ATLANTA, Ga. – The foreboding clouds of doubt were replaced by a stroll along the red carpet, girlfriend Nicole by his side. Uncertainty that reached incredible depths – Would he ever again play football at the highest level? – yielded to one of the NFL’s most inspiring individual awards.
We give you Andrew Luck, the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. The Indianapolis Colts’ veteran quarterback and teammate Darius Leonard were among the focal points at Saturday evening’s NFL Honors Show. Leonard, the 36th overall pick in the April draft, was named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
We give you two reasons the arrow is most definitely pointing up for the Colts, who returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014: the relatively-young QB and the frisky, aggressive linebacker.
Luck didn’t bother to hide his enthusiasm for being singled out.
“Certainly it’s been a fulfilling and rewarding season in many ways,’’ he said. “Honestly the best part (was) playing football again, having fun playing football and being pain free.
“There are not these dark clouds of uncertainty, angst, anxiety for me. I was a pain to be around.
“I’ll be honest with you, the beginning of the season was as fun as the end of the season. It really was. Being on the field, trying to do your best, it was (great).’’
Comeback is an appropriate description of the last couple of years of Luck’s career.
There was the January 2017 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and a stalled rehabilitation that forced him to miss the entirety of the ’17 season. What amounted to a second rehab included an extended trip to The Netherlands to work with a personal trainer and another to the West Coast to work with throwing gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux.
Luck’s throwing regimen began with throwing weighted balls and advanced to a smaller football. He finally began chucking a regulation NFL football in June and was ready for full-go work when training camp opened in late July.
Luck returned to the playing field for the first time in 585 days when the Colts opened their preseason at Seattle. He started his first regular-season game Sept. 9 against the Cincinnati Bengals, ending a 616-day hiatus.
Along the way there were serious doubts about whether Luck would regain the form that allowed him to lead the Colts to playoff berths in each of his first three seasons and earn three Pro Bowl berths.
He continually displayed an upbeat attitude and flashed a smile as his comeback season unfolded. After a Luck-less 4-12 finish last season, the Colts overcame a 1-5 start to finish 10-6 and return to the playoffs for the first time since ’14.
Luck was the offensive catalyst by throwing for 39 touchdowns and 4,593 yards.
“I’m more excited to play,’’ he said. “Ready to get better, ready to improve, ready to get the most out of each day of this offseason, whether it’s getting away with Nicole, training or whatever it may be.
“I’m so excited for life, in a sense. The football season really re-energized me and re-invigorated me. I think even before the season started there were some questions in my mind. What I could do. What I could handle. Would I be available every game? Would I be available every practice? Could I be there for my teammates? Could I be there for myself? Could I live up to the standard I wanted to set?
“And I had fun and answered a lot of those questions. The byproduct of those was enjoying football, enjoying being around my teammates and being proud of what we did as a team.
“We came up short, but I think setting the table for moving forward. We set a standard and we have to improve.’’
While the Colts followed Luck’s lead on offense, the defense revolved around Leonard. He joined Vernon Maxwell (1983) and Duane Bickett (1985) as the only Colts named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Leonard was selected first-team All-Pro and set a team record and let the NFL with 163 tackles. He added 7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
He edged out Chargers safety Derwin James and Denver pass rusher Bradley Chubb for the individual honor.
“They’re making plays,’’ he said. “It was just a great draft class for defensive guys. We’re all together. We’ve got each other’s back.
“As a player you want to have all of those things you want to check off. You want to be Super Bowl champion. You want to be Pro Bowl, You want to be All-Pro.
“You want to do all the awards that all the greats did. Of course you want to check this box.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.