INDIANAPOLIS -- His fairy tale ending had squibbed out of his teammate's hands, a fumble returned for the dagger touchdown, and Andrew Luck was talking about hugging his friend. The brutal hit to Luck's head that led to the NFL's first ejection of the season? It looked worse than it felt. The red-zone struggles? Those were not great, but in his rapid-fire, smiling-throughout analysis, it was all summed up as a work in progress.
Something may eventually make Luck unhappy with football again, but what that might be is difficult to imagine and seems a long way off after a 34-23 loss to the Bengals on Sunday, in which the Colts allowed 24 unanswered points in the final quarter and a half of the game.
That would normally be a fairly dispiriting way to start the season, and Luck conceded several times that losing this game stung. But in his first full game in 20 months -- the first game for which he was fully healthy in three years -- Luck chased his ghosts and raised some memories. It offered a reminder of the player he once was and appears to be again -- possessed of a strong arm, a deft touch, a sometimes gasp-inducing bit of bravado and an often spellbinding ability to craft a comeback victory. None of that fully abandoned him, even when he was playing through the shoulder injury in 2016 and before he had the surgery that cost him all of 2017. But when his recovery was set back, when he took off for treatment in the Netherlands, when his weight dropped and his mood darkened and the optimistic timelines went silent, it felt like Luck's all-encompassing skill set, if not his career, was imperiled.
That he completed 39 of 53 passes for 319 yards against the Bengals told of his accuracy (39 is a career high in completions), and the one run for 7 yards told of his seeming inability to shy from danger (he did pull up just as he was about to throw a block). That he completed nine passes to push the Colts to within 15 yards of the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute remaining was a reminder that Luck has authored 14 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career.
But a quiet moment in the locker room may have been the most important of the day to finally put an end to the long, nervous vigil the NFL has held for Luck. There, Luck mindlessly shrugged on his suit jacket as he trailed behind a public relations staffer on the way to his press conference. No labored movements, no grimace of discomfort like those that had accompanied Luck the last time he had played in games. It was all normal and carefree, in the truest sense of the word.
"I was very excited to play," Luck said. "Part of what I think I've been trying to do is to sort of have that same feeling when you're a 12-year-old playing football. A young kid. Because it is a game. We do play the game, we don't work. We play football. Certain things felt a little different."
That was obvious from the very start, when Luck sprinted from the tunnel and crushed center Ryan Kelly in a hug before the game. It had started, unseen, even earlier, in the locker room, when Luck said he grew emotional as he sat at his locker and anticipated his return.
"Overwhelming, I felt grateful and appreciative to be here," Luck said.
There were other promising signs for the Colts. Luck's protection, even without starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo, held up better than expected, and he was sacked just twice. Head coach Frank Reich's play-calling was refreshing in its variety, full of quick passes to nine different receivers and rhythm, although Luck didn't throw deep, in an unmistakable nod to Castonzo's absence. For a team that is still in the throes of a massive rebuild, this was not a bad stepping stone.
Luck was frustrated that, after the Colts' defense picked off Andy Dalton seconds after the game began to give the Colts the ball at the Bengals' 7-yard line, he repeated a mistake he made against the Ravens in the preseason, when he tried to force his first throw of the game to Jack Doyle, and wound up with an interception instead.
But it is impossible to overstate how important it is that the full breadth of the Colts' concern with Luck this week will be addressing a rudimentary mistake like the pick. A quick glance into the crowd revealed an unfamiliar sight here -- empty seats, quite a lot of them, a reflection of the diminished expectations and muted sizzle for the Colts. Having Luck week after week, unimpaired, should cure that.
A few minutes after the game, Luck and Reich shared a word. In front of reporters, Reich said he thought Luck had looked good physically and that he was poised. He was delighted with the sideline dialogue as Luck adjusted to the game and communicated with Reich his desire for certain plays. But privately, they talked about the rhythm of the game and what they need to work on for Luck individually and for the team. And they talked about keeping this loss in perspective.
Those kinds of conversations take place every day between coaches and quarterbacks. It has been a long time since the Colts could have one with Luck that was not freighted with greater concern. After Sunday, they can return to treating a loss as just a loss, a blown chance as just that.
"We're going to be alright," Luck said.
And that is so much better than it's been in so long.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.