INDIANAPOLIS – One Shaquille Leonard-related issue has been cleared up.
Another remains, and only time will determine the outcome.
But first, the clarity.
The Indianapolis Colts’ three-time first-team All-Pro linebacker has been cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol and is available for Sunday’s season opener at Lucas Oil Stadium against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Very excited,’’ Leonard said Thursday. “Just looking forward to getting the opportunity to get back out there on the field and competing with my guys.’’
It’s uncertain if he’ll be under a pitch count since he hasn’t been in a true game environment since Nov. 6. He was placed on the injured reserve list a few days later and subsequently underwent a second surgery on his back.
Leonard sustained the third concussion of his career – and second in 11 months – Oct. 17 during the Colts’ joint practice with the Chicago Bears.
Is he concerned with the concussion issue?
“No,’’ he said.
Leonard delivered his statement with a fixed stare at the inquisitor.
But while the concussion no longer is an issue, and Leonard’s heavy participation in training camp should have alleviated any lingering concerns regarding the sturdiness of a back that required two surgeries in a seven-month period last year, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever reach the level that made him one of the NFL’s most disruptive linebackers.
That thought has even crossed his mind.
In May 2022, Leonard admitted he “fell out of love for the game’’ while he was dealing with the lingering injury to his left ankle, the crushing season-ending loss at Jacksonville that cost the Colts a ’21 playoff berth and several health issues with family members.
So, is there a Maniac: Act II? (This is what we in the business refer to as ammunition for Leonard to use as motivation).
When Leonard returned to the defense last season – Oct. 2 against the Tennessee Titans – it was four months removed from the first surgery on his back. It proved to be too soon, which video of practices confirmed. Physically, he simply couldn’t be himself.
Now, video review is more encouraging.
“It’s better,’’ Leonard said. “I feel like it’s getting closer and closer to the guy in ’19. I’m happy with where I’m at.
“Just got to continue to just get better from there.’’
Does he look forward to notching that first tackle against the Jaguars?
“Of course. Of course.’’
After everything Leonard has endured, no one is in a better position to project how close he is to being . . . well, to being the Shaq Leonard of old. You know, 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year, three-time first-team All-Pro, second-team All-Pro once, three Pro Bowls, 15 sacks, 12 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, 549 total tackles, 30 tackles for loss.
In short, that guy.
“I’m close,’’ he said. “I’ve just got to continue to come out here, get better, continue to go out there and work and just try to put myself in position to make plays.’’
Not surprising, Leonard will rely one on of his trusty motivational tools on his journey back. He’s out to prove his doubters – every single one of them – wrong.
Leonard insisted he’s gained “more heart’’ during his recent travails.
“Just knowing there are so many people counting me out,’’ he said. “Just having the will to keep going. No matter how many times I’ve been knocked down, just continue to get up and put my best foot forward.
“Just understanding there are so many people that’s rooting for me to fail. It’s my job to come out here and prove them guys wrong. My teammates are being alongside me and pushing me to be better, and I push them to be better.’’
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley hasn’t really benefitted from Leonard’s presence. Leonard was limited to three games and 74 snaps last season.
Bradley admitted he gets emotional whenever discussing Leonard.
“It’s hard not to when you talk about him,’’ he said. “If you just sit back and pause and look where he was at and then look at all the work he put in, and then he goes through maybe a setback and then he comes back and then it’s a little bit of a setback, and then he comes back.
“Just his perseverance, his grit, his determination. It is emotional what he’s gone through and what he’s put into it to do everything he can to get back. He’s so important to this team. On the field, the emotion he brings, the playmaking ability he brings and to see him compete, really to try to get to where he’s at his best.
“You can get caught up in the day-to-day and fail to look back at just how much he’s accomplished to get to where he is right now.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.