The Mystery behind the Retirement of Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck says Goodbye

August 24th, 2019, a day that will live in infamy among fans of the National Football League. On this day perhaps the most shocking words since Truman announced he was dropping the atomic bomb were uttered, Andrew Luck has retired from the NFL. The news sent shockwaves across social media platforms, Twitter was exploding, and news feeds were being filled with the reactions of millions of fans seeking one answer, why?

The obvious answer came when it was revealed that Luck’s injuries have begun to take a toll on him both physically and mentally. Suddenly, the news began to resonate and become clearer, but it left me thinking to myself was there more to this than meets the eye. 

To truly understand the magnitude of this decision, let’s take a trip back in time. The year is 2010 and the NFL season is underway. The league was littered with franchise QBS ranging from the likes of Brady, Brees, Rivers, Roethlisberger, Ryan, and Rodgers. However, one name stood above the rest and upon his helmet bestowed the symbol of a horseshoe. Peyton Manning. Manning was leading the defending AFC champion Colts’ team to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth.

This sparked the first time he failed to win more than 12 games in a season since 2002, and following an early playoff exit at the hands of the New York Jets, things began to take a turn for the worse. Most who grew up during this era can remember reading the famous poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer titled Casey at the Bat. During the resolution of the poem, mighty Casey has struck out and a sophisticated feeling of hopelessness and despair had begun to set in. I bring this to your attention because this is the best example one could equate to how Indianapolis Colts fans may have felt when it was announced Peyton Manning would not play during the 2011 NFL season.

The once shining beacon of NFL franchises was in disarray. Meanwhile across the country on the coast of California, another beacon was beginning to shine. A young man by the name of Andrew Luck was taking the college football world by storm. The starting QB for the University of Stanford was beginning to garner the attention of NFL scouts and fans alike. During his first season as signal caller, Luck would lead Stanford to a 12–1 record, reaching a #4 ranking in the final AP Poll, and a culminating with a victory in the Orange Bowl.

Luck was rightfully named the Orange Bowl MVP,  tossing four touchdown passes in Stanford’s 40–12 win over Virginia Tech. He finished the season with 3,338 yards passing, leading the conference in touchdown passes with 32. Luck also rushed for 453 yards on the ground, a record for Stanford quarterbacks. His QBR rating was an astounding 170.2 earning him both All Pac-Ten and All-American honors. The hype was real, and he was ironically being hailed as the man he would eventually replace, the best QB prospect since Peyton Manning. 

Despite being the projected number one pick of the 2011 draft (Cam Newton), Luck decided to return to Stanford for another Season. The hype only continued to intensify and grow. Luck would lead Stanford to an 11-2 record and a birth the 2012 BCS fiesta bowl. He would win both the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, as well as finishing second in the Heisman voting for a second straight season. Andrew Luck was becoming a household name, and it is what was going on outside of the college football circuit which makes this story fascinating. 

The Colts knew Manning would not play a snap during the 2011 season, but had no choice but to franchise tag him due to the immense value he brought to the franchise both on and off the field. The idea of replacing a guy like this became almost an afterthought. The Colts predictably struggled without their rock, Peyton Manning behind center. In a desperate plea to salvage the season, the Colts turned to retired QB Kerry Collins to hold the fort down in Manning’s absence.

The results were disastrous and the Colts would finish the season with a record of 2-14. Amidst this chaos was a growing campaign to do the unthinkable, to replace the legendary Peyton Manning. The platform titled “Suck for Luck” became a household saying and pushed the unthinkable into reality.

When the Colts selected Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, they thought they were ushering in a new era of greatness. Peyton Manning was off to Denver and Andrew Luck, the Stanford golden boy was given the keys to the franchise. What happened over the course of the next seven years is what brings us to yesterday’s suddenly less shocking news. 

On July 19, 2012, Luck signed a four-year contract with the Indianapolis Colts worth $22 million. Luck began the 2012 season as the Colts new signal caller. Luck would experience some predictive NFL growing pains but was able to navigate his team to an 11-5 record. An astonishing turn around for a team who had won a mere two games the prior season. He would set several rookie records including his 433 yards passing in a game, and most passing yards in a season with 4,183 yards, earning a trip to the pro bowl. The hype was real, and Andrew Luck seemed to be every bit as good as advertised.  

The train continued to roll into Luck’s second season as the Colts would finish with a record of 11-5 to win the AFC South. Luck, earning his second Pro Bowl berth, would finish with 8,196 yards passing, passing both Manning and Newton for most passing yards in their first two seasons. They would host the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC wildcard round. The Chiefs would jump out to a 28-point lead. With little hope in sight, Andrew Luck placed upon his back the Indianapolis Colts. Culminating with a 64-yard TD pass to TY Hilton, Luck had orchestrated one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history. Luck completed 29 passes for 433 yards and 4 touchdowns, and recovered a fumble in the endzone for TD, capping off the second largest comeback in NFL playoff history. At this point, it was safe to say the Andrew luck era was officially in full swing. 

During Luck’s third year he would again best Manning, setting the record for most career passing yards through three NFL seasons and breaking his franchise single-season record for passing yards. Luck would finish with 4,761 yards passing and an NFL leading 40 TD passes, becoming only the 8th QB in NFL history to toss 40 touchdowns in a season. Luck would lead the Colts into a divisional round match up against the Denver Broncos and the man who he was constantly being compared to. After defeating Manning’s Broncos, the Colts would hit a wall against the Patriots in an AFC title game, a fate suffered by many throughout the past two decades.

Despite the obvious success that was occurring on the field, not everything was quite right in Indianapolis. The Colts were forced to shuffle head coaches due to Chuck Pagano’s health.  Luck’s success under interim head coach Bruce Arians caused many to question who was the right man to captain the Andrew Luck led vessel. New Colts GM Ryan Grigson, coming over from the Philadelphia Eagles organization, was new to the position and failed to surround Luck with NFL talent. Constantly dealing with a patchwork offensive line, Luck would be sacked 174 times during his 6 NFL seasons. The Colts also consistently entered each season among the leaders in available cap space, thus further putting into question their commitment to build around their crowned jewel. 

In 2015 the first signs of trouble arose, as Luck would suffer through an injury-plagued season. With Luck only starting seven games the Colts failed to qualify for the playoffs, and the importance of Luck in relation to the success of the franchise became even more apparent. Luck was the reason the Colts were relevant. Presented with little weapons and a subpar offensive line the emphasis was being placed on Andrew Luck to become a pseudo superman and carry his team to victories. On June 29, the Colts announced Luck had signed a six-year extension worth $140 million, with $87 million guaranteed, making him the highest paid player in the league at the time.

2016 was a bounce back year for Luck statistically, as he would finish with 4,240 yards passing, 31 TDs, and a career-high 63.5 completion percentage. However, all was not right as the colts failed to make the playoffs yet again and Luck revealed that he played the entire season hurt with his throwing shoulder was deteriorating. During the off-season, Luck would undergo shoulder surgery and miss all of the 2017 season.

The Colts would again miss the playoffs and Chuck Pagano would be removed from his position as head coach. Thoughts of DeJa’Vu ran through the minds of Colt’s fans, who had experienced the same feelings less than a decade ago when Manning had failed to suit up for an entire season. The difference was that there was no Andrew Luck lifeboat sitting out there to jump aboard. The future of the franchise was still on Luck’s shoulders, literally and figuratively. 

Luck returned to form in the 2018 season, starting all 16 games and leading the Colts the playoffs once again, capturing the NFL comeback player of the year award in the process. Luck would throw for 4,593 yards and 39 TDs, second only to Patrick Mahomes. In any other year, he may have captured his first NFL MVP award.

However, despite the success, something just did not seem to sit well with the whole situation. There seemed to be an underlining story line brewing in the background that no one was discussing.

The XFL, a league that had previously failed to establish itself as the main competitor for the NFLs growing market share, was making a comeback. This time the leagues foray into the market will be led by WWE owner Vince McMahon and former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck. If that name does not ring a bell, it certainly should. Oliver Luck was drafted 44th overall by the Houston Oilers in 1982, spending five seasons at the helm as QB for the oilers. He later became the president and GM of the Houston Dynamo of the MLS league. However, the important aspect here lies with the last name, as Oliver Luck is indeed the father of now-former Colts QB Andrew Luck. 

I know what most of you are thinking. You cannot seriously be suggesting Andrew Luck walked away from 50 plus million dollars and the glory of the NFL to join the XFL. However, when you look into the big picture that is exactly what I am suggesting. After spending six seasons being battered and abused behind subpar offensive lines in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck was at a crossroads.

Already banged up to begin camp, he could continue to play and suffer through an injury-riddled 2019 season with a Colt’s organization who did little to improve their roster in the offseason, or he could become a part of something else, a relative unknown, a lottery ticket per se. 

This is not the same XFL that failed so miserably around the turn of the century. A league more remembered for nicknames across the back of the jersey than its actual on field product. This XFL will be played in real Stadiums in real NFL markets, with only St. Louis currently not boasting an NFL counterpart.  The coaches are made up of strong football minds ranging from Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Winston Moss (Packers), Kevin Gilbride (Chargers), Marc Trestman (Bears), June Jones (Falcons) and Jim Zorn (Redskins). However, the name I am most interested is a name that may not be synonymous with the casual NFL fan, but alas an important one in unlocking the mystery of Andrew Luck. 

Pep Hamilton began his coaching career at the University of New Mexico. It was his next stop, as Offensive Coordinator of the University of Stanford that is most interesting. That is correct readers, Pep Hamilton was indeed the man behind the hype. The man who was directly responsible for the rise of Andrew Luck from a tall lanky kid from Washington D.C. to NFL phenom. The connection does not stop there, as Pep Hamilton would replace the departing Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts in 2013. Hamilton was subsequently fired in 2015 by Indianapolis, which from the above reading we can recall was where the decline of Andrew Luck truly began. He is set to become the Head Coach of the DC Defenders, a team based out DC, Andrew Luck’s home town. Coincidence, I think not.

There is no guarantee the XFL will establish itself as a viable alternative to the NFL. There is certainly a market for football, as evidenced by the increasing popularity in the NFL and increased ticket sales. This is a huge market, and a lucrative one if you can successfully tap into it.  There are more reasons to doubt this will occur than there are optimistic ones.

However, for the XFL to have any shot at becoming relevant, it needs a face, a marquee name around which to build its brand. While names such as Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick may be enough to generate buzz and produce jersey sales, they are not names on which you can build upon a brand.

Andrew Luck, the college phenom turned NFL star is that name, and thankfully the XFL was able to use its connections to secure him. So happy retirement Andrew Luck, and we will see you again in February. 

 Nick Nazzario (The Statistically Superior Mr. Roto)

Follow @StatsRoto