Had it not been for injuries, bad luck, and some very poor personnel decisions, things might have turned out differently for Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis.
There was a time not too long ago when football fans everywhere were hung up on a young quarterback named Andrew Luck, who was expected to be the next great face of the NFL.
He had a standout career at Stanford, and following a miserable 2-14 season in 2011, the Indianapolis Colts were expected to draft Luck with the first-overall pick in the 2012 draft with the hope that he would bring the franchise back to greatness. They even pushed one of the all-time greats, Peyton Manning, right out the back door to do it.
Just a few months earlier, Chuck Pagano became the Colts’ new head coach. Indianapolis had also hired Ryan Grigson as its new general manager around the same time it hired Pagano. There were a lot of changes in the organization, but that’s to be expected when you’re trying to turn around a 2-14 team. Everything continued to fall into place when the Colts drafted Luck, their new prize possession, at No. 1 overall.
Now with the opportunity for a fresh start, Luck, Pagano, and Grigson were ready to lead the city into the next great era of Colts football. And for a while, it seemed like that’s exactly where they were headed.
In Luck’s rookie season – the Colts went 11-5, a nine-game turnaround, and qualified for the playoffs. The following year, they went 11-5 again, and Luck won his first playoff game in the infamous “28-point game” that Kansas City Chiefs fans still have to be kicking themselves about almost five years later.
The year after that, in 2014, the Colts went 11-5 once again, eventually reaching the AFC Championship Game after beating Manning’s Broncos in Denver. The future couldn’t have looked brighter for Indianapolis, but when the Colts sparked the “Deflategate” drama in that title game against the New England Patriots – an eventual 45-7 defeat – that was seemingly the moment that their good fortunes completely turned around.
Luck began to struggle heavily with injuries, and the Colts went just 8-8, missing the playoffs for the first time since drafting him. Meanwhile, Grigson had come under heavy fire for his 2013 trade that brought Trent Richardson to the Colts in exchange for a first-round draft pick – a trade that completely backfired when Richardson only ended up scoring six touchdowns in two seasons for the team, and only averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Richardson was released after the 2014 season.
Grigson was also heavily criticized for not finding more help for the offensive line when Luck was getting little to no protection, making the franchise quarterback much more vulnerable to injuries. The Colts once again went 8-8 in 2016, Luck immediately had shoulder surgery following the end of the season, and Grigson was fired.
The 2017 season would turn out to be the last for Pagano in Indianapolis, and still recovering from his shoulder surgery, Luck would not play at all that year. Pagano was relieved of his duties following the season, but he believes that Luck was one of the reasons he got to stay on as the Colts coach for as long as he did.
“I love Andrew Luck,” Pagano said during an appearance on FS1’s First Things First. “He got me more years than I deserved. He’s a phenom.”
Luck still has a chance to make a comeback and ultimately carry the Colts to greatness. He’ll be 29 years old during the 2018 season, and he should still have plenty of great football left in his tank. It’s just unfortunate that he and Pagano were never able to reach their full potential together during the six seasons they shared in Indianapolis. They had a run of bad luck during their last few years, not to mention a number of poor GM decisions by Grigson, that ultimately led to their undoing.
But Pagano believes that Luck is in a great position to succeed under new head coach Frank Reich.
“He’s in a great place mentally, he’s in a great place physically,” Pagano continued on FS1. “I expect Andrew to be the old Andrew, and come back and play great football this season and beyond. Obviously he’s got a lot of work to do. He’s got to get back on the grass, he’s got to start throwing the football. All those things, that’s going to happen, but he’s in a great place.”
When the Colts had just finished their remarkable turnaround in the 2012 season and were headed to the playoffs in Luck and Pagano’s first year together, the future looked beautiful for the two of them. Unfortunately, we’ll always just be left to wonder what they could’ve accomplished together.