oh wait, those are things Pagano actually said.
Pagano on Luck to IR: "He's exhausted everything. He'll be back." pic.twitter.com/nm1cBBhfzv— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) November 2, 2017
Do not let them off the hook here. This is a team that was gifted 13 years of a Hall of Fame quarterback and immediately handed the best quarterback prospect of a generation the following year. Indy was set up for another 10 to 15 years of success in the AFC South. If you want a visual, football-based analogy for how the Colts handled this, well, I have just the play for you:
They botched this beyond comprehension.
It speaks to organizational failure and dysfunction. The general manager was nearly fired, then not, then was. The coach has survived multiple seasons of incredulous decision making despite also nearly getting fired. The owner too frequently acts on a whim. The Colts are not required to be forthcoming about everything going on with their organization and their quarterback, but fans should feel misled. Luck going to injured reserve is predicated on a "setback" but it sure feels like this is a situation where the Colts, if they were not concerned about people checking out early on, could have been more cautious about their public prognosis for Luck.
There will be plenty of talk about how Luck was "too aggressive" on the field at times and failed to avoid contact. There is a little truth to that, but it feels a little like victim blaming -- Luck was shoved into a position where he was asked to elevate his team too frequently. If he didn't do the things he did, people would question his toughness. The Colts could have simply been a functional organization and he would be fine. Do not allow that spin zone to exist.
There is only one reality here, and it's that the Colts unequivocally took a golden opportunity to keep a decade's worth of success going and treated it with all the care that Pagano treats goal line challenges.
At the end of the day, the Colts are doing the right thing by shutting Luck down and focusing on the future, however murky it might be right now. Unfortunately shutting Luck down is the decision they should have made two years ago and hindsight goggles are not even required -- just a little bit of common sense and a modicum of responsible treatment toward a franchise quarterback.