KRAVITZ: Luck is back (for good, we hope) but it's time for the Colts QB to protect himself from himself

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck runs a drill during practice at the NFL football team's training camp, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Bob Kravitz

WESTFIELD, Ind. (WTHR) - He's said it before, said that he's got to change the way he plays the quarterback position. And then Andrew Luck has gone out and taken on tacklers or tried to light up cornerbacks who had the temerity to intercept his pass, the result being an injury to one body part or another. It was Andrew being Andrew, playing the game like a dyspeptic linebacker, winning over teammates with his toughness while giving his coaches a state of perpetual agita.

Now, here was Luck on the Colts training-camp reporting day Wednesday, answering the timeworn question, "Are you prepared and willing to change the way you play the game?''

He answered at length, and this time, after all the injuries, after the year-and-a-half-long drama surrounding his wounded right shoulder, Luck seemed to mean it. That's the thing about an 18-month-long layoff from professional football; it gives you time to think, to come to terms with the fact that you are at least in part responsible for the injuries that have put a potentially transcendent career on temporary hold.

It's easy to drop it all in the lap of the offensive line – and yes, they've been awful for several years – but a lot of the hits Luck has absorbed have been of his own making, whether he's holding on to the ball too long or taking on tacklers when it's not completely necessary. See, the things that make Luck unique are some of the same things that have gotten Luck into this position. And he knows it.

"I do, I do, (need to change the way I play),'' he said. "I'd be a fool not to, to be honest. As I look back, if I do a self-scout over the first part of my career, there are hits I could have avoided taking. There were times when the ball could have been thrown away or another decision made that may have spared me a hit here and there. Now, do I regret not doing that? No. But I will learn from that – absolutely. There are times and places …that you put yourself out there, but I also have to learn how to be smart and how to protect myself and my team.''

Someone noted that we've heard some form of this answer before.

Luck laughed. "Yes, I've mentioned it before,'' he conceded. "So now I've got to go out and do it. Talk is cheap.''

This is not to say that Luck is going to have some major transformation, that he's going to take a dive the first time he smells on oncoming defensive lineman. He's still going to try to extend plays, still try to do the things that make him special, because that's how he's wired. But he insists he will make discretion the better part of valor, will make some business decisions on the field when the options dwindle to near-nothing. This is about football survival.

At the very least, you would hope that Frank Reich's offense, which is different than the stretch-the-field approaches favored by his predecessors, would limit the carnage. You would hope the offensive line, which got an off-season makeover and figures to be the team's most improved group – like, how could they get worse? – will keep Luck upright and ambulatory.

You would hope…

This much we can say after meeting with Luck Wednesday: He is, in his own words, "super stoked about how I feel today.'' He ordinarily plays it close to the vest, proprietary of his privacy and careful not to reveal much of anything, but on this day, the words came gushing in torrents. And why wouldn't they? This is the best he's felt, the best he's looked and the best he's sounded in years. Not a year and a half…years, plural. Remember, he suffered the initial shoulder injury early in 2015, then played all of the 2016 season in significant physical distress.

"It's the best I've felt in a long, long time,'' said Luck, who hasn't played NFL football since Jan. 1, 2017. "I'm really, really excited for this camp…I understand how passionate Colts fans are and how excited they are for this season but I can assure you, nobody is more excited than I am and nobody cares more than I do.''

Is he nervous? Yeah, he's nervous. He hasn't played football in what feels like forever. How will he look when he starts letting it loose? How will the shoulder react to the increased workload? How will it feel when he takes that first hit? Luck is entering into the realm of the unknown – new shoulder, new coach, new scheme, new teammates. And he knows that every time he underthrows a receiver this camp, the fans will take note and let loose with an audible groan – He's still got a long way to go…

Throws, every one of them, will be charted and judged. Every. Single. Throw. He's no longer back in Palo Alto, Calif., throwing to Chester Rogers and some friends, as he did recently. Now the lights of training camp will shine on Luck, whose return rates as one of the league's bigger stories. Reich said Wednesday that Luck will see some action in the preseason opener in Seattle.

There is a lot to prove to the coaches, teammates and the fan base. But, as Luck said, "I have a lot to prove to myself…

"I'm not kidding myself. There are many, many, many steps to go and this is one of them…It's fun to be here and fun to look back and say, `Look at all the steps I've taken, how far I've come,' but we've got a lot to work to do, and I've got a lot of work to do. That, to me, is exciting. Not intimidating. Yeah, I'm nervous. It'll be interesting to step back onto the field and practice. There will be times when I scratch my head and think, `What the heck did I just do. What's going on?'…Just nervous excitement. One of the unique feelings I get before games is the butterflies and that's a cool thing. I'm sure I'll feel that way before (Thursday's opening) practice.''

Somebody asked Luck, who is notorious for playing quarterback like a linebacker, if he was looking forward to the first hit.

"I guess so,'' he said. "I might have to ask Big Al (Woods) to do it in practice when no one's around.''

The potential is there for one of the great comeback stories we have seen, but if history teaches us anything, it's that it takes time. Luck hasn't played football in a year-and-a-half. He hasn't had to elude a blitz or make a throw – any throw – under duress. He needs reps, lots of them, which is why it's smart to throw him back out there for the Seattle game and likely preseason games Nos. 2 and 3.

After a protracted rehab that took longer than anybody could have expected, after questions and answers and trips to The Netherlands and Los Angeles and heaven-knows-where-else, Luck is in a good place physically and emotionally. He knows he pushed the issue previously, that he played hurt all of 2016 – which turned out to be a bad idea – and that he tried to come back too quickly last year. He has learned the hard way that it's OK to ask for help, OK to listen to your body.

Now, it's showtime.

"It was like I almost picture Liam Neeson in `Taken,' '' said teammate Anthony Castonzo, one of his closer friends on the team. " `I'm a man of singular focus.' Like Andrew's focus is so narrow right now on just having the best season he possibly can, he's definitely ready to go, mentally for sure.''

The excitement, though, should be tempered. He's not going to be the old Andrew Luck circa 2012-14, at least not right away. The Colts have begun their rebuild by bolstering the offensive line, adding two high draft choices and free agent Matt Slauson, but Luck knows and the Colts know, it's time, finally, for Luck to change his ways and protect himself. Nobody, least of all Luck, wants to go through all of this again.

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