Until Andrew Luck returns, Colts relying on Scott Tolzien

Scott Tolzien #16 of the Indianapolis Colts passes against the Philadelphia Eagles in the third quarter of a preseason NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Check around the NFL as training camps unfold and the season nears, and the Angst Meter for 32 teams generally is in direct proportion to each team’s quarterback situation.

The arrow is bobbing heavily to the right in Miami, where the Dolphins aren’t certain if Ryan Tannehill’s left knee will require season-ending surgery or just force him to miss the first month or so of the season. If it’s a worst-case scenario, journeyman backup Matt Moore – nine seasons, 90 games, a 15-13 record as a starter – is ready to step in.

Things are dicey in Baltimore after Joe Flacco suffered a back injury. Maybe he returns in a week or two. Maybe not. Ryan Mallett – yes, Ryan Mallett – is the Ravens’ backup, unless management decides to pull the trigger and bring in Colin Kaepernick.

The unknown continues to hover over the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers.

Andrew Luck opened camp on the physically unable to perform list following January surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. At worst, his rehab still has him throwing a tennis ball. At best, he’s finally winging a football.

“Still the same,’’ Chuck Pagano said Friday. “Making progress.’’

According to general manager Chris Ballard, the anticipation is for Luck to come off PUP before the start of the season. Opening the season on PUP would require Luck to miss at least the first six games. If Luck is cleared for practice late this month, that could give him enough prep work for the Sept. 10 opener in Los Angeles against the Rams.

With Luck out of the picture, backup Scott Tolzien and No. 3 Stephen Morris have been under center, leading wildly inconsistent offensive drills.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are dealing with the uncertainty that is Cam Newton’s right shoulder. He had surgery in March to address a torn rotator cuff and was cleared to practice when camp opened. However, Newton has experienced soreness in the shoulder and missed three straight practices.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the team was simply because cautious with its franchise QB.

“Why push it?’’ he asked. “Why have him throw with a sore arm and make it worse?’’

Carolina’s Plan B: Derek Anderson. He’s 34, in is 12th season and 20-27 as a starter.

The situations in Miami, Baltimore and Carolina aside, the only issues that resonate locally seem to be Luck-related. Primarily:

  • When will the Colts’ most indispensable player return?
  • When Luck is back under center, how long will it take him to play at an acceptable level? Remember, it’s now been about eight months since he’s actually played football.
  • If Luck misses the start of the season, is Tolzien capable of keeping the franchise afloat? The early schedule is conducive to a fast start: at the Rams, the home opener against Arizona, the Browns, the 49ers following a trip to Seattle, at Tennessee, home with Jacksonville. But that’s if the Colts get effective play by their QB.

Ballard has been asked on several occasions if the Colts have considered adding a veteran to the mix. On several occasions, he’s made it clear they’re standing pat.

“We’ve talked about that,’’ Ballard said, “but right now, we’re at where we’re at and we’re going to roll with the three guys that we’ve got.’’

So until Luck returns, the football – and the fate of the Colts – rests in the hands of a 29-year old QB whose NFL resume consists of nine appearances, three starts – no wins, two losses, one tie – and 128 pass attempts with two touchdowns and seven interceptions.

While those outside the organization wonder whether he’s up for the job, Tolzien goes about his business. You’d never know he’s under the most scrutiny by talking with him.

“I try not to feel like that,’’ he said. “I can’t control that. Truly, I’ve got to focus on the controllables and that’s just getting better each day.

“Whether Andrew is here or not – we’d all love to have Andrew out here – that can’t affect how I’m practicing. I’ve gotta focus on getting better each day. It is a broken record, but that’s the honest approach.’’

Tolzien was pressed on why the fan base should have confidence he will keep the Colts relevant if Luck misses a portion of September.

He paused.

“I’ve got to focus on my preparation every day,’’ he said. “I’ve just got to focus on the controllables.’’

Tolzien’s sample size is limited. His NFL regular-season experience essentially consists of four games and the three starts – three games in four years with the Green Bay Packers and last year’s start against Pittsburgh when Luck was out with a concussion. In the 28-7 loss to the Steelers, Tolzien completed 22-of-36 passes for 205 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

It’s clear Tolzien’s teammates have his back.

“Scott’s a veteran,’’ safety Darius Butler said. “He knows how to go about his business. He’s been with A-Rod (Aaron Rodgers), been with Luck, been with Chud (offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski).

“He knows how to command an offense and how to go out there and win a game.’’

Added wide receiver Donte Moncrief: “(Luck) is going to be back when he is ready. But right now we have Scott and Morris, so we have to get the timing down with them. It’s not just them. We all have to do more, make plays when we have the chance.’’

That optimism isn’t shared nationally.

In an ESPN.com column ranking the NFL’s backup quarterback situations, the Colts checked in at No. 32. An SI.com article ranking backups listed Tolzien 29th. The Washington Post was most generous, ranking Tolzien 24th.

And when it comes to the perception of a team’s backup quarterback situation, it’s interesting to have oddsmakers weigh in. Chris Andrews, a long-time Las Vegas bookmaker, composed a quarterback’s value chart, revealing the point-spread difference between a team’s starting quarterback and projected backup.

The difference between Luck and Tolzien: 7 points. Only the Packers had a higher differential with an 8-point drop from Rodgers to backup Brett Hundley, who has yet to step on the field for a regular-season game.

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