INDIANAPOLIS — By the time the real work of Andrew Luck‘s day was done on Tuesday — he had his Stanford hat on as he strolled the hallway, beaming — he had done all he could to restore order to a team that, throughout his absence, has felt as unfinished as the construction-filled building it trains in.
For the first time since last October, Luck threw a football in the presence of reporters and among his teammates Tuesday, setting off whispers of excitement and an hour of forensic work to figure out exactly what kind of football he was holding. It was just about 20 throws, the farthest went about 20 yards to Luck’s left side, none of them were at full power, and it was a lighter football than the NFL uses. But it was the next step in Luck’s return from the shoulder injury and surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2017 season and, for a while at least, appeared to imperil a career that has long been considered the next big thing.
These have been anxious months for Luck and the Colts, and a fan base that grew weary and angry over the once-high-but-ultimately-dashed hopes of a 2017 return. Much of Luck’s rehab has been shrouded in secrecy, with Luck and the team revealing no concrete timelines and few details about the regimen he was following. On Tuesday, he answered one of the biggest looming questions when he admitted he has already thrown “The Duke,” the regulation NFL football, in a private session with coach Frank Reich a couple of weeks ago, during which Luck swore Reich to secrecy. The most tangible sign of progress, though, may have been in Luck’s demeanor. Luck wears his emotions on his sleeve, and on Tuesday, he was as ebullient as he has ever been, declaring that, unlike in last fall’s aborted attempt to return, “that pain is gone.” Regarding the regular-season opener against Cincinnati: [Don’t] “knock on wood; I’m going to be there. I’ll play.”
Luck’s protracted recovery has taken a toll, on him and on expectations for the Colts, who were once considered a perennial AFC contender but have struggled for relevance as Luck has been hampered by injury. At the end of the ruined 2017 season, Luck gave a press conference at which he appeared bereft. He was noticeably thinner, but it was also obvious his absence and inability to help his team weighed on him mentally and emotionally. He was more optimistic and reflective by April, when the team resumed offseason workouts, and Luck said that his October setback likely came about because he had pressed too hard and too fast to return. He has fought that impulse this time, straddling the fine line he described as being between not pressing too hard and being too laissez-faire. But Luck conceded Tuesday that he had a little mental block about throwing an NFL football again, which is why he did it in a casual throwing session in the presence of only Reich, a former quarterback himself.
Reich believes Luck has not thrown “The Duke” since, but that is all part of a carefully managed plan that, Colts owner Jim Irsay said, is likely to continue for the rest of Luck’s career. Irsay is given to excitement, and on Tuesday, he said people who have worked with Luck have compared his physical fitness to that of LeBron James. Irsay also suggested Luck could play into his 40s.
Given the last few years, the Colts will be thrilled just to see Luck, 28, get into his 30s the way he played in his early 20s, when the former first overall pick led the team to three straight playoff appearances. Luck said he will throw again on Wednesday but will not throw on Thursday, the final day of minicamp. When training camp opens, he expects to be full-go, but days off will be mixed in, likely to keep close to a game-week schedule, meaning four days of throwing — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — and then going all-out on Sunday for a game. The critical moments will be when Luck is full-go, when he does throw 100 passes in a practice. How does his body respond? Can he repeat his throws over and over with consistency? Do his arm and shoulder hold up after he takes a beating in a game? Luck seems convinced they will, and he has said more than once that he expects to be a better quarterback than he was before.
For now, he is meticulously building up his strength. He has thrown weighted balls, and he is working on overhand tennis serves, which mimic the motion of passing, while putting less stress on his arm, adhering to the same theory behind throwing a smaller football. There is natural soreness but, critically, no pain. When we see Luck again, the expectation is that he will be much closer to what he once was, but until then, there are still more incremental steps, like the one he took Tuesday.
“Our bodies aren’t vehicles,” Luck said. “They’re not robots. You can’t just take a piece off, put a new piece on and go around. We adapt. If you ask the right questions and if you’re patient enough … I believe in my bones that if I stay patient and ask the right questions and communicate with everybody and ask the right questions of my body, slowly but surely I can make myself do anything. That’s been sort of my M.O., and I’m gonna stay that way.”
He added: “My body doesn’t revolt to new things I ask. I don’t dip as much.”
And that, at long last, may mean a steadier course for the Colts, too.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.