Years ago, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski were visiting an Indianapolis Colts practice ahead of a Monday Night Football game when the two noticed something strange—the backup quarterbacks weren’t taking any reps. Gruden asked Tom Moore, Indy’s longtime offensive coordinator and the architect of the Colts offense, why Peyton Manning was the only quarterback practicing.
“Fellas, if 18 [Manning] goes down, we’re fucked,” Moore said. “And we don’t practice fucked.”
Not much has changed in Indy: The Colts are still screwed without a star signal-caller under center. Andrew Luck underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder so long ago that Obama was still president, and there’s still no timeline for Luck’s return. It’s looking increasingly likely that Luck will miss the Colts’ opener, meaning that Scott Tolzien and his career two touchdowns and seven interceptions will likely lead Indianapolis to start the season.
Fans and fantasy football owners may clamor for Luck’s return, but there’s 123 million reasons over five years that Indianapolis should not push him to start the season before he’s ready. Let’s not forget that the man drafted right after Luck, Robert Griffin III, put his career in jeopardy by being “all in for Week 1.” Colts owner Jim Irsay has been clear that he’s thinking about the next decade of Colts football when weighing decisions regarding Luck’s shoulder. If 2017 September football is the cost, then so be it.
“I can’t emphasize how much time I’ve spent with Andrew, saying, ‘You have to make this decision in the best interest of the franchise, the fans, your teammates, etc. Not just your competitive juices,’” Irsay said.
That stance from ownership makes it even more surprising that new general manager Chris Ballard didn’t sign a veteran backup quarterback in the offseason. Irsay said the team attempted to sign a mystery quarterback in his mid-to-late 30s, but the move never panned out. Back in 2015, the team went 5-3 after veteran Matt Hasselbeck took over the starting spot in October while Luck was hurt. Instead of acquiring a similar insurance plan this year, the team stuck with Tolzien, who is now fighting former undrafted free agent Stephen Morris for the starting job. If Tolzien can’t beat out other undrafted free-agent quarterbacks, beating any NFL team will be an upstream battle. The Colts defense looks like it will have seven new starters this year, which will hopefully improve the unit, but could also require some early-season fine-tuning.
The good news is that in the first five weeks of the season, the Colts play three of the worst teams in the league—the Rams, Browns, and 49ers. The bad news is they also play Seattle and Arizona. It is within the realm of possibility that if they blow those easy games, they’ll be playing the Jaguars on October 22 for the title of Worst Team in Football.
If the Colts do earn that title, the blame will largely fall on former general manager Ryan Grigson, who was fired in January. Grigson landed a franchise quarterback in Luck and promptly squandered the opportunity. For much of Luck’s tenure in Indianapolis, the Colts roster has been among the least talented in football, probably because the team hasn’t drafted an impact player since 2012. The most egregious sin committed by Grigson was the construction of the offensive line, which has failed to adequately protect the franchise’s new hope since he came into the league. Ballard now has the opposite problem most new general managers have: He has a generational talent at quarterback, but must do triage everywhere else.
Even when Luck returns, he’s going to be rusty. He hasn’t practiced in eight months, the longest stretch he’s gone without playing football since middle school. Fortunately, the Colts are returning most of their starting 11 on offense so Luck should have some continuity, but he’ll also be playing behind the same line that allowed him to be sacked 41 times last year, tied for the second-highest mark in the league. Luck isn’t anyone’s idea of fragile, but he clearly can’t take punishment forever. He’s already missed an entire offseason of preparation that can’t be recaptured in a few weeks.
“Think about all the time quarterbacks spend with their receivers in the offseason,” Jim Sorgi, who backed up Manning for years in Indianapolis (without getting reps in practice!) and is now a Colts radio analyst, told the Indianapolis Star. “That time is invaluable. … I don’t think it’s just gonna be pick up and go.”
With a healthy Luck, the Colts would have a serious chance to win the AFC South. Without him, they could resemble the flailing 2-14 mess that landed them Luck in the first place. And even when Luck does return, we might not see him play like himself until Thanksgiving—and that’s assuming his shoulder is healthy.
The Colts could be in trouble without Luck. Hopefully they’ve been practicing.