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Andrew Luck retired from football, which is great for him but so, so bad for the Colts

One of the league’s best quarterbacks is walking away from the game at 29 years old.

Cleveland Browns v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Andrew Luck had yet to play in the 2019 NFL preseason due to a lower leg injury. Now he won’t take the field at all this fall — or in the future.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Saturday night that Luck had informed the Colts he will retire rather than play this season. The 29-year-old leaves behind a seven-year NFL career that saw him named to the Pro Bowl four times. He led Indianapolis to the playoffs in all four of the seasons in which he played a full 16-game slate.

The news of Luck’s retirement is a shocker. Colts fans caught wind of his impending announcement and voiced their displeasure with the decision during Saturday night’s preseason game against the Bears. Luck took to the podium at the Colts’ postgame press conference to officially announce his retirement shortly after the news broke.

In today’s league, where Tom Brady is still going strong at age 42 and Russell Wilson aims to play until he’s 45, it’s uncommon for an elite quarterback to retire before he reaches 30. But Luck also dealt with several serious injuries over an impressive career, including a shoulder malady that kept him from the field through the entire 2017 season and a lacerated kidney that cost him half of 2015. While he came back from that lost campaign to earn Comeback Player of the Year honors last season, he decided to leave the game behind before it could rob him of any more of his health.

“For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of ‘injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab,” Luck said at his press conference. “And it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. And the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.”

Luck is doing what’s right for him, even if he’s now a “what if” story

First things first: if this is what makes Andrew Luck happy, then it’s a good thing. He knows firsthand the extra mileage a decade-plus of high-level football (at Stanford and Indianapolis) has put on his body. If his decision is based on being mobile, active, and happy as he grows older, then good for him.

Rather than work through a calf injury that evolved into a high-ankle injury and deal with a full season of pain management, he leaves the NFL as one of its greatest “what if” scenarios.

The Colts drafted Luck with the No. 1 pick in 2012 to take over for longtime quarterback Peyton Manning. Luck found success right away, leading Indianapolis to an 11-5 record and a spot in the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. Then, injuries struck and Luck missed 26 games over the next three years.

Last season looked like the old Luck had returned. In 16 games, Luck threw for 4,593 yards while completing 67 percent of his passes and finding the end zone 39 times. In terms of both quarterback rating and QBR, it was his best season as a pro.

More importantly, he did that with a lineup of receivers whose only household name was T.Y. Hilton. Luck’s guidance elevated players like Chester Rogers, Donte Moncrief, and tight end Eric Ebron, who realized his potential with a 13-touchdown performance in his first season in Indianapolis. He’d caught 11 touchdowns in the four seasons that preceded it.

Luck was good, but his greatest skill was making everyone else around him better. In seven seasons, the Colts were 53-33 with Luck, and just 10-16 without him.

So how are the Colts going to replace that?

This sucks, sucks, suuuuuucks for the Colts

Luck’s abrupt departure makes Jacoby Brissett the team’s starting quarterback for the upcoming season. We saw how this turned out in 2017, when he went 4-11 as the team’s starter.

Brissett was thrown into the fire as a second-year quarterback that season, taking the reins just 15 days after being traded from New England to serve as Luck’s insurance policy. The Colts’ offensive line did him few favors; he was sacked a league-high 52 times and rarely had the opportunity to plant his feet and make plays downfield. That 2017 roster also had little star power behind Hilton.

The good news for Indianapolis is that Brissett should be better in 2019. His offensive line got two major upgrades in 2018 thanks to All-Pro Quenton Nelson (left guard) and upper-tier starter Braden Smith (right tackle), both of whom are headed into their second seasons. Those two foundational pieces will clear space for a much better tailback attack as well. In 2017, Brissett relied on a 34-year-old Frank Gore (3.7 yards per carry) and a rookie Marlon Mack (3.8).

This year, he’ll have a third-year Mack — coming off a 908-yard season when he averaged 4.7 yards per carry — along with the uber-efficient Jordan Wilkins and pass-catching chain-mover Nyheim Hines. That trio will provide plenty of yard-gaining support, both on the ground and in wheel routes, screens, and even lined up into the slot. Throw in a still-good Hilton, a leveled-up Ebron, plus whatever the club can get from free agent Devin Funchess and rookie Parris Campbell, and there’s reason to be optimistic about a stronger performance from Brissett.

But ... BUT:

There are only a handful of quarterbacks who wouldn’t be a downgrade from Andrew Luck. Brissett isn’t one of them. Let’s say he improves marginally thanks to the additions general manager Chris Ballard has made the past two seasons. Based on that 2017 performance, he’d throw for something like 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns with a QB rating somewhere around the 88-92 range. That’s better, sure — but it’s still roughly what you’d get from a Jameis Winston or Andy Dalton type player.

Indianapolis can win with a passer of that caliber piloting the offense, but its ceiling just went from AFC title contender to one of the teams working to find a backdoor wild card spot.

In 2018, the Colts went on a tear with Luck, winning nine of their final 10 games to finish 10-6 and earn a spot in the playoffs. They would beat the Texans in the Wild Card Round before losing to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round. But the future was bright and they looked like a top contender heading into 2019.

Luck’s retirement changes things and shifts so much of the focus of the team’s new season on its defense. Darius Leonard was a revelation after joining the team as a second-round pick last year. Now he has to lead his unit on a superhuman effort to keep the Colts together without their QB1.

It’s possible to be happy for Luck finding peace while simultaneously cursing the football gods for the impact his decision will have on the team. That’s where I imagine some Colts fans are right now.

Luck is leaving the game that has dominated his life, calling it a career right at the time he should have been finding his peak. With injuries having taken their toll on his body and the rigors of rehab and NFL obligations weighing on his mind, he decided to play it safe and end his football career. He leaves a resume that includes four Pro Bowl appearances, a couple of collegiate All-American nods, and $97 million in contract earnings.

That’s the right decision for him, and no doubt one he didn’t take lightly. It’s also a brutal one for Indianapolis. Luck, for eight years, was the worthy heir to Manning — another quarterback who instantly pushed the Colts to relevance and served as his team’s heart and soul. Now, he’s hung up his helmet in search of a break from the grind of the gridiron and the tranquility of a less stressful life.

Back in early 2018, after Ballard saw his would-be coach Josh McDaniels renege on a contract and remain in New England at the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, he told the press the Pats-Colts rivalry was “back on.”

Without Luck, it might be time to flip that switch back down for the immediate future.