Sitting in a dark bar in Indianapolis the week of the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, a member of the Colts staff nursed a longneck bottle of beer with a cocky smirk on his face. “He’s going to be fine,” the scout said between sips. “Trust me.”
Even then, in late February, this is what you’d hear whenever you asked anyone from the team about Andrew Luck. Confidence bordering on smugness. Zero concern over the future of a player who hasn’t played a regular-season game since the 2016 campaign. Over the delays of his return from shoulder surgery performed more than a year-and-a-half ago. Over the franchise player’s ability to get back on the field and back to leading the franchise.
The rest of the football world isn’t so sure.
Editor’s note: Doubt them. Hate them. Count them out. It’s these guys vs. everybody this NFL season.
In the months following that dimly lit conversation, Bleacher Report has talked to dozens of scouts, coaches, players and trainers from around the NFL to get as complete a sense as possible of what the league is expecting from Luck this year.
We asked what they were hearing and what they were predicting, and we received a dousing of skepticism to match the Colts’ confidence.
Some predicted he’ll be timid and hesitant once defenders start flying around him in real games.
Others just don’t believe he’ll be able to stay healthy, even if he is now.
Said one AFC director of player personnel: “There has to be a level of doubt that he’ll ever get back to 100 percent. Even if he’s healthy, is he back mentally?”
Said a rival coach in the AFC South: “OK, so [Luck] is healthy, but you’re going to trust that O-line to protect him all year…in the AFC South?! Come on.”
After a somewhat encouraging 6-of-9, 64-yard performance in Luck’s preseason debut, the same AFC director of player personnel said: “You can hide a lot in one preseason series. How will he be in December?”Michael Conroy/Associated Press
“Have you watched the guy play?” an offensive assistant coach for an AFC team said. “Go back and watch him pre-injury…like 2015. Now watch him today. His throwing motion is completely changed, and he has no deep velocity. His entire game has changed. I bet he’ll be Checkdown Charlie. Like Alex Smith but afraid to get hit.”
Luck ended the preseason 20-of-32 for 204 yards, a touchdown and an interception. After 19 months of discouraging news—concern that he might never be anything like the habitual 4,000-yard passer he was earlier in his career, rumors that the Colts should consider trading the player they drafted No. 1 overall in 2012, fear that he might not come back at all—20-of-32 didn’t sell anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to be sold.
The onetime fantasy first-rounder was considered, at best, a mid-round sleeper in most drafts outside of Indianapolis. Even his own general manager, Chris Ballard, acknowledged the ample reason for doubt, telling reporters this preseason, “I still think we’ll get questions until he lines up and plays again and plays high-level football again.”
But skeptical as others might be, privately within the organization, there is no doubting that Luck is about to remind the NFL just how dominant he can be.
“The last time y’all saw Andrew, he threw for 4,200 yards with a f–ked up shoulder and a bad offensive line,” a high-level Colts exec said. “Just wait.”Elsa/Getty Images
“Everything I’ve seen or heard points to him being the same guy he was before,” said a teammate.
“Just wait,” the scout from the bar said. “We’re going to shock everyone.”
Another Colts scout said: “All anyone talks about [in the AFC South] is Jacksonville, or Deshaun [Watson] or [Marcus] Mariota. We have Andrew f–king Luck and a young, fast, tough roster, OK? Maybe don’t forget about us.”
And he’s right. There is no hype coming out of Indianapolis. The AFC South is expected to run through Jacksonville again, or maybe Houston, if Watson can return to his rookie form coming off an ACL injury while working against defenses that now know how to play him.
Being the underdog is fine with the Colts, though. This isn’t a team of front-runners who need to be in the media spotlight. As one scout said: “Hell, we spent two of our early picks on interior offensive linemen. That’s just how we roll.” It’s befitting of a team now coached by Frank Reich, maybe the most famous backup quarterback of all time.Michael Reaves/Getty Images
And it’s Ballard’s personality too. He is exactly what you’d expect from the architect of a Midwestern team, a guy who prefers to be on the road scouting and still looks like the tough wide receiver he was in college at Wisconsin. For years, his name topped lists of the best available general manager candidates while he was Andy Reid’s chief scout in Kansas City, but he passed up many opportunities and chose instead to wait for the right team and right situation.
Ballard got that team in the Colts. He had 11 picks in the 2018 draft and has rebuilt the offensive line, added speed on defense and upgraded at head coach. Last year’s first-rounder, safety Malik Hooker, is also back after a torn ACL and MCL ended his rookie season early, and the team thinks 2017 second-round cornerback Quincy Wilson could be a star after he was often a healthy scratch for former head coach Chuck Pagano.
Ballard got that right situation in Luck too. As any general manager will tell you, having a quarterback like the one Luck can be when healthy is a game-changer. (Said one rival general manager when asked this spring what you’d have to trade to get Luck: “Are you f–king kidding me? You don’t trade Andrew Luck.”)
And now if Luck is really as driven to prove the doubters wrong as those in the organization believe, the Colts could just shock the league.
Of course, as Ballard will tell you, all the hype—and doubt (“I can just see the panic the first time he throws an interception”)—won’t mean much until we see him back in games that matter.
We’ve waited and hoped and doubted since January 2017 to see what Luck will look like in those games. Finally, the wait is almost over.