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  • There were times when he wondered if he’d ever play again, but 19 months removed from his last pass in an NFL game the Colts QB looks like he never went away. How he got to this point. Plus, mail on why it’s time to get nervous about the Khalil Mack holdout, outlooks for the Chiefs, Bears and Browns, and a Comeback Player of the Year darkhorse
By Albert Breer
August 02, 2018

WESTFIELD, IND. — The Colts have put up a strong front over the last two years. Andrew Luck has, too. But there have been hard times, and even moments when Luck thought he might have taken his final NFL snap.

“Yeah, I did think about that,” Luck says. “And certainly those were some thoughts that you allow to creep in when you’re in not-so-good of a place. I’m definitely not the only one who’s ever gone through an injury. I know getting help, talking to guys that have had serious injuries, was a really positive thing for me. It helped me talking to people, loved ones, friends, family, that all helped. And then proving it to myself, working and feeling better was a big deal.”

So, too, was being able to talk honestly about it with people outside his inner circle. Luck’s return was the subject of rampant speculation throughout the 2017 calendar year. First it was for training camp. Then it was for Week 1. Then it was at some point in the first six weeks. Then it was at some point during the season. Then, he was shut down, and it was not at all.

Luck admits now that he wasn’t completely forthright with himself, or others, about where he was with the right shoulder he initially injured early in the 2015 season, and had surgery on in January 2017. Lots of quarterbacks see their toughness, because they don’t block and tackle, tied to their availability. Luck was one of those. He didn’t want to show vulnerability. He figured he should fight through. The moment he came to realize he needed help was the moment this all turned.

“It was in January, when Andrew came to me and said, ‘Look, I don’t need surgery, I know my body, and I’m gonna come back and play good football again for this organization,’ ” GM Chris Ballard said. “I believed him. I’d gotten close enough, been around Andrew enough to know to believe him. He was steadfast in his belief, and conviction, that he was going to be O.K. That was the moment for me when I just said, ‘You know what, I believe the kid.’ ”

After spending time in Indy this week, I think there’s plenty of reason to believe him. We’re going to get to your mail for the week, but I wanted to start here after a really interesting morning of talking to Luck, Ballard and new head coach Frank Reich, and an interesting practice where Andrew Luck looked, to me at least, like Andrew Luck. And that all really starts with Luck looking back at the low points of the last 19 months, a time during which he leaned on his family and his girlfriend Nicole.

“I’m not going to get too into it because it’s somewhat personal—or not somewhat, it is personal,” Luck says. “But yeah, there was certainly a low point. And I guess in hindsight, it’s nice having a low point because it means you’re coming back up from that point. And it’s been that way for a while.”

The people here, who’ve been there to see all those steps over the last seven months, seem to steadfastly believe that the deliberate coming-back-up is working. Luck has gone from throwing a weighted ball (almost like a shot-put), to using a high school ball to re-acclimate to twisting his biceps as part of the throwing motion, to picking up an NFL football at the end of minicamp, to the seven weeks of work since.

There are, for sure, visible results now. On Tuesday, he dropped a bucket throw to T.Y. Hilton deep down the right sideline that any quarterback would’ve been proud of. Reich said there was another jaw-dropper to Hilton on Monday, on a corner route.

“He’s had several of those,” Reich says. “The thing about great players, they just make it look easy. You do the hard things and make them look easy. Some of the progressions we’ve worked through, his command of the offense, to me those are things you watch. After one day of watching him in the huddle I was like, ‘O.K., we’re good, we’re gonna be all right.’ ”

Luck conceded the next step is getting more consistent with those throws, and that his arm still isn’t all the way back, and he that still has soreness (but not pain) after heavy workdays. Conversely, he’s past where he was last year in his comeback attempts, and he’s got plenty to feel good about. Here are a few of those things…

An appreciation for football. Colts people will tell you Luck has never been great at hiding his emotions—and that he’s been noticeably more up than he was 2017. And he admits now, “I withdrew, pretty significantly, within myself emotionally, and it wasn’t fun. Not a fun world to live in.” The upside of enduring it? The butterflies he felt on Day 1 of camp were a good reminder of how much he missed football.

“Oh, 100%,” he says. “One-hundred percent. Intellectually, when someone tells you once it’s taken away from you, you’re going to appreciate it more, it’s, ‘Yeah, of course’. But I never felt that in my gut, in my heart until now. Without sounding too cliché, there’s a little bit of a new lease on life, my football life. And by no means am I perfect. I’ve got a ways to go.”

I asked Luck what he loves most about football, and he gave a pretty simple answer: “When you can go out and throw balls with your friends, it’s good.” And would he have answered that the same way pre-injury? “Probably not.”

Perspective. Luck came into the NFL with heavier expectations than perhaps any player in the history of the game. He was arguably the best quarterback prospect since John Elway, and the closest thing the NFL has had to what LeBron James was going into the NBA. For three years, he fulfilled all of those expectations. Then the injuries came. So his re-entry to the NFL is different.

“I certainly feel weathered, if that makes sense,” Luck says. “I feel more mature, a little less naïve. And to a certain extent, ignorance was bliss—what is it, wretched are the wise? Not that I’m any more wise than I was, but I feel a little more weathered. At the same time, I feel a little less of a burden, not in a specific burden, but a general sense.

“I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself, more than there’s any external pressure or expectations. But sometimes, maybe it’s not the healthiest thing to do. In a weird sense, it’s being nicer to myself.”

The plan in place. Luck said he has an idea of what he needs to see and feel and do in the Colts’ four preseason games—taking a hit is one of them—but didn’t want to look ahead too early, with a week of practice before then. Reich said he’s expecting to play Luck with the starters for about a quarter in Seattle next Thursday.

“The plan is to play him a little bit more than he would normally would if he’d had a normal year last year,” Reich says. “But I don’t want to overreact. He’ll get enough snaps in, we’ll recreate enough out here in practice by the way we practice and the speed at which we practice, and all the situational stuff we practice. We’ll build a confidence lever there. And sure, he needs to get his snaps, and maybe a little bit more. But I’m not gonna be dramatic with it.”

It all blends in with what he has done for the last six months—Indy is simulating game weeks for him with his practice schedule—giving him a clear runway to the season.

And then, there’s the honesty again. Luck made Ballard’s point about being real about where he was a few minutes before the GM explained that to me, saying it was “learning to communicate honestly, consistently communicating honestly within myself and also outwardly.”

The easy translation: He knew when things weren’t right last year. Being willing to confront that took time.

“It’s been one of the neat things, to watch his growth, in terms of being vulnerable, being honest about how he feels,” Ballard says. “That just takes time. Time proves our actions, our words right. Anybody can say anything in the moment, but over time what you say proves it. Over time, he saw what I stood for. And over time, I saw what he stood for.

“And then his ability to be honest about what he felt, where he was in his process of getting better and getting healthy, that moment was the moment where I just kind of knew, he was going to be back.”

NFL
The Colts (Especially the Young Ones) Are Still Learning Who Frank Reich Is

The biggest question to me, assuming Luck’s progress keeps coming, is what percentage of Luck we’ll get when the season starts. Will he be the guy who fans wanted their favorite teams to throw seasons for in 2011? Will he be the promising young player who led a rebuilding Colts team to the playoffs in 2012, then a round further in each of the next two years? Or will he be some fraction of that?

“I absolutely think he’s going to go beyond anything he’s done, I really do,” Reich says. “And for a long time—I’m not just talking about this year—for a long time. Because you look at [Drew] Brees, you look at [Tom] Brady, these guys are playing until they’re 40. He’s not even 30 yet. He’s got so much in front of him. And he’s in as good condition physically as anyone at quarterback could be.

“He’s got that elite athletic ability, but his game is not just built on that. He’s got an elite mind, along with elite athleticism. That’s just a very good foundation for a very long and good career.”

Luck, for his part, isn’t taking anything for granted. But that’s the cool part of all this for him. Each step has been a blast.

“That first practice back especially,” Luck says. “It was like, ‘Man, I forgot.’ I didn’t think I’d have this much fun playing football again. I didn’t think this would happen. And again, I’ve got a long way to go, a long, long way. But I truly believe if I, and we as a team, if we stay in this process focus—and that’s why I can’t answer questions about the preseason, I literally cannot—then I’ll be O.K. and we’ll be O.K.”

And if he’s O.K., that’s a pretty good thing not just for the Colts, but the NFL in general. On to your mail…


Mitchell Leff/Gatty Images

From Chucky Is Back (@raider_chucky): Hey Albert how long do you think the Khalil Mack hold out lasts?

Things can obviously change quickly, but I’m not sure that there’s an end in sight where things stand now. And my sense is things are getting worse by the day, with no progress having come in months. There have been rumblings in NFL circles about the Raiders’ ability to pay the freight on a star like Mack ahead of their move to Las Vegas. Remember, Derek Carr’s deal was heavily back-loaded.

The next milestone date would be Aug. 7. If Mack doesn’t report by then, he doesn’t accrue the season, but that doesn’t mean nearly as much to him as it does Aaron Donald, because Mack already has the four accrued seasons needed to be a UFA. When I did my buddy Rich Eisen’s show on Wednesday, I was asked if it’s more likely that Mack or Donald plays Week 1. I felt comfortable answering Donald.

From Slim Jimmi (@boejuckofficial): Will the Bengals bounce back into the playoffs this year?

Jimmi, I’ve heard lots of grousing about Andy Dalton, and I don’t think he’s really been the problem the last two years. I don’t feel like it was necessarily the skill players either, even with the attrition of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, and the injury woes of Tyler Eifert. I think it’s been the guys blocking for them.

The hidden key to the 2011-15 Bengals that were playoff regulars was a nasty, tone-setting offensive line. Losing Kevin Zeitler hurt, and having Andrew Whitworth bolt was worse. Swings and misses on tackles-of-the-future Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher exacerbated the problem. And now the hope is that ex-Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn and first-round pick Billy Price will lead the fix. If they do, this is a different team.

From Andrew Fisher (@andrew24fisher): Do you see a trend developing where great teams are spending more offensively as opposed to defensively? Seems like some teams are more hesitant to pay elite defenders (Donald, Mack, etc.) while others have no issue paying good offensive players (Diggs, Cooks, etc.).

It’s a fair question, but I think the market forces this offseason were unique. On the offensive side of free agency, you had Sammy Watkins getting $16 million per, and Allen Robinson getting $14 million per. The Stefon Diggs and Brandin Cooks contracts, both north of $16 million APY, were an acknowledgement by the Vikings and Rams that the price of doing business has changed at receiver.

On defense, the Rams have been willing to make Donald the highest paid non-quarterback in league history—at issue is how far past Von Miller’s 2016 deal he’ll get. And the Raiders are sort of an anomaly, as we detailed above. Then, you had a UFA class headed by a once-traded tackle with off-field issues (Sheldon Richardson), and a smallish corner (Malcolm Butler) who was benched for the Super Bowl.

Also, within the last two years, Fletcher Cox got extended at $17.1 million per, Chandler Jones at $16.5 million per, and Kawann Short at $16.1 million per. And my guess is Donald will reset the standard. So that’s a long way of saying, I see it going that way, but need a little more evidence before I can draw that conclusion.

From Steve (@Steve_in_RI): If the Chiefs’ secondary can give them anything whatsoever, with the offense they have, how high is their ceiling? Offense reminds me of 2003 version, but faster and better QB.

Andy Reid knows QBs, so I’ll take his trade of Alex Smith as affirmation that Pat Mahomes is ready, and I know he’ll be creative in making him comfortable. I also think the addition of Watkins is a great example of a team valuing a skill player that fits its quarterback’s skill set—the former fourth-overall pick has the ability to take the safety off the bazooka Mahomes has attached to his right shoulder.

And then, I’d tell you that a lot of this will come down to defense, but not necessarily at any one spot. The Chiefs’ brass saw that unit’s failure in playoff losses to Pittsburgh and Tennessee as a sign it had to get younger, faster and tougher. Rookie linebacker Breeland Speaks has shown promise with his physical presence on the edge, and his class/position-mate Dorian O’Daniel can really run as a nickel ’backer.

Add vet pickups like Kendall Fuller, David Amerson, Anthony Hitchens and Xavier Williams and it’s a very different looking group. If they can carry their share of the load, it’s hard for me to see K.C. team taking too big a step back.

From Orlando Cuevas (@Orlando757): How much improvement do you see in the Chicago Bears?

I’m excited to watch Matt Nagy build the offense for Mitch Trubisky, and continue to push envelope on what offense can be in pro football (which we detailed two weeks ago in MMQB). I think Allen Robinson and Trey Burton are good fits, too. And the defense was already good, and holding on to coordinator Vic Fangio was huge.

So that’s the positive. Maybe in the AFC, they could compete to get in the playoffs. In the NFC, and in particular the NFC North, the Bears could still be a year away. The Vikings have one of the top three or four rosters in the league, and with Aaron Rodgers back, the Packers are right there too. The Lions are coming off consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the mid-90s. Bottom line: It will be tough sledding in that division.

From zack1987 (@zach19872): How for real are the Browns?

Even with Josh Gordon down, the roster doesn’t really have a position group where you’d look and say, “What are they going to do there?” Left tackle needs to be sorted out, as does receiver around Jarvis Landry. But there are a lot of good offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and running backs here. Denzel Ward has looked like a star in camp. As 0-16 teams go, there’s a lot to be excited about.

One question is what they get at quarterback. Hue Jackson told me the other day that a big reason they went after Tyrod Taylor was because they believed he could handle all that goes along with being a quarterback in Cleveland (including the bad recent history), which would allow them to spare a rookie that for the time being. In that context, the idea of Taylor as a stabilizer makes sense.

And another question is how quickly the team learns how to win. I’d bet they’re in a lot of close games either way. For that reason, it’s good that they’ve brought in guys like Taylor, Jarvis Landry, Mychal Kendricks and Damarious Randall, who have won in those spots in the past.

From Jeremy Savage (@Jeremy_SavageP): Any thoughts on comeback player of the year candidates?

It sort of depends on your perspective of who it should go to. Obviously, this year, we have a lot established stars—Luck, Rodgers, J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson—who could be up for it. And I guess the question with them is, if you measure it on the degree of difficulty in making a return (Luck would probably win there), or pure performance.

But since you asked, I’ll give you a fun name: Vikings RB Dalvin Cook. He looked ridiculous the day I was at their camp, and wasn’t wearing a brace. Cook is the type of guy who looks like he sees things faster than everyone else and moves faster than everyone else. And when I asked guys who really know (coaches, scouts) there if I was right to be impressed with Cook, no one hesitated to say yes.

So draft him in fantasy, is what I’m trying to tell you. Even if the bigger names I listed box him out on the comeback player award.

From Jaxon (@AJaxon07): Why do you hate the Colts so much?

Love these questions. See you guys Friday morning on the podcast, Monday for MMQB, and right back here next Thursday for the mailbag!

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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