The Indianapolis Colts were left at the alter by Josh McDaniels, but that’s a blessing in disguise. The much larger issue is Andrew Luck’s right shoulder.
The news came down on Tuesday night. Josh McDaniels would go back on his word to stay with the New England Patriots, getting a large raise with his treason of the Indianapolis Colts. For their part, the Colts ended up with egg on their face and a frantic coaching search ahead.
Most of the talking points in the immediate aftermath have centered around the perceived dysfunction in Indianapolis and the scruples of McDaniels, but that is to miss the larger issue at hand.
Regardless of who their next head coach is, the Colts are doomed if Andrew Luck can’t get healthy.
Luck hasn’t been right since the 2015 season, when shoulder injuries began to slow down his career trajectory. After gutting out the 2016 campaign, Luck underwent shoulder surgery in Jan. ’17 on his throwing arm, and he’s been a shadowy figure since.
Now, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen is reporting that he might need another shoulder surgery. If that’s the case, Indianapolis could be without Luck for a second consecutive year. General manager Chris Ballard refuted those reports in his press conference on Wednesday morning, but that wouldn’t be the first time the organization has been wrong about Luck’s progress.
If Luck can’t return, or comes back as a shell of his former self, Indianapolis faces a long rebuild. After guaranteeing Luck $87 million over a five-year extension that ends in 2021, the Colts are tied to Luck for at least one more season and likely two, unless Ballard is willing to give up on his franchise quarterback and swallow more than $18 million in dead money.
Unfortunately for longtime Colts fans, they’ve been down this road before.
Bert Jones was supposed to be a Hall of Famer, and appeared well on his way to that distinction. After being the second-overall choice in 1973, Jones became the league’s best quarterback, winning the MVP award in 1976 while leading the Baltimore Colts to three consecutive AFC East titles from 1975-77.
In an era when 50 percent completion rates and a 1:1 touchdown-interception ratio were the norm, Jones put up 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions in ’76, completing 60.3 percent of his attempts with 9.0 yards per attempt. He was brilliant, and the Colts were on the edge of a championship.
Jones was a two-time All-Pro and featured one of the best arms in league history, an assertion backed by his former coach, Bill Belichick.
Then, in ’78, Jones got injured. He would start only seven games over the following two years, with neck and shoulder ailments derailing his career. By Jan. 1982, Jones was effectively finished, even if he didn’t know it yet. That month, he spoke to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, detailing what he felt was wrong with the Colts.
“What’s wrong with the Colts is the whole attitude of the whole organization, starting at the top,” says Jones. “How long will it take to change? Well, I may only have five or six more years to play. It may take longer than that.
“Our situation is unique. Neither our owner nor our general manager (Dick Szymanski) wants to take any responsibility or blame for anything. Their rule seems to be, ‘Silence is golden. Stay off my back.’ That attitude is definitely reflected throughout the whole organization.
“I really feel that the Colts promoted a negative viewpoint toward me all season. It was like, ‘Don’t let this guy get bigger than you are . . . Let’s blame the coach and quarterback. Here, take the ball, it’s all yours.’
Three months later, Szymanski traded Jones to the Los Angeles Rams for two draft choices. Jones would retire after four games in Los Angeles.
Save ownership going from Robert Irsay to his son Jim, not much appears to have changed. In the year since Luck’s surgery, the younger Irsay has made remarks about his quarterback’s problems being mental, not physical.
It was a shot across the bow at the richest player in franchise history, and the only one who is capable of saving it from itself.
Ballard and Irsay are now charged with finding a new answer on the sidelines, but if Luck goes the way of Jones, none of it matters.