There are only a handful of humans capable of leading an above-average NFL offense, and one of them just decided to stop playing football. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck abruptly retired Saturday evening, at just 29 years old and with over $60 million remaining on his contract. His departure leaves the Colts without a clear direction moving forward, and he leaves behind a strange and singular legacy in the league.
Although the Colts reportedly knew Luck had been considering retirement—per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, he plans to travel the world—the news comes as a shock just two weeks before the start of the season. Quarterbacks in their prime don’t suddenly hang up their cleats in late August. And most quarterbacks don’t have primes that resemble Andrew Luck’s. Bewildered Colts fans booed Luck as he came off the field after Saturday’s preseason game, a decision they’ll presumably regret. Colts fans love Luck and will probably remember him fondly, but couldn’t figure out any other way to respond to the sudden retirement of a franchise player.
The end of Luck’s career—what previously seemed like the middle, given how many years he might have conceivably played—has been fraught with strange injuries. After the 2016 season, Luck underwent a procedure on his throwing shoulder that the Colts downplayed at the time; it ended up wiping out his entire 2017 season. He recently dealt with a high-ankle issue that caused him to sit out during training camp; there was a similar air of mystery surrounding this ailment, as it was first reported as a calf strain. (Not to mention the lacerated kidney and torn rib cartilage, among many other injuries.) At a press conference Saturday night announcing his decision, Luck referenced the injuries he played through in 2016 and said he “made a vow” to himself never to go through that again. “I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said. “It’s taken the joy out of this game. … The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football.”
Luck had a career year last season, throwing for more than 4,500 yards with 39 touchdowns. He earned the Comeback Player of the Year award, and the Colts advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Luck, the player, has still got it. But the tedium of waiting to be fully healthy, and the pain of playing through injuries week-to-week, year-to-year, proved too frustrating.
Now, nothing is clear for the Colts. With Luck, Indianapolis was projected to win around 10 games and the AFC South, and had the potential to make a deep run in the postseason. What’s more, the Colts were set up for success over the next few years: They had a true franchise quarterback, a pristine salary cap situation, and a general manager (Chris Ballard) who’d just made a string of shrewd draft and free agency decisions. When ESPN published its NFL Future Power Rankings in July, the Colts sat atop the list. How the franchise will move forward is unclear. Jacoby Brissett, the backup quarterback, started in Luck’s absence in 2017 and went 4-11 as a starter. Brissett is a serviceable backup, but he’s not a player to build an organization around. The Colts’ trajectory has abruptly changed. For the first time since before Indianapolis drafted Peyton Manning in 1998, the team has an uncertain future at the most important position in football.
Luck’s talent was obvious throughout his career. Standing a sturdy 6-foot-4, with an impeccable arm, Luck was a five-star prospect in high school and could have been the no. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft had he left school after his junior year at Stanford. But he hung around and led the Cardinal to the Fiesta Bowl as a redshirt junior, and became the no. 1 pick in the 2012 draft instead. He adjusted seamlessly to the NFL: The Colts made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, and he made it to the Pro Bowl in each of them. In 2014, at just 25, he led the league in touchdowns and got the Colts to the AFC championship game.
And that turned out to be the peak of Luck’s surprisingly short career. He had yet to get the Colts to the Super Bowl, and he retires at age 29 in a league where quarterbacks perform well past 40. He retires after having played just six seasons, with four playoff appearances, and four Pro Bowl bids. It’s far from a tragedy to see a reasonably healthy young man happily walk away from the sport as a megamillionaire, but it’s hard not to be wistful wondering what else Luck could have accomplished on the field.