Gone too soon: The parallel universes of the Colts' Andrew Luck and Bert Jones
When an article entitled “Andrew Luck bound for Hall of Fame, Super Bowl glory” appeared on NFL.com four years ago, we all nodded in agreement and sat back to enjoy the ride. Except it never happened.
And now it never will.
Andrew Luck didn’t go to a Super Bowl, and he won’t be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That doesn’t mean Luck’s career won’t be touched by the Hall. As a matter of fact, his number 12 jersey resides in Canton, thanks to a record-setting 430-yard passing performance his rookie season. But the guy who wore it?
Nope. Won’t be there without a ticket.
Once upon a time, it looked as if he might … or would. But injuries took their toll, and nearly seven months after he was voted the league’s Comeback Player of the Year, Luck did what he felt necessary at the age of 29 -- he retired.
The decision was tough, emotional and courageous. Most of all, though, it was smart, with Luck saying “the joy” of football was no longer there.
“It’s the hardest decision of my life,” he said at a news conference Saturday night, “but it is the right decision for me.”
So, now what? How will Andrew Luck be remembered?
Frankly, his career trajectory reminds me of another decorated Colts’ quarterback forced from the game by injuries … and that’s Bert Jones. Like Luck, he resuscitated a floundering franchise, putting it on his shoulders and lifting it to three straight division championships.
In 1974, the Colts were 2-12, tied with the New York Giants for the league’s worst record. Then Jones stepped in, and, overnight, Baltimore soared to the top of the AFC East with a 10-4 finish. The next year it was 11-3. And, in 1977, 10-4.
But one year later Jones suffered a shoulder injury and was never the same (he was later traded to the Rams). Neither were the Colts. They didn’t have a winning season again until 1987 … or after moving to Indianapolis.
Bert Jones was Andrew Luck … and then some. He was charismatic, an exceptional passer, a gifted athlete, a natural leader and a winner.
“As a pure passer,” Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick said, “I don’t think I would put anybody ahead of Bert Jones.”
He said that prior to Super Bowl XLII, which means it was after Belichick witnessed modern-era Hall-of-Famers like Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw and Brett Favre.
Granted, Belichick was biased. He was a $25-per-week assistant with the Colts in 1975 and saw the best of Bert Jones.
But seeing was believing.
“I agree with Belichick,” said former GM Ernie Accorsi, who was then with the Colts. “(Jones) had it all. Athletic … accurate … had a rifle for an arm … and not only could run but was fast and powerful. He was smart, too, and could see the field and find the right receiver. He excelled under pressure, was a great leader and could put the team on his back.
“He was similar to Elway and had every attribute Elway had to the same degree. One of the most talented quarterbacks I’ve ever seen.”
Jones was a two-time All-Pro. He was the 1976 NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. He was 31-11 in 1975-77 for a franchise that was 11-31 the previous three seasons. He threw twice as many TD passes (59) in that period as interceptions (28), never missed a start and produced a 102.6 passer rating in 1976 – one of only three quarterbacks that decade to achieve a 100 passer rating.
Like Luck, he was ticketed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But injuries prevented him from getting there and forced his retirement after 96 career starts.
Andrew Luck had 86 career starts and an immediate impact on the NFL. As a rookie he turned a 2-14 franchise into an 11-5 playoff team, with three straight postseason runs and two division championships (sound familiar?), and established himself, as that NFL.com column proclaimed in 2015, as “the best young quarterback in the league.”
But, unlike Jones, he was never an All-Pro, never an NFL MVP and never an Offensive Player of the Year. He was, however, a four-time Pro Bowler and 4-4 in the playoffs, including a 2014 run where he reached the AFC conference championship game, but his truncated career – like that of Jones -- isn’t up to Hall-of-Fame standards.
That doesn’t mean Andrew Luck isn’t worthy of Hall-of-Fame discussion. But it’s to the Hall of Fame of Reason. He made the difficult decision to quit a profession he loved because … well, because he cared about something bigger than football.
His life, his future and his family.
I marveled at Andrew Luck when he played at Stanford and Indianapolis. I marveled at Bert Jones, too, when he played at LSU and Baltimore. But pro football is a cruel sport that breaks bodies and can break the human spirit.
At the same time, it can break hopes of long and productive careers and dreams of reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bert Jones found out way too soon. Sadly, Andrew Luck has, too.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF