It's Time to Read Between the Lines: Andrew Luck Isn't Playing Anytime Soon

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterJuly 27, 2017

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) scrambles against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

One of these days, a Colts executive will announce that Andrew Luck was sent to live on a farm upstate. He's chasin' rabbits through the fields, Chris Ballard or Chuck Pagano will say. He's really happy there. Now let's go get some ice cream.

Things aren't quite that bad yet for Luck and the Colts. But whenever Luck's injury status has come up over the last six months, the team has reacted with the forced nonchalance of a flight attendant casually explaining how to brace for impact with a meteor.

Ballard did his best impression of the internet "This is fine" dog on Monday when he announced that Luck would start training camp on the PUP list.

"Andrew's got to work on getting his throwing motion back, all his strength back," Ballard said soothingly, per Kevin Bowen of the team's official site. "We're exactly where I thought we were going to be at this time. He's not had any setbacks at all. His weight's up. He's starting to get all his strength back. It just takes time.''

Ballard's statements sound reassuringly dull and procedural until they sink in. Luck doesn't have his throwing motion and his strength? A quarterback without strength and a throwing motion might as well be you or me!

There's "no timetable?" This isn't the February scouting combine. It's the start of training camp, and training camp is nothing but timetables!

But that's OK, because Luck's "weight's up," which is great news when a toddler is getting over the flu but far down on the "ready to play NFL football" checklist.

The more the Colts downplay the fact that their quarterback won't be practicing anytime soon, that he hasn't thrown a football at all since last season ended and that there is reason to worry, the more Colts fans should feel like reaching for their hyperventilation bags.

It has been like this since Jim Irsay's oh-by-the-way mention of Luck's labrum surgery in January. Luck has been almost invisible since then, except for some on-message minicamp press conference statements.

"I'm not going to get into specifics, dates and timelines," he said over a month ago, per Mike Wells of ESPN.com.

Pagano's "hopeful" and "praying" minicamp remarks didn't sound like the words of a coach encouraged by his quarterback's prognosis.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Experts like the ones quoted in Zak Keefer's Indianapolis Star report usually cite a six-to-nine-month recovery period for labrum surgery, placing Luck within the standard recovery window. But when "no specifics" and "no timelines" become the mantras for a player's recovery, it's hard to escape the feeling that everyone is putting off telling us some potentially bad news.

There is no guarantee that Luck is under center against the Rams to start the season. That's what "no timetable" means, folks. And all of the spookiness surrounding Luck invites chilling speculation. What if Luck misses the entire season? What if he is never the same again?

Before we confront the nightmare scenarios, let's deal with the short-term reality.

The Colts will enter camp this weekend with Scott Tolzien, Stephen Morris and Phillip Walker taking all of the quarterback reps. Tolzien is a lower-rung journeyman backup who will turn 30 in early September. Morris is a knock-around practice squader entering his second camp with the Colts. Walker is a pint-sized, max-effort undrafted rookie. No current Colts backup has ever won an NFL game, though Tolzien once led the Packers to a tie against the Vikings.

None of these quarterbacks even remotely approaches Luck in terms of size, velocity, accuracy, experience or talent. Colts receivers who didn't catch a single Luck pass in OTAs will continue to work with understudies. The Colts will lose hundreds of preseason reps with their starting quarterback. It will hurt the team's rhythm, timing, system installation and (most crucially) the development of young players on both sides of the ball.

If Luck begins throwing in individual drills in a week or so and returns to full-squad practices in mid-August, his absence won't be that big of a deal. But general managers don't talk about not having a timetable if they expect to see a player back in a week or so. The Colts will likely stumble through all of camp and the preseason with Luck wearing a baseball cap. There is nothing routine or encouraging about that.

Now let's fast-forward to Week 1. Imagine Luck is practicing in some capacity but still less than 100 percent, forcing Pagano (no doubt with input from Ballard and Irsay) to decide whether to start Luck or use either Tolzien or Morris as a short-term stunt double.

The Colts open with the Rams, Cardinals, Browns, Seahawks and 49ers before their division schedule kicks off. The Seahawks and Cardinals would each sack and intercept either Colts backup approximately a bajillion times. The Rams, while beatable, may be the worst team to start a rusty quarterback with a bum shoulder against; rushing Luck back just so he can be walloped onto the IR by Aaron Donald would be disastrous. The Browns and 49ers represent easy wins for the Colts with Luck healthy and potential embarrassments without him.

Pagano and the Colts will face a lot of early-season temptation to rush Luck if he is not 100 percent healthy. It's easy to see a 3-2 start with even a rickety Luck under center and a 1-4 or 0-5 coach-jeopardizing disaster without him. Let's see how the "no timetables" policy is holding up around Labor Day.

That brings us to the ultimate Colts Armageddon scenario: either a repeat of Peyton Manning's 2011 season, when a winter and spring of wishing and worrying turned into an autumn on the IR (this is admittedly on the fringe of the pessimism spectrum) or a season of Luck bouncing on and off the injury list, missing practices, always being day-to-day or a week away and never being close to full strength.

It's often asserted that the Colts are squandering Luck's championship window. Two offseasons ago, the Colts were Super Bowl contenders. Now, they are plucky rebuilders. Ballard is restructuring the roster while rebuilding the front office. Pagano is presumably on a short leash. The Colts are charitably the third-best team in the NFL's weakest division. But at least they have a franchise quarterback.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 24:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts looks on against the Oakland Raiders during the second quarter of their NFL football game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 24, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thea
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Replace that franchise quarterback with overpriced damaged goods, and the Colts future is bleak. With Luck healthy, they can realistically aim for a 2018 turnaround. Without Luck, or with Luck in perpetual beta-testing mode, the Colts will end up in the same holding pattern the Bears have been over the last three years, hoping to get some return on their investment in a once-great quarterback, knowing that it is highly unlikely to happen.

The ultra-cautious approach really is the best one for Luck. It's better for the Colts to sacrifice Week 1, or even a major chunk of the 2017 season, than to jeopardize the future of the franchise.

That's fine, as long as the Colts are just being ultra-cautious, not shielding us from some terrible secret.

What's troubling about the lack of Luck health information this offseason is that it mirrors the lack of straight answers the Colts provided about Luck's health in 2015 and 2016. Luck's shoulder first appeared on an injury report early in the 2015 season. His kidney lasceration and abdominal muscles were a source of mystery and misinformation in the middle of 2015. Last season, Luck frequently missed midweek practices; he missed just one 2016 game with a concussion, but his week-to-week health was always cloudy.

Now the team that never told us anything when Luck was hurt is telling us nothing about his recovery. It's hard to not be suspicious. It's also hard to not be concerned that all of the offseason talk of taking things slowly will disappear once games start to matter, whether Luck is ready or not.

Maybe there is no reason to worry, but the team's constant "Don't worry" refrain is becoming less and less reassuring. 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.