INDIANAPOLIS — It was about this time a year ago when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck returned from his six-week stay in the Netherlands where he had been receiving treatment on his surgically repaired right shoulder.
It was during his time there that his frustration grew because the pain persisted. He had fallen into a place he had never been in in all his years of football: Luck wondered if he would be able to continue playing.
“I see a guy who is a fierce competitor that has really changed his style. He’s playing smarter and more unselfish. I almost respect it more because it’s harder to do in a lot of ways.”
Andrew Luck’s former backup Matt Hasselbeck
As good as he is and as intelligent as he is, he had every right to wonder what was next. He had been dealing with pain and setbacks with his right shoulder for more than two years.
Luck learned to lean on others and embraced the challenge of returning instead of running away from it. He retooled his throwing motion and was paired with a head coach who played his position in the NFL. Luck also allowed himself a perk that might not seem like a big deal to some — to start having fun again. It was something he rarely let himself do early in his career.
Those factors played a significant role in Luck’s return becoming one of the best stories of the 2018 season. And it’s looking like he might prove Drew Brees right by winning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year after getting the Colts back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They play on the road Saturday in a wild-card matchup against the Houston Texans (4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Every game fulfilling
“If you’ve played five, six, seven years, you’ve overcome something in a sense,” Luck said. “I was talking to my folks about this and [girlfriend] Nicole about, man, it’s hard to sort of when you’re in the weeds to sort of flip that switch and zoom out a little bit and get a little different perspective and appreciate or understand what happens. Because you’re in it and it’s like you’re on and you don’t want to get out of it.
“Again, I am having fun and to me that’s the most important thing. The fact that we get to go play another game in the playoffs and see what we can do, that’s stinking awesome. … I feel this season in a sense — every game has been fulfilling. But satisfied? No, not at all.”
Luck had career highs in completions (430), attempts (639) and completion percentage (67.3 percent) while throwing for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, which is the most thrown by a quarterback who did not play a snap in the previous season. Receiver T.Y. Hilton said the NFL should just go ahead and “just give the man” the Comeback Player of the Year award.
“I feel really good about that statement,” Brees said this week regarding his preseason prediction on Luck. “Understanding what he’s overcome. I don’t think anybody understands the significance of a throwing-shoulder injury for an NFL quarterback. Not just coming from that. But then continuing to strengthen it, gain confidence in it. It’s not like you’re sitting back there on 7-on-7. You’re getting hit. I’ve always admired his toughness and his ability to overcome odds and tough circumstances and tough situations and play through a lot.”
Luck isn’t the first to have a successful season after missing significant time in the previous one. There was Detroit’s Matthew Stafford‘s 5,038 passing yards in 2011 after he missed 13 games with shoulder problems in 2010. Adrian Peterson‘s remarkable 2,097 yards rushing in 2012 less than a year after tearing his ACL. And, who can forget Peyton Manning’s 2012 season when he threw for 37 touchdowns and completed 68.6 percent of his passes after missing the previous season with a neck injury.
But Luck’s comeback season ranks near the top of the greatest all time.
Starting from zero
“I just think he finally listened,” said Matt Hasselbeck, Luck’s former backup and now an NFL analyst with ESPN. “I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. He’s changed his style of play for sure. He had the humility to adapt. He’s a guy who has been very, very successful as a quarterback in the NFL in different offenses, and it really feels like he has humbled himself in such a way that he’s willing to buy into whatever Frank Reich is selling offensively with the quick throws and not holding the ball as long.
“Adrian Peterson had a ridiculous year coming off the knee injury. That’s not possible. It was one of the most physically dominating performances of all time. Andrew had the opposite. I see a guy who is a fierce competitor that has really changed his style. He’s playing smarter and more unselfish. I almost respect it more because it’s harder to do in a lot of ways. And what’s crazy is, I still don’t think Andrew is fully, fully 100 percent. Imagine how much better he’ll be when he gets back there.”
Getting back to what he does best, throwing a football, was more scripted and very detail-oriented for Luck. He had to transition from throwing weighted balls last winter to high school-size footballs to finally throwing a regulation NFL football during minicamp in June. And that was only the start of his re-calibration.
Quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady said early on that Luck “never felt like he was comfortable dropping back and throwing” or in the pocket. That happens when you lose strength, lose some confidence in your shoulder and don’t play in a game for nearly two years.
“He didn’t feel comfortable doing the little things like handing the ball off,” Brady said. “Everything felt new to him. Felt like you had to start right at the beginning again with him. Starting with the footwork, technique, the feeling of being surrounded again. We started from zero and worked all the way up again. He had a year off.”
Luck was limited during offseason workouts. A significant amount of his time was spent working with the training staff, which meant he had to try to learn the offense by watching on the sideline and in the meeting room.
“His ability to catch on [to] the offense so quickly and perform like he has been in the offense for 10 years, you know?” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “Mentally, he is so on it and he is so sharp that he is giving us a chance to win with his mind right from the beginning. Then add in all the talent that he has and his arm and his ability to move around. It’s just been so good for us, and it’s really helped us win games that we’ve won.”
Overcoming the mental hurdle
It wasn’t strictly physical for Luck. There was the mental aspect, too. He needed to become mentally strong enough to have confidence in the shoulder again after almost three years of pain. He had to be able to take a hit on the shoulder and bounce back up. He had to be able to throw the ball 50 times in a game if necessary. Luck acknowledged at times the mental outweighed the physical side because he’s not a patient person.
“It’s a combination of both, and both are equal,” said Houston Texan defensive end J.J. Watt, who has missed 24 games because of injury since 2016. “I think sometimes the mental is underestimated a lot because the physical is so obvious. The mental of just the day-to-day and making yourself feel like you know you have to feel going out there. … Rebuilding your confidence and reminding yourself what you are capable of and what you can do on the field. It’s not easy, especially when you come off of something very serious. It takes a lot of great people around you. It’s not a one-man job by any means. It’s tough, but it’s also rewarding.”
Questions arose when Luck wasn’t making deep throws down the field in the preseason and when Reich replaced him with backup Jacoby Brissett for a Hail Mary throw during the Colts’ Week 3 loss in Philadelphia. Both were by design. Reich simplified his playbook in the preseason, and all parties involved agree Brissett has a stronger arm than Luck.
When Luck turned the corner is up for debate. Some say it was right from the start in Week 1 against Cincinnati when he completed 74 percent of his pass attempts and threw for 319 yards in the loss. Others pointed to Weeks 4 and 5 when he attempted 121 passes in a four-day stretch without having any issues with his shoulder. Luck went through a stretch where he threw at least three touchdowns in eight straight games, which tied Manning for the second-longest streak in NFL history. He also tied an NFL record by throwing touchdowns to 13 different players this season.
“When we visited with Andrew early in the preseason, it was like, ‘Hey I’m hoping [to get back to my old self]. I think I can be good. I think I can get back,'” ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Booger McFarland said. “Now he knows. I think when you talk about a psyche of a player, the confidence, his ability to say, ‘You know what, I can make every throw. I still have, if not the same velocity, pretty darn close.’ To me that’s what you see, you see a confident quarterback who knows he’s a top-10 quarterback in the National Football League. And I think he’s playing that way. If it were not for Brees and [Chiefs QB Patrick] Mahomes, I think Luck would be getting some MVP conversation.”