A year ago on Thanksgiving, Andrew Luck was on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback underwent surgery in January 2017 to repair a frayed labrum, but missed the entire season that followed after suffering setbacks in his rehab.
“There were one or two moments where I wondered if, ‘Am I ever going to be able to do this again?’” Luck admitted to reporters this August. He wasn’t the only one. Just about everybody had some doubts.
Eleven games into his comeback campaign, it’s safe to say Luck’s all the way back. If anything, he’s better than ever.
Luck is completing a career-best 68.4 percent of his passes with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’s thrown at least three touchdown passes in his last eight games — a streak that only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have ever matched. The record is a 10-game stretch for Brady during his MVP season in 2007.
He’s the clear favorite for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Not too long ago that seemed inconceivable.
“I was not in a good spot a year ago,” Luck said Sunday after a 38-10 win over the Titans. “I remember that. I am in a good spot now,”
How did he turn things around so quickly? Let’s review:
Arm strength: 9.4
The biggest concern about Luck’s comeback was whether he’d ever hit a deep ball again. Being able to throw a ball over 60 yards is a skill that a quarterback is rarely asked to show in an NFL game, but the capability to do so is a necessity.
If a quarterback can’t burn a team deep, the defense can commit to stopping the run without the fear of a receiver getting behind the safeties. In preseason, there was reason to be concerned that Luck wouldn’t be able to command that respect. The closest he came to a deep throw in August was an 18-yard touchdown lob to tight end Eric Ebron.
Luck even admitted that the long ball was a work in progress — albeit with optimism that it wasn’t far from all the way back.
“I feel stronger, I feel more fit, I feel like my arm has more in it and a little more in it and a little more in it,” Luck said, via the Indianapolis Star.
There were still questions after the regular season began. When the Colts needed a Hail Mary from their own 46-yard line in Week 3, it raised eyebrows that Jacoby Brissett was subbed in to make the throw.
But now that concern has been put to bed. Luck has connected on 16 of his 36 passes at least 20 yards downfield — the third-best percentage in the NFL among starters. He’s thrown seven touchdowns and no interceptions on those passes for a 130.8 passer rating on deep balls.
One of those touchdowns came in Week 11 when he effortlessly dropped a ball perfectly into T.Y. Hilton’s arms from about 50 yards:
Hilton has been one of the NFL’s premier deep threats since he arrived in 2012, but without Luck in 2017, he finished with only 966 yards. It was his first season under 1,000 yards since his rookie year. Although hamstring and chest injuries slowed down his production in October, Hilton’s back and so are his deep connections with Luck.
Supporting cast: 9.0
Much of the Colts’ 1-5 start to the season was due to an astoundingly long list of injuries and a receiving corps that couldn’t catch a cold.
Andrew Luck traveled all the way back to earth for this shit pic.twitter.com/iGoCyKLmTI— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 5, 2018
Over a three-week span earlier in the season, Colts receivers dropped 11 passes in consecutive losses to the Texans, Patriots, and Jets. In the four wins since that slide, only two passes from Luck have been dropped.
Hilton recently had his first game with more than 150 receiving yards in over a year, Eric Ebron has emerged as a touchdown machine, and the running back trio of Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins, and Nyheim Hines are collectively averaging 4.95 yards per carry.
The key to it all — aside from Luck’s play — has been a dominating offensive line.
For most of his career, Luck has been a human piñata in the Colts backfield. He was sacked 156 times in 70 games over his first five seasons. Before shredding his shoulder, Luck missed the last nine games of the 2015 season with a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle.
But now, Luck hardly gets touched. He’s been sacked on 8.4 percent of his dropbacks so far this season — the lowest rate in the NFL. Drew Brees is second at 10.7 percent and every other starting quarterback gets sacked over 13 percent of the time.
Somehow, Luck wasn’t sacked at all between Week 6 and Week 11.
The starting offensive line for the Colts has three first-round picks (Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, and Ryan Kelly) and one second-round pick (Braden Smith). That investment has paid off for a big way, and helped Luck from taking any more damage.
Avoiding mistakes: 8.1
If there’s been one problem with Luck’s play throughout his career — even dating back to his days at Stanford — it’s that he’s been turnover prone.
Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ryan Tannehill were the only three quarterbacks with more interceptions and fumbles than Luck’s 106 between 2012 and 2016. If Luck hadn’t missed 10 games due to injury, he may have ended up leading in the dubious stat over that five-year span.
In the first six games of the 2018 season, it was more of the same. Luck threw eight interceptions and fumbled twice, although it didn’t help when his receivers were literally dropping passes into the arms of defenders.
But in the next four games, Luck had one interception and one fumble. He’s been kept clean by his offensive line, and he’s protecting the football and efficiently leading the Colts down the field. Two interceptions against the Dolphins threatened to snap that winning streak, but then Luck came up clutch to lead a game-winning drive.
Finding the balance between Luck’s aggressiveness and carelessness was a top priority for Frank Reich in his first season with the Colts. Right now, it looks like Reich and Luck are dialed in.
The 7-3 Texans and 6-5 Cowboys are the two teams left for Indianapolis with winning records, and the final five games of the year aren’t going to be a walk in the park for the Colts. The Titans are .500, and the Jaguars and Giants aren’t easy wins either.
But if Luck continues to be unsackable, safe with the football, and able to connect on deep balls, the Colts are in business.