Andrew Luck’s decision to walk away from the NFL is unlike any sports retirement news of this generation. Some may point to Michael Jordan’s initial retirement in 1993 or then-30-year-old Barry Sanders’s retirement in 1999 as more shocking, but this is different. Jordan had won three championships in a row and three MVP awards when he left the NBA for the first time. Sanders had been to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. Their legacies were secure and their potential realized. Considering all that Andrew Luck was supposed to be as a football player, it’s hard not to look at his choice to leave football at age 29—and forego a chance to compete for a Super Bowl, this season and well beyond—and wonder what might have been.
No one could have imagined seven years ago, when the Colts made Luck the no. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, that it would end like this. Luck was the most surefire NFL prospect in decades. Finding weaknesses in his game was next to impossible. The Colts decided that it was worth moving on from Peyton Manning if it meant that they could take the brilliant Stanford product first overall; what’s more, hardly anyone faulted them for it. Indianapolis went 11-5 and made the playoffs in each of Luck’s first three seasons, despite having a lackluster supporting cast and making plenty of questionable personnel decisions. Maybe Luck wasn’t an immediately transcendent player like some had anticipated, but when healthy, he was one of the undisputed best quarterbacks in football, capable of elevating the talent around him and making the Colts relevant by his presence alone. When Luck’s Colts overcame a 28-point second-half deficit against the Chiefs to pull off a 45-44 win in the 2013 season playoffs, it seemed like the start of a long and distinguished run at the top of the AFC.
Even as the Colts piled up consecutive 11-win seasons, though, the roster mismanagement by general manager Ryan Grigson during the early years of Luck’s career was frustrating. Luck’s willingness to hold onto the ball and take hits didn’t help matters, but the Colts regularly fielded one of the NFL’s weakest offensive lines. Luck was sacked 41 times as a rookie, the same number he took in 2016—the year after he tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder, which ultimately forced him to miss the entire 2017 season.
There were moments in the aftermath of Luck’s lost year when people wondered whether he’d ever be the same player, whether we’d ever see the generational quarterback who was promised. That’s part of what made his comeback in 2018 so damn rewarding. Luck returned just before the season began, and looked like, well, Andrew Luck. After starting 1-5, the Colts rattled off nine wins in their final 10 games en route to the playoffs. Football was just better with a healthy version of Luck doing things like this:
Last season also provided a chance to see what Luck could do with a worthwhile support system. After years of poor pass protection, the Colts fielded arguably the best pass-blocking offensive line in the league. Luck was sacked only 18 times, the result of a system that prioritized the QB getting the ball out quickly. Watching Luck play in a modern, effective offense devised by a coach like Frank Reich was a vast departure from the inefficient, downfield approach the Colts had taken for most of his Indy tenure. Six years into his career, Luck finally had a roster and a coaching staff that lifted him up rather than dragged him down.
The Colts’ late-season run and the league-leading $105 million of cap space they brought into free agency made Indianapolis one of the NFL’s trendiest Super Bowl picks entering 2019. And while general manager Chris Ballard didn’t spend wildly this spring, his front office added Justin Houston and three second-round picks to one of football’s most promising foundations. The Colts had every reason to dream big. After getting a taste of what this group could accomplish last season, the fully realized version of the Colts seemed poised to challenge the Patriots and Chiefs for AFC supremacy. And now, here we are.
Let’s take a moment to consider how difficult Luck’s decision to retire must have been. He was set to make more than $60 million over the next three seasons. After reaching the end of his current contract, he would’ve been only 31, and almost surely would’ve landed another deal worth more than $150 million. Leaving football also means that Luck is leaving a life and an infrastructure that he’s known for decades. But Luck has always operated differently than most professional athletes. Reading too much into any portion of his emotional announcement from Saturday is a fool’s errand, but this particularly resonated: “I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live.” Being stuck in an endless loop—injury, recovery, repeat—didn’t leave much time to do anything else. Luck was a singular football talent, but he’s never been defined by football. Still, his press conference made it clear that it wasn’t easy to walk away from teammates and an organization that have unwaveringly supported him from the moment he entered the league.
Losing Luck doesn’t mean that the Colts will suddenly go from a top-tier AFC team straight to the bottom. With the likes of Houston, Darius Leonard, Quenton Nelson, T.Y. Hilton, and plenty of other young building blocks, Ballard has brought in too much talent for this team to go 3-13. A franchise could do much worse than having Jacoby Brissett as a backup quarterback. The Colts may not be a playoff team, but they won’t be a doormat, either.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine where Indy will go from here. In 2011, when Manning missed a full season while recovering from neck surgery, the Colts were so bad that they secured the top pick in a year when a generational quarterback talent was available. Another QB of that caliber may be on the draft board next spring in Tua Tagovailoa, but the Colts don’t seem nearly incompetent enough to vie for the worst record in the league. Hitting the reset button on the fly won’t be so simple this time around. Indianapolis now finds itself in no-man’s-land as a franchise.
The Colts weren’t supposed to be just another team this season, just as Luck wasn’t supposed to be just another quarterback. Now, the heights that he and this team could have ascended to together will go down as one of the all-time sports what-ifs. The Andrew Luck era in Indianapolis is over, and the Colts are left looking for answers. They aren’t the only ones.