Months ago, Andrew Luck was coming off a lost season and still not even throwing a regulation-sized football.
It always seemed he’d come back and play, but it seemed very possible we’d see a version of Luck that was a shell of himself. He never made it back last season after surgery to fix his labrum in his throwing shoulder. After setbacks that ended his season, he went to the Netherlands for a few weeks to get treatment. His rehab this offseason moved at a glacially slow pace. It was all alarming.
“There were one or two moments where I wondered if I am ever going to be able to do this again,” Luck told ESPN’s Mike Wells in August, before his first preseason game this year.
We can safely say Luck is back. It’s remarkable how good he has been, given all the uncertainty just a few months ago.
On Sunday Luck faced the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have given up the fewest passing yards per game in the NFL, and he was excellent. He was 21-of-29 for 285 yards and three touchdowns. His only interception was a fantastic pass that bounced off tight end Mo Alie-Cox’s hands, a reminder that Luck still isn’t working with the best supporting cast. The Colts took a big lead early and held on for a 29-26 win. They likely ended the Jacksonville Jaguars’ playoff chances.
Luck became the third player in NFL history to have six consecutive games with at least three touchdown passes within a single season, joining Peyton Manning (2004) and Tom Brady (2007). Neither of the first two were coming back from a career-threatening arm injury.
Luck has had some other big games this season, like 464 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to the Texans. But, given the defense he was facing, this game seemed like the confirmation that Luck is back and as good as ever.
If you didn’t know Luck missed a year, nothing in his play would tip you off. Luck is ninth in the NFL with 2,472 yards. He has 26 touchdown passes, five more than anyone but Patrick Mahomes, who has 31. His 98.4 passer rating would be a career best.
Physically, even though there were questions about Luck’s arm strength when the team pulled him in a Hail Mary situation against the Eagles, his arm looks fine. It’s at least good enough to do everything asked of him in coach Frank Reich’s offense.
Reich and his staff have obviously helped with this incredible comeback story. Perhaps the best change is Luck getting rid of the ball quicker. Luck hasn’t been sacked in four straight games, a streak of 187 dropbacks. That’s the fifth-longest streak in NFL history according to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. The offensive line is better and that’s a factor, but it’s better that Luck is no longer standing in the pocket forever looking to get the ball downfield and often taking big hits. Luck was sacked 156 times in 70 games over his first five NFL seasons. For the sake of his career, that couldn’t continue.
What Luck is doing isn’t unheard of, but it’s rare. Joe Montana and Peyton Manning each missed a full season and came back to play well, for example, but it’s a very short list of quarterbacks who have missed an entire season and returned to a Pro Bowl level. Seeing Luck play at that level again is one of the best stories of the NFL season.
The Colts are far from a finished product. They’re 4-5 even after the win over the Jaguars and unlikely to make a real playoff push. That’s fine. The Colts are still building. Their biggest piece, obviously, was Luck. There was real concern over whether he’d ever be the same quarterback, even from Luck himself. That question has been answered. He’s likely to win the NFL’s comeback player of the year award. And the Colts can feel really good that they have their franchise cornerstone back. Luck is just 29 years old, giving the Colts a long time to build a Super Bowl contender around him.
Here are the rest of the Winners and Losers from Week 10 of the NFL season:
Dez Bryant’s chances of getting a ring: Given how the New Orleans Saints players took to Dez Bryant in less than a week, it seems they’d have to give him a Super Bowl ring if they win one even though Bryant had just two practices before he tore his Achilles.
The Saints are showing each week they’re capable of winning the Super Bowl. What they did on Sunday might not get the credit it deserves, but it was a dominant win in a tough spot. The Saints were coming off wins against the Vikings and Rams, with the Eagles and Falcons coming up after a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. If there was a letdown spot, this was it. Instead, the Saints led 35-7 at the half. They ended up winning 51-14.
The Bengals might not be great and they have injury issues, but the Saints still beat them by 37 on the road. The Saints have been the best team in the NFL since the start of October. They might have to fit Bryant for a ring down the road.
Matt Nagy, Mitchell Trubisky and the first-place Chicago Bears: Nagy hasn’t exactly been Sean McVay, but his effect on the Bears is pretty impressive.
The Bears have gone from one of the league’s dullest and worst teams to leading the NFC North. Trubisky is still too inconsistent to draw a Jared Goff comparison, but Nagy’s offense has made him capable of some big days.
Trubisky threw for 355 yards, averaging 11.8 yards per attempt, with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-22 win over the Detroit Lions that was never close.
Nagy has been a huge improvement over John Fox, just like McVay was an enormous upgrade over Jeff Fisher in Los Angeles. The offense is still a work in progress, but Trubisky is early in his career and his big days have hinted as his potential. Even if the 6-3 Bears don’t end up taking the NFC North, Bears fans have to be thrilled at the transformation of their team this season.
Baker Mayfield: Imagine how good Mayfield might be if the Browns bloom around him.
Mayfield, dealing with a midseason coaching change, an offensive coordinator calling only the second game of his career and a middling supporting cast that has former Ravens first-round bust Breshad Perriman prominently involved after he was signed off the street, had a great day in a 28-16 win over the Falcons on Sunday .
Mayfield completed 17-of-20 passes for 216 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He had a 151.2 passer rating. It was just the fourth time in NFL history a rookie had at least as many touchdown passes (minimum of three) as incomplete passes, according to ESPN Stats and Info. The others were Norm Van Brocklin (1949), Robert Griffin III (2012) and Marcus Mariota (2015).
This being the Browns, there should still be concern going forward. Every win makes the “Browns stick with Gregg Williams as coach in 2019” headlines more of a possibility. The Browns will still need to hire the right coach to develop Mayfield and acquire better talent around him. Cleveland has screwed up similar situations before. But the Browns should feel very good they have finally found a quarterback to build around.
Marcus Mariota: Keep in mind, the Tennessee Titans want to pay Mariota. They want to justify using the second pick on Mariota and all the years of development. They want him to be their franchise quarterback.
It might only take a good half season to get a large extension. And right on time, here comes Mariota.
After a mediocre start to the the season, Mariota looked pretty good in a Monday night win over the Dallas Cowboys and then played well in Sunday’s shocking 34-10 blowout of the New England Patriots. He had 228 yards and two touchdowns. And with that, the optimism for Mariota is back.
Mariota was good, yet injury-prone, his first two seasons. Then he was bad for most of last season and that continued with a new coaching staff to start this year. The Titans are 5-4 regardless of any struggles Mariota had earlier this season, and they’re right in the AFC South race. The Titans will soon need to make an expensive decision on Mariota’s future, and he’s putting himself in position to get paid.
The miserable Oakland Raiders’ offense: The Raiders’ best play on Sunday was a 42-yard run by punter Johnny Townsend. That came on a fake.
There weren’t many other highlights. The Raiders have gone nine quarters without a touchdown as their horrendous season marches on. They lost 20-6 to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. The most notable play, other than Townsend’s big run, was Derek Carr inexplicably throwing a pass away on a late fourth down.
Even the big fake punt didn’t amount to anything. On fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line the Raiders went for it, tried a shovel pass/jet sweep to Dwayne Harris and it was stopped. Afterward, Harris sounded confused why he got the ball.
“I have no idea what Derek saw,” Harris told Matt Kawahara of the San Francisco Chronicle. “But it had to be an ideal look for us to run it. But we ran it. Definitely didn’t get blocked the way we ran it in practice.”
Is anything going right for the Raiders?
Dirk Koetter: The Buccaneers had a lot of issues going into this week’s game, but the play-calling of offensive coordinator Todd Monken didn’t seem like one of them. The offense was pretty good, in spite of inconsistent play by quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Koetter decided to take over play-calling for the first time this season anyway, and the results were bad. Elias Sports said the Buccaneers were the first team in NFL history with more than 450 yards and three or fewer points in a game, via ESPN Stats and Info. The Buccaneers actually had 501 yards and just a field goal in a brutal 16-3 loss to the Washington Redskins, so that record might never be broken.
It’s great to get that many yards, but it was ultimately an ugly loss that doesn’t reflect well on the new play-caller.
“Just my own reasons,” Koetter said when asked why he called plays.
Koetter fired his defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, earlier this season. He benched Fitzpatrick for Winston, then Winston for Fitzpatrick. Then he cut the legs out from underneath his offensive coordinator and put up a historically weird three-point game. There aren’t many other people left to blame.
The Jaguars’ playoff hopes: The Jaguars might need to win out to make the playoffs, and there’s nothing about the Jaguars that indicates that’s a realistic possibility.
On a day the Jaguars offense got Leonard Fournette back and scored 26 points, the once-good defense gave up 29. Andrew Luck had a great first half and the Jaguars couldn’t overcome it.
The end of the game summed up their disappointing season. The Jaguars were in position to at least tie the game with a field goal, but receiver Rashad Greene was hit by Colts cornerback Kenny Moore and fumbled at the Colts’ 24-yard line. Indianapolis recovered to end the game and most likely the Jaguars’ season.
The Jaguars came into this season with what looked like a potentially great defense, but that hasn’t been the case. It should have been more shocking to see the Colts carve up the Jaguars in the first half, but the Jaguars defense has been underwhelming all season. The offense isn’t good enough to overcome that, especially with Fournette missing most of the season.
The Jaguars were last season’s surprise, making and almost winning the AFC championship game, but that looks like an anomaly now.
Todd Bowles: I’ve generally stuck up for Bowles, who I like as a defensive coach, blaming the New York Jets’ issues on a bad roster that no other coach would have done much with. After Sunday, it becomes impossible to stay optimistic.
By the time you read this, it’s possible Bowles will be fired. And it will be completely justified. The Jets were a total embarrassment in a 41-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Matt Barkley, who was unsigned until Halloween, made his first start in two seasons and put up a 117.4 rating. The Bills ran a play to get offensive lineman Dion Dawkins a touchdown catch. Very few fans would have been able to name most of the anonymous players who got rushing or receiving yards for the Bills on Sunday. The Bills had 46 points in their previous six games combined, then easily put up 41 on Sunday. And the worst part was the Jets looked disinterested from the first few plays of the game. It was obvious they were going to lose.
That’s on Bowles. Whether the Jets decide to fire him now or wait it out, it seems like a great bet that someone else will be coaching them next season. It’s hard to justify keeping Bowles around after what happened Sunday.
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