League meetings earlier this week provided the first meaningful access to new Colts head coach Frank Reich since he was announced a little over a month ago. It was his first interview since he has had a chance to take a closer look at his roster, to get acclimated with his new coaching staff, and to start preparations for the off-season program that will run from April 9-25.
Part of what we have learned over the last week is that the front office is taking a bit of a new tone regarding the status of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. They expect that he will participate in the off-season program, that throwing will be a part of the work he does, and for the first time it seems like Jim Irsay, Chris Ballard and Reich are unified in the expectation that Luck will return to football in 2018.
Indy Star reporter Stephen Holder attended the league meetings and had the opportunity to participate in discussions with Reich regarding his outlook for the offense, on Luck, and what areas he plans to focus on with his pending return. One facet of Luck’s game that sticks out most to Reich is his fearlessness in the pocket. Reich said:
I think it’s the toughness (and) fearlessness to his game. Standing in the pocket, totally unafraid, totally fearless. Great quarterbacks I’ve been around, a lot of them have that because you have to be able to hang in there until the last minute (to make throws).
While I expect that Colts fans would agree with Reich’s observations on Luck, I think fans might also point out that his fearlessness may be part of what has gotten him into trouble with injuries and taking big hits. It is crucial that the Colts take steps to keep their franchise quarterback clean in the pocket and to limit the amount of risks he takes as he pushes to win football games. Reich expressed a couple of thoughts on how to approach keeping his quarterback clean.
You’ve got to protect the quarterback, and it is really the whole unit, so that involves scheming to get the ball out quicker.
It is exciting to consider how much offensive changes could help keep Colts quarterbacks clean. For his entire career, Luck has played in an offense that is primarily predicated on taking big shots down the field with plays that take time to develop. We noted numerous times in film breakdowns last year how most Colts receivers ran routes that took too long to develop. Getting the ball out quicker will not only help keep the quarterback clean but it should also allow the offense to setup the opponent for strategic strikes down the field. Reich likes to use a boxing analogy to explain his offensive philosophy.
A lot of jabs, stick and move, and then here comes the big punch. And when you keep them off balance with the jab and you set up the big one, that’s the way it works best.
While this change will certainly go a long way in making life much easier on the offensive line and should also allow Luck to take fewer hits, something will have to change about Luck’s aggressiveness — particularly when he turns into a defender after an interception. Reich said:
I wouldn’t want to be the guy who intercepted (Luck’s) ball because he’s going like a missile to take his head off. … We will have that conversation. It’s the path that he’s taking to tackle a guy. Most quarterbacks are not taking the most direct path. They are going to take the path of less resistance.
While Luck’s competitiveness is easily one of his most endearing qualities, he simply cannot afford to take unnecessary body blows that put himself at risk. This isn’t to say that he should try to make a play or that he should not make an effort but he needs to find ways to “tackle like a quarterback.” He needs to continue working on identifying when he should just go down to avoid taking a big hit — Peyton Manning was a master of this — and he needs to continue working on sliding to avoid taking big hits when he runs with the ball.
If Reich can make meaningful changes to keep Luck clean and extend his career, he will have the opportunity to work with a truly special player. He is completely aware of this fact and expressed how excited he is to work with Luck after he has had a chance to dig deeper into his film.
I remember watching him coming out, watching him play his first few years in the league. I mean, you’ve got size, strength, intelligence, extend plays in the pocket, extend plays out of the pocket, having the intelligence to get the offense in the right [position], be a good decision maker, protect the football, leadership, team-first. I mean, he’s exhibited all those characteristics throughout his whole career, not just with the Colts, but in college.... It’s exciting because you know he’s not only a talented player, but he’s got the kind of character, the kind of backbone, the kind of toughness that you really want to be part of the leadership of the team.
One thing is certain, there is no move that Ballard can make this off-season to improve his roster that is bigger than getting Luck back to health. Additionally, Reich has to recognize how rare it is for a first-time head coach to inherit a franchise quarterback like Luck who still has a a decade or more of high-level play ahead of him. Just how far Luck can take the Colts may depend on Reich’s ability to help him develop better habits and to install changes to make his offense more efficient.
Let’s hope that Luck will be able to participate fully in the off-season program and build toward full-time participation in training camp.