[Editor’s note: Please welcome Matt Candler as a contributor here at Stampede Blue!]
I think we can all agree that the 2015 season for the Indianapolis Colts was one that couldn’t end fast enough. Once a trendy pick to reach Super Bowl 50, that door slammed pretty fast when quarterback Andrew Luck was sidelined for injuries that doctors compared to that sustained of a car crash victim. As Dr. Lewis Jacobson, of St. Vincent Trauma Center in Indianapolis told the Indianapolis Star’s Stephen Holder, “We most commonly see this kind of injury associated with motor vehicle crashes or motorbike crashes.” The specific injuries, a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle, occurred in Week 9 against the Denver Broncos. But, even before then, Luck had been dealing with major shoulder and rib injuries following a Week 3 comeback victory in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans. Andrew Luck simply wasn’t the same Andrew Luck who threw for 40 touchdowns during the 2014 season. Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who filled in valiantly, deserves so much credit for how he led the offense for much of the year. But, it was clear that without Luck under center, this team wasn’t making any noise in the postseason. This may seem like an unfair opinion, but the 2016 season could pave the road for Andrew Luck’s legacy. Here’s why:
Andrew Luck is the victim of his own success. Viewed by scouts in many circles as “the best quarterback prospect since John Elway”, Luck made many of them look smart. He led the Colts to the playoffs each of his first three seasons, with his passer-rating up each sequential year. If Luck doesn’t start the 2016 with similar success as he had prior to his injuries, the national media will suggest that he isn’t the once-in-a-generational talent that many thought. Unfair? Probably.
An improved AFC South. For nearly a decade it seems as if the Indianapolis Colts won the NFL lottery playing in the AFC South. Since the birth of the division in 2002, the Colts have won 9 AFC South titles. The Titans won the division crown twice, and the Texans three times, including this past season. No longer are inter-divisional games considered “easy”. After years of waiting for the Jaguars to bolt to London or Los Angeles, it seems like the franchise might finally have their act together. Blake Bortles put up Pro Bowl-like numbers this past season, but I’m not completely sold on him due to many late game stat-padding drives. Bortles could very well be a winning quarterback in this league. Jacksonville GM David Caldwell, who spent nearly 10 years with the Colts as an area scout, has slowly stocked this roster with talent on both sides of the ball. Most notably star defensive end Malik Jackson (free agency), and arguably the two most talented players in this years draft: Cornerback Jalen Ramsey and outside linebacker Myles Jack. Meanwhile, the Titans seem to have their quarterback in Marcus Mariota, and have set him up for success with first round picks offensive tackles in Taylor Lewan (2014) and Jack Conklin (2015). And, the Texans have a stout defense led by 3-time defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt. Plus, Houston thinks they have their franchise quarterback in place, after nabbing promising quarterback Brock Osweiler from Denver. Bottom line: No longer is the AFC South filled with sub-par quarterbacks in the likes of Trent Edwards, Jake Locker, and Case Keenum.
A lack of talent on the roster. Remove the quarterbacks from each AFC South team. Which roster is the weakest? On paper, it’s hard to argue that it’s not the Colts. Punter Pat McAfee, cornerback Vontae Davis, and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton are among the best at their positions in the NFL, but it’s not a great sign from a talent perspective when your best player is a punter. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is good, but even he admits he didn’t play up to his expectations last season. Right now, guard Jack Mewhort seems to be the most reliable blocker up front. GM Ryan Grigson spent this year’s first round pick on Alabama center Ryan Kelly. Kelly, by all accounts, seems to be a day one starter and hopefully a cornerstone for this offensive line for a long time. But until we see him face regular season NFL opposition, nothing is for certain. If you look up and down the depth chart, it’s full of C+ to B- starters, with little to no depth behind them. Much of Andrew Luck’s success will be tied to how the Colts defense performs. Where is the pass rush coming from? Can Chuck Pagano rely on 35-year-old Robert Mathis to “bring the heat” in passing situations week in and week out? If any projected starter goes down for an extended length of time due to injury, that could be a major issue for this team. Ryan Grigson deserves the blame for that after failed high-draft picks (cough, cough - Bjoern Werner) and many whiffs in free agency for expensive, over-the-hill veterans who didn’t pan out.
Andrew Luck’s new contract. This offseason, Luck signed a new six-year contract worth $140 million, which makes him the highest-paid player in NFL history. In my opinion, Jim Irsay had no choice. Heck, if I owned the Colts, I would have given Luck a blank check. But it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room: He is coming off an injury-plagued season that was full of turnovers. This record-setting contract turned a blind-eye on the 2015 season, instead hoping for a complete and healthy bounce back year for Luck.
I expect Andrew Luck to return to form and put up MVP-type numbers this season. But with a combination of high expectations from his past success and new contract, an AFC South that is up for grabs, and a lack of depth (and, honestly, talent) on both sides of the ball, the pressure for him to carry this franchise is arguably greater than any other player in the NFL.