WESTFIELD, Ind. — On a picture-perfect Saturday morning in Central Indiana, the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts is standing on the lush, green practice field, coolly fielding questions about one of the biggest training camp stories across the entire league.
After a 2018 season in which Indianapolis rallied from a 1-5 start to go 10-6 and win a playoff game, Chris Ballard’s Colts have become a trendy pick to reach the AFC championship game and maybe even the Super Bowl.
But this was Aug. 10, just minutes after the Colts completed yet another practice without star quarterback Andrew Luck, who injured his left calf in April and missed all organized team activities. Nothing derails Super Bowl hopes faster than a training camp injury to the star quarterback, so the Colts are choosing to operate with caution regarding Luck, who has an extensive injury history (including missing all of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury).
Coach Frank Reich announced Monday that Luck would miss the Colts’ much-anticipated joint practices with the Cleveland Browns later this week, a decision that jibed with Reich’s prior statement in July that the gruesome Achilles injury suffered by Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals influenced his cautious approach regarding his star quarterback.
Reich made it clear at the time he was speaking for himself, however, and Ballard was quick to add this weekend that any additional comparisons between the situations of Luck and Durant — which made for good headlines — have probably been inflated.
“I think it was a little overstated,” Ballard told Yahoo Sports with a chuckle in a wide-ranging conversation this weekend. “I think with any player, we’re gonna be careful and do the right thing for the player for the long-term.”
Colts owner Jim Irsay further distanced the injury from Durant’s Tuesday morning.
“I think after the Durant thing everyone's erring on the side of caution but, quite frankly, this is not even in the Achilles tendon. It's another area,” Irsay told SiriusXM NFL. “It's a bone — I'm not good at these things — but it's ... a small little bone.”
When asked directly if Luck’s injury is just a strain, and not related to the Achilles, Ballard nodded.
“All indications right now are that that’s all it is,” said Ballard, who added that Luck’s calf “flared up again” and now they’ve “just got to get it calmed down.”
Not that any of this is easy on his franchise quarterback, who Ballard enthusiastically noted is eager to get back on the field but has learned to listen to his body over his seven-year career.
“He’s frustrated — damn right he is,” Ballard said. “He’s also been through some things where he’s smart to [say], ‘I need to be able to perform at my best to be able to help the team.’”
So if the Colts’ cautious approach means the 29-year-old Luck — who continues to participate in walkthroughs — eventually ends up missing games that matter, they’re OK with that, too, largely due to the presence of a backup that gives Ballard a certain degree of peace.
It won’t be a repeat of 2017
The Colts already got a taste of what life without Luck was like in 2017, and it was ugly, as Indianapolis went 4-12.
But Reich, one of the brightest offensive head coaches in the game, wasn’t the head coach that season — he was the offensive coordinator of a Philadelphia Eagles team that won the Super Bowl that year.
What’s more, 2017 was Ballard’s first season in charge, and after inheriting one of the league’s worst defenses, the roster is far more talented now than it was then.
“You saw it last year, where Andrew didn’t have to play elite football at every moment for us to win,” Ballard said. “He played great, he played unbelievable last year, but there were games were Andrew maybe only threw for 180-190 yards and we won because we played good on defense, we ran the ball well, we played as a complete team.”
Ballard knows the quarterback is a key component to any winning team, however, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s held on to Jacoby Brissett, his starter during that rough 2017 season.
With questions looming about Luck’s availability due to his surgically repaired shoulder at the time, Ballard dealt former first-round receiver Phillip Dorsett to New England for Brissett, a former third-round pick, roughly a week before the 2017 season. Brissett’s numbers in 16 games were OK; he completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 3,098 yards, 17 total touchdowns and seven interceptions. And while he did take a league-wide 52 sacks, Ballard was impressed with the way he handled himself after being asked to learn the playbook on the fly without the benefit of preseason.
“We put him in a tough situation and let me tell you this, he didn’t flinch,” Ballard said. “He didn’t make an excuse, all he did was prepare and perform. Jacoby’s a legitimate guy.”
A year ago, Ballard fielded some calls from quarterback-hungry teams about Brissett, and this year, they did the same (albeit a bit fewer). But nothing that was discussed was tangible enough for him to say yes, especially since trading a qualified backup meant he’d have to find another one somewhere, and likely pay more than the $2 million Brissett is owed this season to do it.
“The value of the backup quarterback is important — just look around the league,” Ballard said. “Look at Philly, what they did when Nick [Foles] had to come in and play. It’s a valuable, valuable thing.”
And if Brissett is indeed forced into action this year, the Colts are willing to bet there is a pretty good chance he’ll be better than he was in 2017.
Brissett is better
For one, Brissett, 26, would now have one of the league’s best young offensive lines in front of him, which should not only reduce the number of sacks he takes, but also help the Colts establish a ground game that will be better than the 22nd-ranked rushing unit they were that year.
What’s more, Ballard also raves about Brissett’s natural calm and has been impressed by all the work the 6-foot-4, 238-pounder has done on his mechanics to improve his accuracy.
“He’s grown leaps and bounds in that area,” Ballard said.
But the area where Ballard really raves about Brissett is his personality and ability to relate to teammates.
“He connects people [and] he has high emotional intelligence,” Ballard said. “Last year when you watch our games, our defense would make plays and they’d all take those pictures and Jacoby was right in the middle of it — he blends with everybody and he influences everybody.”
And if you need one final reason to believe Brissett will be ready if forced into action this season, how about this: He’s entering a contract season and can earn himself a whole lot of money on the open market by playing better this fall than he did in 2017.
“I think my game is overall better than it was then,” Brissett told Yahoo Sports. “I feel more comfortable with the offense, I’m a better teammate, a better leader; I understand this group of guys better than I did when I first got here. And once you do that, you become a better player.”
So consider the presence of Brissett a security blanket of sorts for the Colts, who are still resolving the Luck situation but must keep striving to take the next step in Ballard’s program, nonetheless.
“It allows me to sleep at night,” Ballard told Yahoo Sports with a laugh.
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