WESTFIELD, Ind. – That moment lurks tantalizing around the corner, when the cornerstone of a franchise returns to an NFL game that might not be the real thing, but is as close as it gets.
We’re talking about Aug. 9 and Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
We’re talking about Andrew Luck getting back on his bike and pedaling once again when the Indianapolis Colts open their preseason schedule against the Seahawks (the game is on FOX59, with kickoff set for 10 p.m.). It’s the next phase – a major one – in Luck’s comeback from January 2017 surgery on his right shoulder.
During training camp at Grand Park, he’s meticulously focused on adhering to the mechanics and techniques acquired while working during the offseason with West Coast throwing gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux. Watch Luck between sessions and throws, and occasionally you’ll see him mimicking his drop-back and throwing motion.
Gotta get it right.
“There are times I revert to some old habits I created,” Luck admitted.
The Seahawks represent that next hurdle. No longer will drills be controlled. No longer will pass rushers pull up before contact.
Does Luck worry about facing that next obstacle?
“Worry would be the wrong word,” he said Friday. “I’m certainly excited for those challenges and excited for those hurdles. (But) I’m not going to look too far ahead.”
That has been the overriding theme since camp opened, and since Luck began amping up his throwing regimen in May and June.
“I’m not going to look ahead,” Luck reiterated. “I say it into the mirror at night.”
Fine. Understandable for a player – a quarterback – who last played Jan. 1, 2017.
But that hasn’t kept everyone else from ignoring the here and now and taking a peek down the road. You know, to Seattle.
There’s no question Luck needs to play, and will play in the preseason, beginning with the Seahawks. But how much is enough?
“I can’t imagine it’s going to be drastically different than anything in my past,” Luck said. “[Head coach] Frank [Reich] and I haven’t really spoken about that.”
How much do you want to play?
“Whatever the head coach wants me to do,” Luck said, laughing. “That’s the easy answer.”
Frank Reich searches for the appropriate response whenever Luck’s anticipated workload at Seattle is broached. Maybe a quarter. Maybe a series or two. Maybe 12 or 15 plays.
“I don’t want to get pinned down on it,” Reich said. “We’ll just feel how it goes, but we certainly want to get him in a rhythm.
“If you say you’re going to play a quarter and you go out and have a great 12-play drive, sometimes you cut it off (and) sometimes you play another series.”
It’s risky to compare Luck’s possible snap count versus the Seahawks with how the Colts have handled him in previous preseasons, but we’ll do so anyway.
As a rookie and the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, Luck needed to and played a ton: 24 snaps in the preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams, 42 against Pittsburgh and 38 against Washington before tapering off to a cameo in the finale against Cincinnati. He attempted 66 passes in four games.
In subsequent preseason openers, Luck had 10 snaps against Buffalo in 2013, 12 against the New York Jets in ’14 and 18 against Philadelphia in ’15 before the coaching staff, concerned with the effectiveness of its pass protection, kept him out of the ’16 opener at Buffalo.
There’s no overstating the importance of Luck reacquainting himself with the speed and chaotic nature of a game.
“Yeah, I think it’s important for him,” Reich said. “I think it’s important for our team and just the progression of our offense.”
That includes Luck not only being jostled in the passing pocket, but getting whacked.
“It’ll happen soon,” he said. “I haven’t thought about it much. I’m sure I will the night before a game. The beauty of it is that’s still a ways away.”
Reich’s vast NFL resume includes 13 seasons and 118 games as a backup quarterback. He absorbed 68 sacks during his playing career, and always understood the value of that first one during the preseason.
“It’s important to take that hit, get up and let’s go,” he said. “I really think everybody likes it. I felt the same thing. Most quarterbacks do. It’s just part of the game.”
Until it’s time to step on the field against the Seahawks, Luck will remain laser-focused on the next practice. He’ll also continue to monitor his progress, which includes analyzing practice video.
“Obviously film is a wonderful thing in football: the eye in the sky don’t lie,” Luck said. “I’m certainly watching all of our reps and seeing, ‘All right, how’s my technique? Am I losing something somewhere? Is the ball accurate? Am I making the right decision?'”
Luck insisted his arm is feeling stronger each day, and the recovery time between throwing sessions continues to decrease.
“It really has been fun, a lot of fun for me, to get to practice and be out there,” he said.
The initial July 26 practice, though, nearly was an otherworldly experience.
“That first practice was really like, ‘Whoa, what is going on? How do you hand the ball off? Where is everybody?'” Luck said. “I left practice and was like, ‘I don’t know what I just did out there.’
“But the second practice it started to feel like wearing back into a groove almost, something that I do recognize. That feeling has gotten more comfortable, more comfortable each day.”
Even so, an occasional misstep reminds Luck there’s still work to be done.
“Still some head-scratching moments,” he said. “I threw one a couple of days ago to T.Y. on a little deeper seam and I was like, ‘All right, I have no idea where this ball’s going. Let’s hope it ends up in the right place.’ I hadn’t thrown that route in a long time.
“There still are moments like that every day. It’s great when it works out, and if it doesn’t work out perfectly, that’s OK.”
Coordinator Nick Sirianni has been amazed how quickly Luck has shaken off the rust of inactivity.
“Oh, shoot, he’s on it now,” he said. “You can see why he was the player that he was at Stanford, the No. 1 pick coming out and the player that he’s been in the NFL because it doesn’t look like this everywhere. I know that.
“There’s not a lot of teams that can come out and practice and be like, ‘Man, we are just better because he’s on the field.’”