Colts' Andrew Luck motivated by 'second lease' on NFL career

WESTFIELD, Ind. -- He is easing his way into the 2019 NFL season, a process that included spending the bulk of the Indianapolis Colts' first training camp practice on Thursday afternoon watching from the sidelines while wearing a baseball cap. Yet Andrew Luck's calf strain is merely a temporary annoyance for the revitalized quarterback, who last season proved to the football world -- and to himself -- that he can once again shoulder the weight of a franchise, literally and figuratively.

As the Colts head into the second year of the Frank Reich regime with lofty expectations, their most important player may well be their most appreciative. A year ago, Luck was petrified when he took the field for his first training camp practice, and the nervousness extended into his first preseason start and beyond. Coming off an odyssey that included 15 months of throwing through pain -- courtesy of a partially torn labrum -- followed by surgery to his right shoulder that sidelined him for the entire 2017 season, the former No. 1 overall pick legitimately feared for his career.

Now, in the wake of a Pro Bowl season during which he guided Indy to a 10-6 record and an impressive playoff road victory over the Houston Texans, Luck can finally exhale.

"In one sense I feel like I've got a second lease on my football life, if that makes sense," he told me after Thursday's practice at Grand Park Sports Campus. "It's on bonus time, if you will. I think I've learned a bunch of lessons. But I can also keep learning."

Surely Luck, who turns 30 in September -- four days after the Colts open the regular season on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers -- has learned to cherish his NFL career. A year ago, when he took the field for his first training camp practice and finally put his arm to the test, he was taken aback by the lack of zip on his passes.

"The first couple of practices, I don't know if any of those balls passed muster (for what would be required) in a game," Luck recalled. "It was weird. It was like, 'I want the ball to go there, and it's not.' "

Over time, Luck regained the ability to sling it, and as the season progressed, it became clear that he once again ranked among the league's elite passers. After completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 4,593 yards with 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, setting career highs in completions, attempts, completion percentage and passer rating (98.7), Luck was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.

Even as the Colts, who had missed the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons, sputtered to a 1-5 start, Luck's mood remained sunny.

"I was having fun playing football, and that was the overwhelming feeling," Luck said. "It was almost like winning and losing didn't sorta matter. And that stayed the same throughout the season. Yeah, it's a little bit fun, winning, but I was just enjoying coming to work with guys, enjoying playing football without pain."

There was no pain, and a whole lot of gain: The Colts won nine of their final 10 games, clinching a playoff berth on the final night of the regular season with a 33-17 road victory over the Tennessee Titans, their AFC South rival. Luck, who appeared in six postseason games during his first three seasons -- including the 2014 AFC Championship Game in Foxborough that spawned the infamous deflated-balls scandal -- bowed out in the Divisional Round this time, as Indy suffered a 31-13 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Now, with a young nucleus that includes a pair of standout rookies from the 2018 class, Pro Bowl guard Quenton Nelson and All-Pro middle linebacker Darius Leonard, Indy is generating an ample supply of hype heading into 2019, some of it emanating from its own locker room. After reporting to camp on Wednesday, normally low-key receiver T.Y. Hilton, an eight-year veteran, told reporters, "This team is special. ... This team is probably the most talented team I've been around."

Luck reacted favorably to Hilton's comments, though he wasn't prepared to offer a similar evaluation.

"Talent?" he asked, laughing. "I don't know -- I'm glad I'm not a talent evaluator. I would be terrible. But we've got some really good dudes, some really good pieces ... and if T.Y. and (general manager Chris Ballard) and Frank think there's talent, then I'm probably prone to agree. T.Y. doesn't say things he doesn't believe. He's not gonna go out there and B.S. anybody."

Hilton elaborated when we spoke after Thursday's practice: "We know what's at stake. We know what kind of team we have. We have a great team. We're high-caliber. We had a lot of rookies last year; they're grown now, vets. So, this team is pretty special. We have everything that we need."

Specifically, Hilton believes the Colts have improved at the skill positions, adding players who can theoretically take some of the heat off of him.

"Oh, we're loaded," said Hilton, who led the Colts with 76 receptions for 1,270 yards in 2018. "Tight ends, receivers, running backs and the offensive line is just tremendous ... and our quarterback. We have a lot of weapons, so you're not just gonna be able to key on me, or key on any other guy that we have. You see what we've got."

Reich, the team's second-year coach and offensive mastermind, agreed. He specifically pointed to big-bodied receiver Devin Funchess, a free-agent signee from the Carolina Panthers, and wideout Parris Campbell, a second-round draft pick from Ohio State, as players who can supplement the pass-catching production of Hilton, tight end Eric Ebron (13 touchdowns in 2018) and third-down back Nyhiem Hines (63 receptions last season).

"I know a lot of people think he was this hybrid slot receiver and maybe he doesn't bring the whole package," Reich said of Campbell, "but this guy brings the whole package. Now it's gonna take him some time to develop, but his footwork and routes, his mindset, his intelligence, the way he works, I think the ceiling's very high for this guy, and I really expect him to make a big contribution this year.

"We really relish and embrace the idea that even though T.Y.'s our guy and he's probably gonna be our leading receiver, we spread the ball around. And (Luck) wants to spread the ball around."

Best of all, as he proved last season, Luck can spread the ball around with the same proficiency he displayed before the shoulder problems began. With that loaded question seemingly settled, Luck has no problem proceeding cautiously as he works through the calf strain he suffered early in the team's offseason training program.

On Thursday, Luck participated in early positional drills and threw some passes to uncovered receivers, then headed to the sideline once team drills began. Afterward, he seemed decidedly unstressed about the deliberate approach, while conceding that the ordeal he endured with his throwing shoulder -- and the accompanying fear that his football career might be finished -- is something he continues to access as he pushes forward and strives for a Super Bowl victory.

"Being injured, I think, if you're a quarterback, and you're over the age of 27 in the NFL, you've gone through some s--- for sure," Luck said. "And I know I feel like a better football player, and I'm having a much more rewarding, fulfilling life, having gone through some very dark times with an injury. And I'm in a weird way thankful for it, I guess, and grateful for all of it now. I think I access the lessons.

"And it's a daily thing; I 'F' up constantly. So I keep working, and working and working, trying to be a better football player and person -- slowly but surely, one step at a time."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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