Luck of the Draw

Andrew Luck shocked the NFL world by retiring yesterday. In 15 days, the Indianapolis Colts will begin the 2019 season. In 19 days, Luck will reach the age of 30.

Luck has had more than his share of injuries, most notably missing the entire 2017 season after shoulder surgery. Much has been written about this injury, suffered two years earlier. Was it mismanaged? Luck certainly played through pain, and there are legitimate questions as to whether the Colts handled this responsibly. Faced with another painful injury, this time to his lower leg, and perhaps realizing that surgery and another rehabilitation was likely, Luck chose retirement.

Much has been written about the Indianapolis fans and their reaction to the announcement, made late in yesterday’s exhibition game. In today’s era of interpretive (a.k.a. lazy) journalism, where a journalist reacts and molds rather than reports, Indianapolis fans “savagely” booed Luck off of the field. I wonder if this was the case. Luck is/was a franchise quarterback. Franchise quarterbacks seemingly live forever. They don’t, on the eve of a new season at the age of 29, suddenly walk off into the sunset. If I were in the crowd, I’d probably think it was an elaborate prank, and not a funny one at all. The trajectory of the Colts has changed, and true fans, looking forward to a brand new season, suddenly face the unknown. I’d boo the messenger, assuming, maybe hoping as much as assuming, that this wasn’t happening. Instead, the media, desperate for relevance they’ve long since discarded, chooses to try and make a story out of the reaction itself.

The real story is in what led to Luck’s decision in the first place. It’s not a story that can be told in a sound byte or a hot take. It may never be told properly.

Has this happened before? Surely there’s a similar story from the past. I came up with Jake Plummer immediately. Plummer, a free spirit and a remarkably talented quarterback, made news in 2007 when, at the age of 32, healthy, he chose retirement over playing for Tampa Bay after a trade. But that doesn’t hold up. Plummer said he would retire after losing his starting job in Denver the previous season. The Buccaneers traded for him anyway. He wasn’t in training camp.

Overwhelmingly, quarterbacks play until they’re told they will no longer receive playing time. Some don’t want to retire holding a clipboard, some don’t mind. Searching my spreadsheets of quarterback data, I couldn’t find a situation similar to Luck’s. Bert Jones had a similar career trajectory, but a neck injury forced his retirement, under his doctor’s orders, in the spring following missing most of his tenth season. Neil Lomax? Tried to come back for a year from a severely arthritic hip. The Cardinals had plenty of warning, and brought in a free agent replacement a full year before Lomax finally retired. Maybe I’m missing someone, but I don’t think I am. This is the biggest story in the NFL in a long time.

The best comparison I could find was the mysterious and sudden retirement of Barry Sanders as training camp began in 1999. But Sanders played running back and ten seasons accumulating more than 15,000 rushing yards is not only a full career, but a no-thought-about-it Hall of Fame career. Players at most positions age much faster than quarterbacks. The Sanders story is odd, but only because he chose not to tell his coach or announce his retirement a couple of months earlier.

We’re in new territory here. On its surface, the unwillingness to go through another cycle of surgery, rehab, missing games, pain… it’s understandable. But successful quarterbacks Luck’s age have always done it anyway. Today’s quarterbacks are more protected by the rules and surgical techniques are more advanced than they were when Jones was young and we have the recent and notable example of 42-year-old Tom Brady, who seemingly wants to play forever. Brady outlasted the other true legend of his generation, and has now outlasted his first-round, first-pick successor as well.

It’s easy to speculate as to why Luck chose to retire rather than go through the injury recovery cycle. Plenty of hot takes to be had here. Too much money in today’s game? Millennials are spoiled? He never had what it takes? The victim of incessant Twitter trolls? These days, we don’t even have to listen to the guy to think we have all the answers.

But I don’t have an answer here. Quarterbacks are obsessive, crazy people with great leadership skills. They say the most difficult skill in sports is learning to hit a curve ball. I doubt it. It’s becoming a franchise NFL quarterback. Making good decisions within two seconds 95% of the time. Having an arm that would make most Major League pitchers jealous. Digesting playbooks more complicated than the entire works of Shakespeare. Tough enough to take hits from 300-pound linemen, over and over, without flinching. An NFL quarterback has proven himself beyond normal human benchmarks. It has to be part of their DNA.

The older I get, the more I understand that not only is there always more to learn but that I’m comfortable not knowing all the answers, reinventing and challenging my beliefs. Luck’s decision requires some adjustment. Maybe he comes back next year, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the game of football has fundamentally changed in the last few years, and maybe it hasn’t. Listen and learn.