I’ve been trying to put in perspective where this ranks in terms of stunning NFL retirements. I can compare it to three others: running back Jim Brown, who quit at 30 after winning the 1965 NFL MVP; running back Barry Sanders, who retired at 31 in 1999; and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who left the Lions at 30 after nine NFL seasons. I think the Luck retirement is the biggest shocker of them all.
Brown made $60,000 in his last year with the Browns; three years later, he was paid $125,000 to star in a Hollywood film. He might have had two or three top years left as a back, and in Hollywood, he was a marquee name immediately. Sanders, too, could have been great for two or three more years, probably, but they don’t give guarantees on 31-year-old running backs. Johnson was at the top of his game too, a physical marvel. But he didn’t have the public cache of a quarterback, and he never played on a great team.
Luck, when healthy, was a top-five quarterback. With quarterbacks routinely playing till their late thirties (and older) now, it’s conceivable that Luck, who has made $103 million in his seven-plus NFL seasons, could have played 10 more years and made more than $300 million in the process. I doubt Spielberg’s paying Matt Damon money to Luck to make a movie—and I highly, highly doubt Luck would be interested in that life anyway. He’d love to hide from the spotlight, not embrace it. Plus: This is a quarterback, a highly rated one, coming off a season in which he had the third-best WAR (wins above replacement) of any quarterback in football, per PFF. Only Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees had a higher WAR than Luck—who the analytics site said was worth three wins more than his replacement to the Colts in 2018.
Add to that the surprise of a quarterback exiting by his own decision in mid-prime. “I was floored,” said Ballard, on his reaction when Luck told them last Monday. “Taken aback. Shocked.”
That plus the fact that Luck was over the moon working with Reich, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady. In camp, Luck told me: “Last year was about as much fun as I could have playing football.”
There are players in the NFL—Brady and Brees come to mind—who will play till someone tears the uniform off them. Luck never gave the impression that he’d be a player who’d play that long, but he also never gave the impression he’d play as a broken-down guy. I’ll never forget interviewing him at the 2012 combine in Indianapolis, and asking him about his off-field habits. At Stanford, he didn’t have cable-TV for most of his time on campus, and he rode a bike through campus like every other student, and he had a passion for reading. “Now don’t go making me into a nerd!” he told me that night.
“School’s important,” Luck said that night, “but football’s always been more important. The more I play, the more I love it. I’ve gotten to the point where, the more you learn about the game, the less you know. I want to learn more about it all the time.”