It is fair to say that Andrew Luck’s recovery from surgery for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder has taken longer than anyone wanted. Colts team owner Jim Irsay famously predicted that Luck would be ready for the start of the 2017 NFL season and dozens of medical experts threw their commentary in the ring when pressed by members of the media. The vast majority of those predictions indicated that players could return from these surgeries quickly enough to play at the start of the season, assuming a January procedure. However, other comments painted an uncertain picture with a broad spectrum of possible timelines for healing and rehabilitation.
As fans grew anxious last summer, Stampede Blue frantically sought out as many informed opinions on the topic as we could find. Matt Danely interviewed Will Caroll and Dr. Jene Bramel on the Stampede Blue Colts Cast, and we wrote a story attempting to lay out realistic expectations for Luck’s long-term recovery and return to football. Ultimately, what we found is that every surgery is different and that every individual’s body responds to surgery differently. We learned that the labrum is particularly difficult to predict because there is not a great deal of blood flow to the surgically repaired area to expedite the healing process.
Last year, Luck suffered a setback in his recovery when he attempted to make a mid-season return, and while he has avoided a second surgery, this essentially re-started his timetable and reset his program to the rehabilitation phase. The difference between where his recovery is in April of this year versus where it was in April of last year is certainly noteworthy and puts him well ahead compared to last season, but he is still not throwing regulation sized footballs yet. Until he does, there is simply no way to know how his shoulder will respond.
None of this is lost on Luck, who has been fielding questions about his shoulder and his eventual return for over a year. He spoke with the media when he returned to Indianapolis for the start of the 2018 off-season program and acknowledged that his rehabilitation has not gone according to plan. He also took some blame for pushing himself too hard last year.
“One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I’m quite impatient as a person, and it’s got me into places, looking back at the rehab, that maybe I shouldn’t have been in in the first place,” Luck said. “I think I pushed a little too hard on certain things and didn’t give the requisite amount of time for certain things to happen. Your body, I learned, will tell you ‘no’ in certain ways and you’ve got to listen to it. You can’t force things to happen, and I forced things to happen, which I paid for…”
If there is anything fans know about Andrew Luck it is that he is one of the most competitive players to take the field. This is his first experience missing meaningful time due to injury and it couldn’t have been easy to watch his teammates from the sidelines. He has discussed the toll this took on him mentally and emotionally on multiple occasions.
“I guess there’s a certain amount of guilt I’ve lived with for having not played this past year, not being there for the team,” Luck said. “I know it sounds kind of corny and cheesy, but it was very difficult. I put a lot of my self-worth into being available for this team and being the best I could be for this team - maybe not the healthiest thing in the world to do. And when I wasn’t available and couldn’t help the team and felt like I was being a distraction, that was hard for me to handle.”
Since Luck suffered his setback there has been no rush to meet any outside expectations. He has meticulously gone about the process of recovering, including a hiatus in the Netherlands where he worked with a trainer to help rebuild his strength. He has worked with quarterback throwing mechanics experts in California in an effort to place less stress on his throwing shoulder and to re-learn a motion that may be impacted by structural changes to his labrum from the surgery. He has gone through the process of throwing weighted balls to build strength in the shoulder and the process of throwing smaller footballs to work on his arm speed.
Through it all, Luck learned that he needs to carefully complete each small step before he moves to the next. He is not willing to place a timetable on his return to throwing regulation footballs and appears intent on getting things right this time around.
“I trust the people I’m working with,” Luck said. “More importantly, I trust myself in this process. I trust how I feel. Progress is my guiding light. If I’m making progress, I know that’s important. There is a plan in place, and I’ll keep trusting it.”
There is a long off-season process to get through before teams hit the field again this fall. This will provide even more time for Luck to get his body, mind, and shoulder ready for a long-awaited return, and while he is being meticulous and not skipping any steps, he does have a goal.
“As far as participation this offseason, we will see what happens,” Luck said. “I don’t anticipate doing too much, or you guys seeing me to do too much out there. I really want to be ready for Training Camp without the governor on.”
Unfortunately, fans must continue waiting to see definitive proof that Luck is going to make a full return to the football field. They will have to wait to see if he will be able to pick back up as one of the best young signal callers in the game. This waiting will certainly leave plenty of opportunity for uncertainty and doubt.
There has been no more consistent source to keep expectations realistic than Dr. David Chao, who contributes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. We have followed his observations and shared his comments throughout the healing and rehabilitation process, and he continues to believe that Luck isn’t out of the dark just yet.
“As we have said many times, it will be three months between when Luck finally throws for the first time and there being certainty his shoulder will be fine,” writes Dr. Chao. “There is reason for cautious optimism... He is doing it the right way this time. There are, however, still not guarantees he will avoid a repeat of 2017.”
As Dr. Chao acknowledges, until Luck begins throwing regulation footballs and is able to monitor how his shoulder responds, there is no way of knowing if he will make a full recovery and be able to return at a high level. Still, as we have stated, it is clear that he is going about the process of rehabilitating and strengthening his shoulder the right away this time around. He is taking no short-cuts and he is refusing to repeat any mistakes he made to push himself too hard in 2017.
It will be worth monitoring how he participates in summer activities and it is likely that no one will actually see him throwing a football again until he believes he is completely ready. He hopes that will be the start the training camp.