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The Ripple Effects of Andrew Luck’s Sudden NFL Retirement

Luck’s decision to retire just before the 2019 season impacts much more than the Colts—it changes the landscape of the league at large. What does this news mean for the division, the AFC, and the 2020 draft?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL’s dork king is gone. After an amateur career filled with unbridled hype and a pro career beset by injuries, Andrew Luck has officially retired from football. The 2019 season was supposed to be the quarterback’s seventh since the Colts took him no. 1 overall in the 2012 draft. He was able to complete only five of them, making four Pro Bowls and four playoff appearances. Now, less than a month before his 30th birthday, he’s done.

Luck is one of a kind. He was destined for athletic stardom since he was a teenager, but never developed the awareness to understand that neckbeards aren’t cool, or the self-consciousness to care about growing one. He came to congratulate opponents who sacked him with genuine enthusiasm. He still uses a flip phone. Luck is the youngest superstar QB of his generation to retire, and also probably the youngest person in the country who does not know how to send text messages with emoji.

The quarterback’s decision to walk away has been compared to the early retirement of Barry Sanders, who famously hung up his cleats in 1999 at age 30. But it’s not even in the same category. Sanders retired after 10 years in the league, having won an MVP award and set a handful of records. With another season, he likely would have become the NFL’s all-time rushing leader. Ten years is a long career for a running back. Luck retires having played just six seasons, as Drew Brees and Tom Brady head toward seasons 19 and 20. He’d need to play another decade and a half to approach the league’s all-time passing marks.

FiveThirtyEight tried to search for quarterbacks of Luck’s caliber whose careers ended before they turned 30, and the only one this century who comes close is Colin Kaepernick, who … well, let’s just say that he did not actually retire. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell points out that only one other QB in his 20s has retired on the heels of a Pro Bowl season: Johnny Lujack, in 1952. Lujack founded a car dealership shortly after retiring, presumably because that was a more profitable business during the days when the forward pass was a novelty and most games weren’t on television. Luck, meanwhile, had $60 million remaining on his contract and likely could have signed another deal worth more than $100 million before retiring.

The shock waves of this decision just two weeks before the start of the NFL season are massive. Overnight, Luck has changed the landscape of the entire league. The Colts must adjust their formula going forward; other teams’ strategies could shift now that one of the AFC’s powers suddenly finds itself without a star. Here are the ripple effects of Luck’s decision.

The Colts

The Colts’ 2019 roster is a football miracle. Normally, teams with a lot of salary cap space going into a given season suck, because they haven’t spent the money necessary to acquire good NFL players. In four of the past six years, the team that entered the season with the most cap space was the Cleveland Browns, which summarizes the situation well. Other teams that have recently held this distinction: the 2011 Buccaneers (4-12), the 2015 Jaguars (5-11), and the 2017 49ers (6-10). Having a ton of cap space in August is supposed to be a sign of a bad team.

Until this year’s Colts, that is. Indianapolis won 10 games last season, and before Luck’s retirement, Vegas sportsbooks gave it an over/under of 9.5 wins. And yet the team has $53 million in cap space available, according to Spotrac. No other franchise has more than $36 million. The Colts’ largest 2019 contract belongs to receiver T.Y. Hilton, who makes $15 million per year. That’s the 43rd-largest cap hit in the league. The Colts could sign another T.Y. Hilton and still lead the league in salary cap space. And after former general manager Ryan Grigson hampered the franchise with a series of questionable moves (like trading a first-round pick for Trent Richardson and using other first-round picks on Phillip Dorsett and Bjoern Werner), new GM Chris Ballard has hit on virtually every move he’s made since taking the reins in 2017. He selected two All-Pro players (Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard) in last year’s draft, making Indy the first team to draft multiple All-Pro rookies since the Bears picked Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in 1965. Ballard gave deals to Margus Hunt and Eric Ebron after they were cast off by other teams, and both were productive players.

The Colts had constructed something impossible: They had a franchise quarterback on a market-value deal and tons of money to spend to build around him. And Luck was 29. According to various statistical analyses of how quarterbacks perform over time, 29 is generally the peak of a QB’s prime. When ESPN ranked every team in the NFL by their likelihood to succeed over the next three seasons, the Colts came in at no. 1.

But now, the Colts have a missing piece that no amount of salary cap space can fix. You can’t just buy a franchise quarterback. The best QB to hit in free agency over the past decade is ... Kirk Cousins? At the most important position in football, teams typically have to draft their stars. Cap space is good for building around star quarterbacks, but it cannot purchase them.

The good news is that people seem high on Jacoby Brissett, a preseason legend who should perform better this year than he did in 2017, when he was traded to Indianapolis in the wake of Luck’s shoulder injury. The Colts’ roster is good enough that they very well could make the playoffs in 2019, in spite of Luck’s absence.

Still, the Colts go from being the NFL’s team of the future to a team whose future is uncertain. No franchise in football had such a carefully crafted blueprint for success over the next few years. Now the foundation is gone.

The AFC South

The Colts have been the kings of the least successful division in football. The NFL moved to its current divisional setup in 2002, when the Texans entered the league and were slotted into the newly formed AFC South. Alongside them: the Jaguars, who have been consistently bad for most of the millennium; the Titans, who have been consistently mediocre; and the Colts, who have been consistently good. Since 2002, Indianapolis has won the South nine times, accounting for 13 of the division’s 26 playoff berths, both of its Super Bowl appearances, and its only Lombardi Trophy. The AFC East is the NFL’s only other division perennially lopsided enough to send just one team to the Super Bowl since 2002. That team is the Patriots.

Sure, Houston had won the AFC South in three of the past four years, while the Colts hadn’t reigned supreme since 2015. But this hardly seemed like the Texans’ division, especially considering that Indy walloped Houston in last season’s playoffs. Before Saturday, the Colts had even odds to emerge from the South this year. With a dominant past and a glowing future, Indianapolis seemed like the ascendant team in the division.

Not anymore. The Texans now seem best positioned to rule the South, with a solid nucleus in Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, and J.J. Watt. They could try to swing a midseason trade if they’re sitting atop the standings come October. Meanwhile, the Jaguars just spent big on Nick Foles—Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles!—two seasons removed from making the conference championship game with Blake Bortles. And the Titans have gone 9-7 in each of the past three years. Any of these teams could reasonably break through.

Winning a division is massively important in the NFL, as it guarantees a team a home game in the playoffs. The Colts seemed poised to claim that, this season and for the foreseeable future. Now, it’s totally up for grabs.

The Conference Championship Race

Despite what recent history may suggest, it is legal for a team that’s not the Patriots to win the AFC. This season, the franchise with the best chance is the Chiefs, who have Patrick Mahomes and a world-beating offense, and who pushed New England to the brink in the most recent conference title game in January. Before Luck’s retirement, the Colts were considered next in line, tied with Baker Mayfield and the Browns, according to Vegas odds.

Luck was not historically a roadblock to the Patriots’ success—in fact, he lost all six games that he played against New England, including a 43-22 defeat in the 2014 playoffs and a 45-7 rout in the 2015 AFC championship game. (Yes, the game that turned every Patriots fan into an expert on ideal gas law was a 38-point blowout.) Modern football analysis is basically an attempt to argue that some team can beat the Patriots, though, and in that regard Luck represented one of the strongest hopes.

Beyond the Chiefs, the AFC is now filled with question marks. Can the Browns overcome two decades of miserable history? Can the Steelers offense keep clicking without Antonio Brown? Can Philip Rivers and the Chargers finally get over the hump? Is Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, or Sam Darnold ready to emerge as an elite quarterback?

The Colts were supposed to be a prominent part of this conversation. Now their championship chances have been, uh, deflated.

The 2020 Free Agent Market

Hypothetically, the quarterbacks set to hit the 2020 free agent market are legends. Tom Brady! Drew Brees! Philip Rivers! In reality, none of those guys will be available. If Luck’s abrupt retirement was a six on the surprising NFL news scale, Brady’s leaving the Patriots in free agency would be a 137. (Hey, how come we never got any stories about Andrew Luck’s real estate purchases ahead of his retirement? I thought that was the only way to find out that players were about to make big decisions!)

The biggest names who could realistically hit the market next spring are Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, the top two picks from the 2015 draft. Both players have had underwhelming careers to this point, and both the Buccaneers and Titans seem ambivalent about whether to re-sign the guys they thought would be superstars. If one or both do reach free agency, and if Brissett struggles this fall, the Colts could try to sign Winston or Mariota in an effort to seize on the strength of their roster while searching for a long-term answer under center.

However, the best quarterback in the 2020 free agent class might already be on the Colts’ roster. Brissett’s deal is up after this year. There probably wasn’t going to be massive demand for him if he rode the bench for another season, but now he is going to play. If he proves to be above-average (or even just average, honestly) that could make him more desirable than either Mariota or Winston. Brissett will make $2 million this year. Nick Foles, who was also a backup before impressing in his stint as a starter, just got paid $22 million annually. Earlier in this piece I wrote that teams can’t buy a franchise quarterback. The flip side is that teams have proved willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to acquire a slightly above OK one.

There are now two scenarios in which a starting quarterback could switch from one AFC South team to another in 2020. If Brissett flops, the Colts could try to sign Mariota. If Brissett does well, the Titans could try to pay tens of millions of dollars to sign him away from the Colts. (It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Mike Vrabel spent big money on an ex-Patriot.) None of this seemed remotely possible before Luck’s retirement.

In the worst-case scenario for the Colts’ 2019 season, they’d need to chase a dependable QB in free agency or the draft. In the best-case scenario, they’d need to spend big to retain the guy who just got bumped up the depth chart.

The 2020 and 2021 NFL Drafts

The Colts have recently been fortunate enough to lose prolifically in the years directly before superstar quarterback prospects became available. They started 0-10 in 1997 with Jim Harbaugh at QB. (Harbaugh, who went on to coach Luck at Stanford, apparently has such dreadful memories of that year that he now refuses to allow his Michigan Wolverines to play in Indianapolis.) That gave Indy the top pick in the 1998 NFL draft and the opportunity to select Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. Manning turned out slightly better than Leaf did, starting all 16 games in every season until he missed the entire 2011 campaign with a neck injury, at which point the Colts went 2-14 with Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, and Kerry Collins at quarterback. That flop gave the team the top pick in the 2012 draft and the opportunity to select Luck or Robert Griffin III. Luck turned out slightly better than Griffin did—although, hey, RG3 is still in the league.

In the next two years, two more superstar quarterbacks should become available: Tua Tagovailoa, the Hawaiian lefty who rallied Alabama to a national championship as a true freshman in 2018, and Trevor Lawrence, the 6-foot-6 future shampoo spokesman who led Clemson to a national championship as a true freshman in January. Tagovailoa is eligible to enter the 2020 draft, and Miami may already be tanking for him. Lawrence is eligible to enter the 2021 draft, and is considered an even better prospect than Tagovailoa. (The last QB to receive such universal acclaim was Luck.)

I don’t expect the Colts to Screw-up for Tua or Pull the Lever for Trevor. (Fine, those taglines aren’t great, but “Tank for Tua” and “Tank for Trevor” are too easy. We need to do better.) I endorse teams’ tanking when they don’t have a shot at success, but Luck wasn’t the only reason the 2019 Colts were considered contenders. This is a solid squad, top to bottom. They want to win sooner rather than later, which means losing intentionally to draft a young quarterback probably isn’t the right plan. For the Colts to get one of those guys, they’d likely have to engineer a trade similar to the one the Eagles made to select Carson Wentz.

However, Indy’s 2019 schedule gets off to a rough start: In its first six games, it plays four teams that finished above .500 last year (the Chargers, Titans, Chiefs, and Texans) and a fifth that should have (the Falcons). A 1-5 start isn’t out of the question. If that happens, could the Colts throw in the towel for the chance to take Tua?

The Colts have prospered for the past two decades behind two quarterbacks they acquired via timely tanks. If things go wrong, maybe that means they’re actually going right.

The Career Expectations of Fellow NFL Players

Luck’s decision to retire may be unlike any other in the sport’s history, but his rationale was clear. While he loves the sport, his litany of injuries had led to a taxing physical toll that had robbed him of joy. What was the point of making megamillions per year if his life was mostly pain?

While some sports radio hosts leaped out of the woodwork to call Luck soft for retiring without suffering a cataclysmic injury, one group of people was almost universally supportive: fellow football players. They backed and respected his decision. They shared X-rays. They shared stories of their near retirements. While some explained that they pushed through the pain to keep playing, they widely understood why Luck hung it up. They vented about fans upset over Luck’s retirement. They got it.

Football destroys those who play it. Generally not instantly, although that happens too. Many accept the trade of a thrilling, wealthy youth for a short and painful life. But over the past few years an increasing number of low-to-mid-tier NFL players have opted out, citing a desire to live generally more fulfilling lives.

Only Luck is not a low-to-mid-tier player. He’s a superstar—exactly the type of player for whom leaving football early would’ve once been unimaginable. Yes, he’d hurt now, and he’d hurt later, but surely the colossal contracts and endorsement deals would bring him enough money to make up for it, right? Not to Luck. And his peers clearly don’t think that his decision is ridiculous.

It’s possible this is a one-off case. After all, Luck is one of a kind. (The rest of the league has not followed him on the flip-phone front.) But considering how many people around the league approved of Luck’s choice, perhaps the NFL is headed for a future when even its most marketable players decide that the game they love is not worth the pain.