Andrew Luck is back, but have Colts given him enough help?
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – He’s back, and will trot out of the tunnel Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium to a thunderous ovation.
For those keeping trade at home – we know you’re out there – 616 days will have passed since Andrew Luck tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jack Doyle to complete a 24-20 comeback win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the final game of the 2016 season and Sunday’s regular-season opener against Cincinnati.
“I just want to go out and play football,’’ Luck said Wednesday.
As many boxes as possible have been checked as Luck has put that January 2017 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder in his rearview mirror. He’s rehabbed; twice, in fact. He’s worked with a personal trainer in the Netherlands and with throwing gurus on the West Coast. He’s spent the past seven weeks getting his legs back under him and pushing his right shoulder a little further each day.
“I feel really good and I’m excited and I feel like I’m in shape (and) can make all the throws that I need to,’’ Luck said.
He’s battled the demons and doubt that hover menacingly over players coming back from serious injury to a prized body part, in this case Luck’s right shoulder.
Do I still have it?
Can I be the player I once was?
“Yeah, there were one or two moments where I wondered, ‘Am I ever going to be able to do this again?’’’ he said last month.
For those of us who’ve watched Luck go through training camp at Grand Park and at the team’s West 56th Street complex, there’s every reason to believe he’s ready to restart a once-flourishing career. You know, the pre-surgery phase that featured three consecutive 11-5 records and playoff berths, capped by a trip to the 2014 AFC Championship game.
Sunday arguably marks the final hurdle for the $140 million quarterback. He’ll play four quarters for the first time in more than 20 months. The player owner Jim Irsay described as “a special guy in a number of ways’’ is as ready as possible.
“I think he has a chance to be one of the greatest players to play the game going forward,’’ Irsay said during camp. “Colts fans should realize how fortunate they are to have a guy as gifted as he is because, let me tell you something, he has a fire burning deep in his heart . . . to win and to really kick some butt.
“Then it’s up to use to surround him with the right cast to give him the best opportunity to be great.’’
Therein lies the rub as the Colts – the entire NFL, for that matter – anticipate the return of Andrew Luck.
Yes, he’s back with a right shoulder that, in Luck’s words is “alive.’’
But what about that supporting cast?
There are a few proven components, primarily four-time Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton, and tight end Jack Doyle, who’s coming off an 80-catch season and his first Pro Bowl appearance.
After that? Question marks. Lots of them. In fact, collectively the Colts field one of the least imposing offensive supporting casts in the NFL.
That’s not hyperbole.
- Of the 32 100-yard rushing and receiving games shared by wideouts, tight ends and running backs, 28 belong to Hilton. Christine Michael has two 100-yard rushing games, both with Seattle and none the last two seasons. Doyle and Chester Rogers have one 100-yard receiving game on his resume. For all of the promise Eric Ebron brings with him from Detroit, he’s never had more than 94 yards in a game.
- The Colts are the only team in the league whose set of skill players includes a combination of just one wideout with at least 1,000 career receiving yards (T.Y. Hilton) and one running back with 1,000 career rushing yards (Michael). Everyone else has more proven depth and diversity.
- The Colts are one of five teams with just one wideout with at least 1,000 career yards. Hilton has 6,827, followed by Ryan Grant’s 985. One of the other four? The Cincinnati Bengals (A.J. Green with 8,213 followed by Tyler Boyd’s 828).
- Four teams head into the season with a backfield void of a tailback with more than 1,081 career rushing yards: Denver, Green Bay, Seattle and the Colts.
The Colts traditionally have asked – demanded – their quarterback carry an inordinate load. It was the case with Peyton Manning, whose supporting case never – ever – was questioned. It has been the case with Luck since his arrival as the first overall pick in 2012.
But did general manager Chris Ballard do enough in the offseason to provide Luck with a viable supporting cast? Ebron might flourish in Frank Reich’s offense and should form a solid tandem with Doyle. His busiest season was in ’16: 61 catches and 711 yards. Grant’s best season was in 2017: 45 catches, 573 yards, four TDs. Rogers has shown flashes, but injuries have slowed his development.
And the backfield? A hamstring injury probably will keep Marlon Mack out of the opener. Michael spent last season on injured reserve. Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins are rookies.
Under normal circumstances, it would be understandable if a quarterback attempted to do too much when surrounded by so many question marks.
If the script is followed, that won’t be an issue. What will be demanded of Luck? Just do your job.
“It’s built into the plan,’’ said Frank Reich, the first-year coach who also will call plays this season. “You play your game. You just go out there and play ball.’’
That message has found Luck’s receptive ears.
“Just do my job,’’ he said. “I think (that’s the case) for everybody in this locker room. You focus on your own job. Do the best you can. That’s the beauty of football. It’s the greatest team sport there is.
“You have to do your job well and you have to trust that your teammates – the guys next to you – will do their jobs well. We know we’re all in this together and there’s a certain level of accountability that great teams have and we’re trying to build.’’
Hilton’s presence and productivity can be daunting. He has 32 receptions that have gained at least 40 yards, including five TDs that have covered at least 70. But aggressive teams also have had success limiting his effectiveness. He’s been held to two catches or few 12 times.
Will Grant be able to alleviate some of the pressure on Hilton? How about Rogers?
“It’s me?’’ Hilton said when asked about whether the Colts have enough help around Luck. “I wouldn’t say that. Our team is pretty good. We can make plays all over the field.
“We’ve got guys that can make plays. If we continue to make plays, we’ll be fine.’’
We’ll see. Starting Sunday.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.