When Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson handed in Andrew Luck’s name for the top overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, a new era started in Indianapolis. It was one of the most bittersweet and numb feelings entire generation of Colts fans could ever experience. They were watching their hero leave to play for another franchise.
A prospect who was widely seen as the top player at his position to enter the draft since Peyton Manning in 1998 or even John Elway before him. Speaking of Elway, he spurned the Colts when they selected him first overall in the 1983 NFL Draft, and ended up leading the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl victories. It is oddly fitting that he would lure an Indianapolis legend to join him years later, add another championship to his résumé — his first as a general manager — and the second for Manning.
Meanwhile, Colts team owner Jim Irsay was intently focused on using a “generational prospect” to get his franchise back to the Super Bowl and hang another banner of his own. The mantra was that the Colts intended to “build the monster” under first-time head coach Chuck Pagano, who would bring with him a defensive style made famous in Baltimore. It was an easy sell for a fan base who felt that the team would have easily exceeded a lackluster showing in the playoffs had it only been able to put more respectable defenses onto the field to help support Manning.
Despite the fact that Indianapolis was coming off of a season where it finished with only 2 wins, Luck was able to lead a team that was lacking in talent, and in transition on both sides of the ball, to 11 wins. The team rallied around first-year coach Chuck Pagano who won a battle with leukemia (#Chuckstrong) and helped inspire his players and even the Indianapolis community to believe in one another — overachieving any realistic expectations.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had to coach much of the season and let his young rookie quarterback unleash an aerial assault that resulted in over 4300 yards and 23 touchdowns. Indianapolis found itself back in the playoffs but lost in a game where Luck struggled.
The next two seasons were quite possibly even bigger shocks to the NFL community. With a team that was still widely considered to be lacking in talent overall, particularly on defense, the Colts managed to win 11 games in back-to-back season (three overall) and find their way into the playoffs. The most notable attributes of these seasons were that Indy made it one game further into the playoffs in consecutive years, leading to a blowout against the Patriots in Foxboro in 2014 for the AFC Championship (Deflategate) and that Andrew Luck had the best season of his career in 2014 with 4761 passing yards and 40 touchdowns.
There was no young quarterback in the NFL who was receiving more attention as a budding superstar than Luck at the time — only Russell Wilson and Seattle’s Legion of Boom rivaled his trajectory.
THE YEAR IT ALL CHANGED
Everything started to unravel in 2015.
At the time, no one was really aware that Luck had suffered an injury. He continued in the game and helped the Colts earn their first win of the season in Week 3.
While the season wasn’t starting off the way the Colts wanted, they rebounded from an 0-2 start in 2014 to end up in the AFC Championship game. There was no reason to question the red hot start to Luck’s career, especially after a heroic late-game comeback against a division rival.
The first sign that something more significant happened came the following week. Luck missed the first game of his career. At that time, Colts fans had every reason to believe the franchise was in real trouble. With two divisional games on deck, a backup would have to lead the team out of a 1-2 hole.
Veteran Matt Hasselbeck helped Indianapolis limp to an overtime victory at home against Jacksonville. Somehow, he helped lead the team to another win on the road in Houston. New life and new hope filled a fan base who thought the worst could come to an end if Luck could simply return to the field with over half of the season remaining.
Luck did make his return but it was just in time for the toughest stretch of the season, he just missed two straight games, and the talent disparity was too much to overcome. Home losses against the Patriots and Saints were followed by a road loss against the Panthers.
Indianapolis was suddenly 2-0 without Luck under center and 1-5 with him. What kind of twilight zone horror film were the fans in Indianapolis watching?
What happened next was both incredibly gratifying and horrifying, all at once.
In one of the most exciting games of Andrew Luck’s career, he hosted Colts legend Manning and an undefeated Broncos team who was looking for revenge after suffering two losses to Indianapolis the year before. This game came on a short week after a road loss in overtime on Monday night football to the Carolina. It just so happens that the Panthers would later meet the Broncos in the Super Bowl, and that Manning would earn his second championship.
An injured Luck battled with Manning the whole way. Luck finished the game with 252 passing yards, 34 rushing yards, and 2 passing touchdowns. He took only 1 sack for a 7 yard loss. Manning finished the game with 281 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Luck finished the game with a 98.4 QB rating against Manning’s 78.6.
The Colts won 27-24.
Something else happened during the game though, something that everyone in the stadium saw and that was played over and over via reply on televisions at home. In a tie game, on a play to start the fourth quarter, Luck escaped the pocket and leaked out to his left for a four yard gain. He paid the price for his efforts.
Just like in Tennessee only weeks before, Luck would finish the game. Like in Tennessee, he would come out on top and inspire his team to believe that something special might be possible. Just like after Tennessee, Luck would miss time — this time with a lacerated kidney that would shut down the rest of his season.
He finished 2015 with only 15 touchdown passes in 7 games. He missed more than half of the season and was forced to listen to pundits around the league question his ability as a football player and whether he had peaked early in his young career. Ridiculous media personalities brought up the Colts’ record without Luck in 2015 — 6-2 — versus the team’s record with him — 2-6.
Little did they know, little did fans know, there was much more to the story. It wasn’t until Jim Irsay reported via Twitter than Luck had undergone successful shoulder surgery in January of 2017 that the bigger picture started to come together.
Though no one knew it, it is impressive to note that Luck put together the third highest passing yard total, second-best QB rating, and second-lowest interception rating of his career with a torn labrum in 2016. He took 41 sacks, tied for the most of his career, and took a sack on 7% of his drop-backs — the highest of his career. Despite these efforts with a bum shoulder, the Colts would again finish the season 8-8 and miss the playoffs for a second-consecutive season.
The pressure was on for a team moving in the wrong direction. Chuck Pagano was squarely on the hot seat and the fan faithful in Indianapolis were starting to lose hope that the current regime and leadership could get the job done. This led to Jim Irsay to fire Ryan Grigson, replacing him with one of the most well-respected and highly sought after general manager candidates on the market — Chris Ballard. Irsay allowed Pagano a chance to stick around under new leadership — likely because Ballard was hired so late in the process — to see if he could turn things around.
What might be the most incredible part of the four win season that Indianapolis put together without Andrew Luck playing a single snap is that the team should have won a handful of games, despite what would otherwise be considered almost impossible circumstances. Blown second half leads, particularly in the fourth quarter (historically bad), and the inability of the coaching staff to put a full game together led to the end of the Pagano era and a full stable of new coaches for the coming season.
The significance of what happened to Andrew Luck in 2015, starting with a shoulder injury in Week 3 that would end up costing him all of 2017 is incredible to consider.
WHAT IF LUCK DIDN’T HURT HIS SHOULDER?
How different would the Indianapolis Colts franchise look today if Luck doesn’t injure his shoulder against the Titans? If he never misses a game in 2015, does it save Chuck Pagano’s job? If Pagano has Luck for an entire season in 2017, do the Colts get into the playoffs? If he is able to lead the offense and put points on the board, does the Colts defense look so bad statistically?
If Luck doesn’t end up missing all of 2017, does Jacoby Brissett end up in Indianapolis? Does Phillip Dorsett get another season with Luck to salvage his young career? Does Donte Moncrief continue his role as a red zone maven with another year building rapport with #12? If Moncrief stays, do the Colts take wide receivers in the draft?
What do you think would change? Discuss in the comments.
What if Andrew Luck didn’t hurt his shoulder in 2015?
This poll is closed
Chuck Pagano is still head coach
Ryan Grigson is still general manager
The Colts go to the playoffs in 2017
Donte Moncrief is still in Indianapolis
Other - discuss below