The most talked-about moment of Andrew Luck’s season came on a play where he was standing on the sideline. Down four points with five seconds left and 54 yards from the end zone against the Eagles on September 23, Colts head coach Frank Reich subbed out the franchise quarterback and let backup Jacoby Brissett handle the Hail Mary attempt.
Luck, playing in just his third game since missing the entire 2017 season with a mysterious shoulder injury, didn’t even have the green light from his coaching staff to throw 50 yards, a seemingly clear indication from the coaching staff about Luck’s health—even if Reich and Luck both said it was because Brissett has a stronger arm than a healthy Luck. The Colts lost that game, the first of a four-game losing streak, and Luck’s return from a 616-day hiatus has been lost further into the noise as Indy’s season has been overshadowed by the Rams and a shiny new quarterback in Kansas City.
But in a season defined by teams throwing more than ever before, Luck has been at the forefront of the offensive boom. He’s on pace to throw 711 passes this season, just shy of Matt Stafford’s record-setting year in 2012, and he’s on pace to complete more passes in a season than anyone in NFL history not named Drew Brees. His 20 touchdown passes are second to the league’s most hyped player, Patrick Mahomes II, and he is within range of setting career-best marks in every counting category except interceptions and sacks (the latter of which is on pace for a full-season career low). The Colts are 2-5, but their offense ranks in the top 10 in points, percentage of drives ending in a score, and percentage of red zone drives ending in a touchdown, and it’s tied for no. 1 in the league on third down. Yet despite Luck’s season, the first image that jumps to mind for many football fans thinking about Luck’s 2018 season is being on the sidelines for that Hail Mary—and many more may not have a memory of Luck this season at all. Andrew Luck is back, but does anyone care?
Coming out of Stanford in 2012, the question wasn’t whether Luck would be good, but whether he was the best prospect since Peyton Manning or the best prospect since John Elway. He lived up to the hype immediately. As a rookie, he threw a touchdown on the first pass of his NFL career in the preseason, led seven game-winning drives—the most in the league—and helped improve the Colts from 2-14 the previous season to 11-5. He outdueled Aaron Rodgers in his fourth career start, led two touchdown drives in the final four minutes against the Lions in Week 13, and helped defeat the division champion Texans in Week 17 when he threw a touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton on third-and-23 that sealed the game.
In his second NFL season, Luck orchestrated the second-largest comeback in NFL history for his first career playoff win, rallying Indy back from a 38-10 third-quarter deficit against the Chiefs as he completed 17 passes on 24 attempts for 314 yards and three touchdowns—and scored another on a fumble recovery—in the second half.
In his third season, he eked out the league lead for touchdown passes, just ahead of Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers; broke Manning’s franchise record for passing yards in a season with 4,761; and powered the Colts to their third straight 11-5 record and second consecutive division title. In the playoffs, Luck led a victory over Manning’s Broncos in the AFC divisional round, defeating the quarterback he was compared to throughout college and ultimately replaced in Indy.
The Colts lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game. Still, Luck reaching the doorstep of the Super Bowl in his third season made it feel inevitable that he would take his place on the Brady-Manning-Brees-Rodgers Mount Rushmore that towered over the rest of football—not to mention respark the Patriots-Colts rivalry that had defined the previous decade of football.
Forty-five months, 29 games, three seasons, and one shoulder injury exacerbated by a hidden snowboarding accident later, and neither Luck nor the Colts have been relevant since that AFC title game. Luck’s injuries, combined with a poorly constructed roster, led to three consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs. Without Luck in 2017, the Colts fell to the bottom of the AFC South in the standings—and in relevance, as Deshaun Watson became the league’s most exciting player in his abbreviated season and the Jaguars and Titans each won playoff games. (Even that AFC championship game in January 2015 that Luck and the Colts reached has been overshadowed—you probably remember it as the game that spawned Deflategate.)
Based on Luck’s pedigree, track record, and subsequent disappearance—he actually disappeared to Europe for a stretch of last season—he’d figure to be the biggest story line entering the season. But rather than an illustrious, heralded return of possibly the best quarterback prospect ever who immediately lived up to his billing and then had his career threatened by injury, Luck’s return has been overshadowed by the seasons of Mahomes, Jared Goff, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and a dozen other stories that have garnered more headlines than Luck this season. Yet while everyone has been watching other games, Luck has been balling.
Luck is on pace for a career year, but he’s accruing those numbers in a different way than he had in the past. For starters, he’s getting more protection this year from the front office’s acquisitions along the offensive line and the coaching staff’s scheme. General manager Chris Ballard made the line a priority this offseason by adding guard Quenton Nelson, the consensus top offensive lineman in April’s draft, with the sixth overall pick. And Reich has said that he’s prioritized protecting Luck from pressure by getting the ball out of his hands quicker, taking what the defense offers early in the play with fast breaking routes rather than having Luck waiting in the pocket for receivers to get open downfield.
“You’ve got to protect the quarterback,” Reich told the Indy Star in March. “And it is really the whole unit, so that involves scheming to get the ball out quicker.”
In 2016, Luck was sacked on 7 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate in football, per Pro Football Reference. (He got so used to getting hit that he became famous within the league for complimenting players who sacked him.) This year, that figure has been more than cut in half to 3.1 percent, tied with Mahomes for the lowest sack percentage in the NFL. Despite dropping back more than ever before, Luck is suffering fewer hits. That’s even more impressive considering the Colts lost both of their starting tackles, Anthony Castonzo and Joe Haeg, and guard Matt Slauson to injuries. (Castonzo is back, but Haeg and Slauson are on IR.)
Luck’s underlying numbers tell the story of how the Colts have protected their $123 million quarterback. His 6.3 yards per attempt is a career low and almost 20 percent lower than his career high of 7.8 yards per attempt he posted in 2016. Luck usually ranked in the top 10 of average pass length the first few years of his career; now Reich’s system has Luck in the bottom five this season with an average of just 6.8 yards. Luck is throwing the ball quicker to receivers running shorter routes, and the result is a lot of passes, more yards, better blocking, and fewer hits on the quarterback.
Most importantly, however, Luck seems to be himself again. He is converting impossible third downs, threading touchdowns into tight windows, and outrunning defenders who forget he loves to run. (He’s even shown a new ability to protect himself.) He threw for 464 yards and four touchdowns against the Texans and tossed four touchdowns on just 23 attempts against Buffalo in Week 7. We can stop asking if his shoulder is OK.
The catch is that the Colts’ two wins have come in the games Luck has thrown the fewest passes. A combination of early deficits and an unreliable running game has forced Luck to chuck the ball early and often, but the team is better suited to control the clock with a more balanced attack. Fortunately for Colts fans, that’s already starting to take shape. Running back Marlon Mack has, well, hit the ground running, amassing 252 yards from scrimmage in his first two weeks back from a hamstring injury. T.Y. Hilton has returned from hamstring and chest injuries, while tight end Jack Doyle may return soon from a hip injury that has cost him most of the year. On defense, second-round linebacker Darius Leonard has been an instant contributor (tied for 11th among linebackers in PFF grading) and defensive lineman Denico Autry is sandwiched between Von Miller and Michael Bennett at 13th in PFF’s edge defender grades. The Colts have a chance to hit their midseason stride, and their timing may be perfect for yet another Luck-led playoff run. After looking competent in 2017, the AFC South is once again among the worst divisions in football, and the Colts are still in the thick of the AFC South race despite their 2-5 record.
The 5-3 Texans are in first place after starting 0-3 and then ripping off five straight wins—and while Watson looked to finally be himself again in throwing five TDs against the Dolphins on Thursday, he’s playing with a partially collapsed lung. One game ahead of Indy is Jacksonville, who just benched Blake Bortles and has seen its elite defense sputter this season. Tennessee has lost three straight and is struggling offensively as Marcus Mariota deals with a nerve injury in his throwing arm. (Suddenly Luck is among the healthiest quarterbacks in his division.)
With five of Indianapolis’s next seven games coming within the division (plus un-intimidating matchups against the Raiders and Dolphins), a Colts winning streak could put them on top of the division by early December. The Colts have started slow, but may just be setting Luck up for his specialty: a dramatic second-half comeback. If the team strings together a winning streak, Luck can remind everyone that he was the torchbearer not so long ago.