Last season was unquestionably Andrew Luck’s worst as a professional. A partially separated shoulder, a lacerated kidney and a partial tear of the abdomen trimmed Luck’s hellacious season to just seven starts. There were a bevy of un-Luck-like stats sprinkled throughout—the most telling were 12 interceptions on less than 2,000 passing yards. But the more worrisome one was this: Without Luck, the Colts were 6–3. With him, they were just 2–5.
The excuse bank was in overdrive last year. Yes, the offensive line was mostly ineffective (though interestingly, Pro Football Focus ranked the Colts’ line within the top half of the league.) Yes, the injuries were frequent and reportedly more severe than originally thought.
But the brutal reality is that last year, Luck, a player who once inspired the “Suck for Luck” draft sweepstakes, actually just sucked. He often mistimed his reads as he overthrew receivers. As pockets began to collapse, his reaction time was off, making his escapability nonexistent.
Now, with a summer to reflect and time to heal his wounds, Luck needs to get back to his upward trajectory that once looked to have no ceiling. The Colts need him to be sensational in 2016. They need to get back to the playoffs. They need stability as the potentially tension-filled relationship between GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano continues. They need Luck at his best because his backup quarterback is no longer ageless wonder Matt Hasselbeck, who retired; it’s Scott Tolzien, who has thrown five interceptions and just one touchdown over his career.
But even more than the Colts, the NFL as a whole needs the old Andrew Luck back.
From the moment Luck was drafted No. 1 overall in 2012, he assumed the role of heir apparent to the quarterback monarchy that has ruled the NFL for so long now. So polished for his years, the uber-talented and wildly smart Luck instantly become our generational insurance policy as Peyton Manning’s body broke down, Drew Brees’s skills deteriorated, Tom Brady crept closer to 40 and Aaron Rodgers celebrated his 30th. Sure, he wasn't the only young quarterback to emerge during this time period. One-year wonder Robert Griffin III narrowly edged Luck as the 2012 season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Multi-year wonder Russell Wilson has concocted a never-ending list of magical plays and has a Super Bowl ring to boot. We all marveled at Cam Newton last season. And quarterbacks like Derek Carr, Teddy Bridgewater and even Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have shown early intrigue. Still, there’s no precedent to support the notion that Newton or Wilson, or any run-heavy quarterback, can craft a decade-plus of sheer dominance. And most of the NFL’s quarterback nucleus is clogged with potential-ridden veterans like Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford and Joe Flacco, who are good at being streaky but aren’t able to shred defenses consistently enough to make them must-watch TV every week.
Luck’s first three years were different. His stats weren’t always pretty, but he was a consistent winner, a rare Brady-esque QB whose mere presence turned around a franchise. During the 2011 season, when the Colts were without an injured Manning and right before they drafted Luck, they were 2–14. During Luck’s rookie year, the team sailed to 11–5 and the playoffs. It was as if the previous season had been a slight technical difficultly in the baton handoff from one future Hall of Famer to another. Over his first three years, Luck led 14 game-winning drives and the Colts went three for three in playoff berths. It didn’t matter that Indy lacked receiver depth or had a faulty offensive line. Luck was a quarterback you absolutely had to watch every week.
Then last year happened, and as a result, confidence in Luck to be the guy whose sustained success will keep the quarterback era alive has waned. This year, Luck should be healthy and will have an improved offensive line that features rookie first-round center Ryan Kelly. This season should provide some answers on whether last year was just an aberration.
And if it wasn’t? Well, maybe it won’t matter if Luck isn’t the same quarterback he was out of the starting gate. Maybe with social media and fantasy we can cycle through new star quarterbacks like speed dating and be O.K. without the embedded memories.
But I don’t think so. I think Manning’s absence is going to add a hollowness to this season that we can’t yet feel, and Brees and Brady’s retirements in the next four years will be a gut punch. We need the comfort of knowing that we already have the next one of those guys playing in the NFL, and this is Luck’s chance to prove that he’s still it.
Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016.