INDIANAPOLIS – The doubts seeped into Shaquille Leonard’s psyche.
How could they not?
As the Indianapolis Colts found different and historic ways to reach rock bottom during a tumultuous 2022, their All-Pro linebacker’s fifth season was bookended by a pair of surgeries to address two disks in his back. It began with Leonard rehabbing from a June 9 surgery and ended with a second surgery Nov. 15.
One of the NFL’s true difference-makers was limited to three games and 74 defensive snaps. A broken nose and concussion sustained in his week 4 debut against the Tennessee Titans contributed to his scarcity, but the back issue was the undeniable culprit.
Were there moments Leonard worried he might never regain the disruptive form that resulted in a long list of honors? You know, Defensive Rookie of the Year, three first-team and one second-team All-Pro selections, three Pro Bowls?
“There’s no question,’’ Leonard said Wednesday afternoon. “Every day I think about that. I see myself on tape at practice, I look slow. In the game, I look slow. I feel like I hurt the team last year whenever I was on the field. It sucks to kind of sit back and watch that and sit back and see the bad plays and know it’s not you.
“Of course, man, there’s been so many times where I’m thinking, ‘Will I ever be back? Will I ever be back to the Maniac?’’’
Motivation isn’t that far away. Whenever necessary, Leonard flips on a video when he was the Maniac. Maybe his rookie year when he led the NFL with a then-franchise record 163 tackles. Maybe ’21 when he compiled an ultra-busy stat line: four interceptions, eight forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 122 total tackles.
“A lot of times I watch the film of my old self and find that reassurance of who I am and never lose sight of who I was and who I still can become,’’ he said.
Anytime a player is dealing with a back and nerve issues, there are long-term concerns. And that’s especially true when that player has undergone two surgeries to address the same problem. In Leonard’s case, two disks in his neck were pressing on nerves which caused pain and weakness in his left leg and calf.
But, so far so good.
Leonard isn’t back, but the early signs are encouraging.
“He seems at a really good place,’’ defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “I know he’s been talking about this offseason, how the workouts have been going and just the confidence he’s getting.
“It’s a work in progress, right? Shaq is never good enough where he’s at.’’
Leonard offered an upbeat update on his status.
“I’m feeling a whole lot better than what I did at any point of the year last year,’’ he said. “Moving around a whole lot better. Got more power in the calf. Still not where I want to be. I’m taking it one day at a time, one step at a time and just maintaining the focus and trying to get 1% better each day.’’
It’s important to differentiate the situation facing Leonard now as opposed to last offseason.
Last year, there was an understandable urgency for Leonard to get back on the field as soon as he felt capable of doing so. The NFL schedule waits for no one.
After undergoing his first back surgery June 9, Leonard was cleared to practice Aug. 30. He appeared in his first game Oct. 2 against the Titans, when he suffered a concussion and a broken nose that required surgery. It ultimately was determined Leonard’s back/nerve issue required a second procedure, and he was placed on the injured reserve list Nov. 12.
Now, there remains an urgency for Leonard to get back and fully engage with his teammates, but training camp is more than three months away, and the September opener is roughly five months down the road.
“I’m not going to say there’s still not an urgency. There’s OTAs,’’ Leonard argued.
The Colts’ organized team activities, which consists of 10 practices, start May 23. Not being able to fully participate gnaws at Leonard.
“You’re working with a bunch of guys, and you see them doing all the work, and you think it’s cool to be standing on the sideline while they’re working?’’ he said. “It sucks. It sucks not being out there with them day-in and day-out. It’s somewhat embarrassing.
“I think there’s an urgency of getting back. There’s nothing like going through basic training with your guys to get ready for war.’’
It’s unclear how involved Leonard will be when the Colts begin on-field work next week. He’s still limited in how much running he’s allowed to do.
“I’m cleared to do everything my body is allowing me to do,’’ he said. “Everybody’s working together and making sure I’m not pushing it. They know if they give me an inch, I take a mile.
“It would be amazing if I’m 100% tomorrow, and that’s my goal.’’
When he’s as close as possible to returning to Maniac form, Leonard will be able to better put 2022 in his rearview mirror.
“Oh, man, last year was by far one of the hardest years of my life,’’ he said. “Just fighting through injury . . . it was tough. Mentally, it was really, really bad. Seeing the guys out there fighting for a win each Sunday and me standing on the sideline. Too many times after the game I’m in the locker room just boo-hooing.
“I felt like I let the team down not being out there . . . I felt somewhat embarrassed coming in each day, injured, not getting better. I felt like I didn’t want to be around for a while. It was hard, still hard.
“Like I said, I’m nowhere near where I want to be . . . I’m just going to continue to work, be the best version of myself and get back.’’
Running back Jonathan Taylor offered an update after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in late January to clean out loose particles in his right ankle.
“Physically, I’m feeling well right now,’’ he said.
Taylor hasn’t been cleared to do everything at this point, “but we’re rollin’,’’ he said. “Anytime you get a procedure, you’ll definitely feel the difference.’’
Taylor led the NFL with a franchise-record 1,811 rushing yards in 2021, but was unable to approach that last season. Toe and ankle injuries, coupled with inconsistent blocking by the offensive line, contributed to him finishing with 861 yards in 11 games.
He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract and eligible for a contract extension.
“I don’t even know how that goes,’’ Taylor said. “I’ll keep you posted.’’
Ideally, an extension would come before the start of the season.
If not, Taylor said, “it wouldn’t be a distraction to me. I’m under contract here for four years. I put pen to paper.
“That’s where I’m at right now. I made an obligation to them, and they made an obligation to me. Things will happen naturally.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.