Now for the rest of the story. It’s impossible to know for sure that Andrew Luck won’t play again. The Colts, by allowing him to keep the $24 million in bonuses they could legally have recouped (per ESPN), surely have laid out the welcome mat should he change his mind. But I know Ballard. He will protect the Colts first and last. There is no question that, at the end of this year, he’ll either try to extend Brissett if he plays well or he’ll enter the 2020 draft looking for a long-term passer. The Colts are well-positioned in 2020, with three picks in the first two rounds, including the extra second-rounder from Washington obtained in a draft-day trade this year. Reich said he’s sure he’s going to be asked about Luck’s future when he meets the press this week. “What I think I’m going to say,” Reich told me, “is, ‘Can we just honor Andrew’s decision to retire? Let’s respect his decision.’ I can tell you he’s not thinking he’s going to come back.”
There was a kerfuffle Saturday night over Luck getting booed when he walked off the field after the game. Schefter’s tweet bounced around the sports world—and inside Lucas Oil Stadium—34 minutes before the game ended, and so the sparse crowd that remained at the end of the 27-17 loss to Chicago rained down some boos on Luck as he walked off the field for the last time. “That hurt,” Luck admitted. I don’t think it’s a big deal, because any fan staying to the end of a preseason game would be a passionate fan, and would be ticked off that the star quarterback wasn’t going to be on the team anymore. I asked the biggest Colts fan I know, Angie Six from Fishers, Ind., to sum up how she was feeling about the tornado that was Luck’s stunning retirement.
“I’m okay,” Six wrote in an email, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of big feelings about it.
“I couldn’t have been more shocked. My first thought? It’s a joke. Sitting by myself at home, I watched Andrew’s press conference. I was surprised to find myself crying. To see his anguish on full display, and to hear the vulnerability in describing his feelings toward Jacoby Brissett, moved me to tears. I’m sad for the potential that was so close to tangible greatness, but never rewarded with a championship.
“I’m bitter and grateful for a person who let me down a little bit, but lifted up my community a lot. Scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, some of my fellow Hoosiers are feeling more bitter than grateful. Mostly the sentiment is gratitude—for getting us over the Manning-sized hole in our hearts, for giving us some incredible football moments, for caring for sick children, for asking us to maybe pick up a book every once in a while. Personally, I’ll look back on this chapter in the Colts’ history with mixed emotions. But even as I waffle between feelings, I’m sure of two things: I have the utmost respect for Andrew Luck as a human being. And no matter how this season unfolds, we’ll be okay.”
Luck, who kept a very small circle about his decision, told Brissett on Friday that he was quitting. Brissett, I hear, was upset because he’s grown close to Luck, even though the decision meant the young quarterback would have his chance to pilot a playoff team with lots of young talent. But of all the things I heard in the Luck press conference, what he said about Brissett—the backup acquired in trade from New England two years ago—was the most real.
Brissett got to Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend 2017. Two weeks later, he was the Colts’ starter for the rest of the year, starting an inglorious 15 games, winning four … and engendering envy from the franchise guy he barely knew.
Luck opened a vein Saturday night about Brissett. “Coming back into the building early last year, I was very jealous of this fun, happy dude that was in my spot as the quarterback on this team. I obviously did not have any confidence in myself either. I could not have been more wrong—in so many ways. A lifelong friend, he means so, so much to me. He’s a big part of me, and a big part of me having one of the more rewarding years of my life last year. Cannot wait to support him and see him lead this team.”
Luck’s buddy Hasselbeck was struck by that too. “I got texts from QBs around the league, saying they got choked up about the relationship between Andrew and Jacoby,” Hasselbeck said. “That was beautiful.”
Brissett was a 59-percent passer in that lost season of 2017, a hold-the-fort guy learning the offense on the fly. Now he’s had a full year, without pressure, to learn under Reich and Sirianni (and from Luck, of course), and the pressure is ratcheted up. The Colts went 10-6 last year, and, aside from the quarterback position, seem to be markedly better across the board. Ballard has drafted well, and this draft class could yield four starters by the beginning of October.
And Indy’s first five Sundays are rough: at the Chargers, at Tennessee, Atlanta, Oakland, at Kansas City. The worst thing for Luck is the best thing for Brissett. Because Luck practiced only three times full-speed this spring and summer, Brissett has taken virtually all of the snaps with the Colts’ first-team offense. So when they begin prep for the Chargers next weekend, Brissett will be in a spot that he’s used to: with the first unit. Still, he’s got to play markedly better than he did in 2017.
“The outside world thinks we’re crumbling,” Ballard said. “But we’re pretty solid inside the building. Don’t worry about us. And don’t write the end of our story yet.”
There’s something else to note here. What do you think the remainder of the Colts players are thinking this morning as they report for the final week of preseason practice? (And I will not be surprised if Reich points this out early and often.) Andrew’s gone, and everyone’s throwing dirt on us. We’re really good. Jacoby’s really good. Let’s stick it to everyone calling us a 6-10 team.
It sounds corny, and it sounds trite. Does that stuff really work? I guarantee you that’s what a good chunk of the 2019 Colts will be thinking entering the strangest season they’ve had in a long time.