Just two weeks into the NFL season, a big absence is haunting Indy.
The Colts’ Andrew Luck missed the team’s tilt with the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday, not a huge surprise given the franchise quarterback’s offseason shoulder surgery and his inactivity during training camp and the preseason. But that alarming trend shows no signs of abating, as Indianapolis ruled Luck out of this Sunday’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.
The mystery surrounding Luck’s health is a hot topic now. Back in early January, Luck shrugged off concerns about his injured shoulder. But by Jan. 19, Colts owner Jim Irsay announced that the quarterback had undergone surgery. At the time, Irsay claimed Luck would return in time for the season, optimism that ultimately proved to be misplaced. Indianapolis currently stands at 0-1 and, if Week 1’s 46-9 drubbing at the hand of the Rams is any indication, the team may be in serious trouble.
To understand the predicament the Colts are in, one must look at the conflicting agendas at work within the organization. These dynamics have confused the public messaging behind Luck’s injury woes and contributed to the lack of a clear the timetable for the QB’s recovery and return to the field.
At the top of football operations sits Chris Ballard, the new general manager hired by the Colts back in January to tear down and rebuild the team. Ballard’s predecessor, Ryan Grigson, left him with a roster devoid of much offensive or defensive talent outside of Luck and nearly $14 million in dead money for 2017.
With no desirable quick fixes, Ballard spent the 2017 offseason purging the books of bad contracts. He traded underachieving tight end Dwayne Allen and busted first-round wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to the New England Patriots and cut oft-injured defensive lineman Arthur Jones, all costly acquisitions of the previous administration. Ballard’s front office largely replaced those players with cheap, young talent to help balance the books and bring Indy closer to the league average in age. As such, 26 players on the Colts’ 53-man roster did not play for the team a year ago and the average age of the roster dropped from 26.52 a year ago (29th in the NFL) to 25.6 in 2017 (fifth).
Such a youth movement affords opportunity for growth, but it can also create short-term problems. For the Colts, it meant that the offensive line introduced two new young starters this season in Le’Raven Clark and Jeremy Vujnovich. While they replaced below-average offensive linemen, they also require more time to develop into capable blockers. A foot injury for starting center Ryan Kelly complicates the situation further. That lack of reliable pass protection incentives Ballard to exercise even more patience with their franchise quarterback’s recovery. The GM’s job security depends on Luck’s performance over the next few seasons and beyond, not 2017 alone.
Meanwhile, Chuck Pagano faces a decidedly different dilemma. The coach barely escaped the chopping block in 2015 as his team produced a disappointing 8-8 record and finished outside of the postseason. Worse, Pagano made headlines after not-so-secretly feuding with his general manager, a situation that required Irsay to intervene. After a drama-filled offseason, Pagano returned for 2016 with a new contract and seemingly a new lease on his NFL life.
But rather than a rebound campaign, the Colts looked largely the same. Pagano’s defense — his supposed forte given his background as a defensive coordinator and position coach — was 29th in Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings last season, and the team finished with a .500 record for the second year in a row.
Again, Pagano returned, but his margin for error has completely dissipated. The AFC South has no established ruling class and a division crown looks attainable for the Colts. Pagano must deliver at least a playoff berth or become the next piece sent packing by the new regime. All of which gives Pagano and the coaching staff every reason to put Luck under center as soon as medically possible, whether or not doing so represents the best long-term interests of the quarterback or the franchise. Meanwhile, we haven’t heard much from Luck himself. The former No. 1 overall pick last spoke to the media during the final week of the preseason, offering little insight into his health or expectations for his return. And while rumors that Luck’s dissatisfaction with the franchise could force a trade has proven unfounded (for now), the idea that Luck might feel hung out to dry by the organization seems more believable in the wake of Irsay’s recent quotes about the QB’s mental toughness.
“These games, all games, are played on a four-inch field between your ears,” Irsay remarked about Luck’s recovery in August. “That’s where it’s at. You have to be able to deal with this, not only physically but mentally. I have no doubt that Andrew Luck, the person that is, he’s going to come out of this thing not just how he was but a better QB. When is the question. That timetable is more on the football gods and Andrew’s gut feeling on how he’s feeling.”
Any question of Luck’s toughness looks comical given his history. Two seasons ago, Luck lacerated his kidney and partially tore an abdominal muscle during the fourth quarter of a key AFC matchup with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Luck stayed in to finish the game, a 27-24 win for the Colts. The medical staff later diagnosed his injuries and put him on the shelf for the remainder of the year. All the while, the quarterback also battled issues with his throwing shoulder that persisted into 2016 and resulted in the offseason surgery that has kept him on the sidelines this year.
Luck signed a lucrative five-year contract worth nearly $123 million last offseason. However, for him to earn all the money from the deal, he has to remain healthy and productive. Luck can accomplish that by resisting the internal and external pressures to return under center before he has fully recovered. That could mean sitting out the rest of September and perhaps longer, a prospect that seems all but assured of dooming the Colts to a third-straight season without a playoff berth and costing his head coach a job.
It remains unclear when Luck will make his 2017 debut. However, the sum of the total forces at play suggest a more conservative approach to his rehab than the team and player have taken in the past. Simply put, no member at any level of the organization more significantly affects wins and losses than Luck. It makes sense for both Luck and the Colts to prioritize his health over everything else, even if that cripples the team this year.