INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Chris Ballard’s overriding message when he stepped into the Indianapolis Colts’ vacant general manager’s office: the team isn’t about one player.
“Let me say this because Andrew is a great player,’’ he said on that franchise-shifting Jan. 29 afternoon, “but it will never be about one guy. It will never be about one person.
“It will always be about the team. Is he a good piece? Absolutely. But he is just one of the 53 men that we have to go win with.’’
At least on this topic, Ballard and his ageless running back are perched on opposing soapboxes.
With one game standing between the 3-12 Colts and what promises to be an offseason of massive change – Sunday against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium – Frank Gore is convinced more than ever it most definitely is about one guy.
Had Luck been under center this season rather than dealing with his balky right shoulder, things would have been so much different. Would have been, Gore insisted, even if every other factor remained the same: the inconsistent offensive line, the unreliable defense, the debilitating injuries.
“Yeah, no doubt,’’ Gore said Wednesday.
He accentuated his respect for Luck and the type of impact a player of Luck’s ilk can have on a franchise with some salty adjectives. None are suitable for publication, but each reinforced Gore’s appreciation for his missing colleague.
Luck was expected to return to town either Wednesday or Thursday after spending more than a month in Europe to receive alternative treatment for his right shoulder, and might meet with the media for the first time since mid-October.
You’ll understand Gore’s mind wandering, and wondering, how things might have been. He recalled the 2016 finale when Jacksonville visited Lucas Oil Stadium and the only thing on the line was individual pride and the opportunity for the Colts to finish 8-8.
The Colts trailed 17-0 in the second quarter and 17-3 at the half. They still trailed 20-17 with 1:33 remaining. The Luck-led offense took over at the Indy 25.
“That (expletive), man,’’ Gore said. “Like no pressure. Boom, boom, boom, touchdown.’’
Luck’s 1-yard TD to tight end Jack Doyle with 9 seconds remaining completed the comeback. The QB raced to the sideline, his right fist thrust in the air.
“He’s tough, man, with his mindset and the way he approaches the game,’’ Gore said. “I respect that.’’
Again, that’s the reason Gore believes this season of prolonged disappointment can be quickly replaced by a return to prominence.
By the return of Andrew Luck.
The Colts are 2-7 in games they led at halftime, and are one short of tying the NFL record for losing such games. During Luck’s 70-regular-season starts the last five seasons, the Colts were 34-4 when leading at the half.
One man can make a difference, even with the other roster deficiencies. It’s hardly a stretch to argue the Colts could have – would have – won six of those seven games when they led at the half with Luck on the field. The outlier: the 46-18 fade at Seattle.
That’s what’s possible, even likely, Gore insisted, “when you’ve got a quarterback.’’
He wasn’t even remotely criticizing Jacoby Brissett, who was thrust into a difficult situation when Ballard acquired him in Sept. 2 trade with New England.
“Not knocking Jacoby,’’ Gore said. “Jacoby is such a young player. What he did this year was great, coming in week 1. That’s hard to do.’’
Andrew Luck is the difference maker, and again, the reason Gore is convinced the immediate future is bright. He plans on playing in 2018, and would consider re-upping with the Colts – if the Colts had similar desires, of course – if Luck returns to form.
“Yeah, cause we’ve got the (expletive) quarterback, you know what I’m sayin’?’’ he said. “(Expletive), that’s a tough (expletive), man.’’
Gore has seen the personnel moves by Ballard aimed at giving the Colts a tougher disposition. He’s applauded the upgrade to the defensive front seven.
Luck fits that blueprint.
“The quarterback tough here, too,’’ he said.
Luck was the primary reason Gore signed with the Colts during the 2015 offseason. He saw a team that had reached the 2014 AFC Champion Game, a team that had its franchise QB in place.
But while Gore has started all 47 games as a Colt, he and Luck have been a tandem just 22 times. Injuries have either limited Luck’s effectiveness, or kept him off the field entirely.
“He hasn’t been healthy since I got here,’’ Gore said.
Gore is optimistic that’s about to change. The organization won’t know Luck’s long-term status until he resumes throwing and it’s determined how his shoulder responds to the workload.
“He’ll be back, man,’’ Gore said. “He’s tough. He loves the game. He’ll be fine. He’s a ballplayer. All football players get back.’’
Gore is the voice of experience. He’s authored a Hall of Fame-worthy career – fifth on the all-time rushing charts with 13,926 yards – after suffering a pair of career-threatening knee injuries at the University of Miami.
“He’ll be back, trust me,’’ he said. “They said I wouldn’t be back and I had two (ACLs). (Shoot), I’ll outlast everybody. When you love the game and respect what you do, (Luck) will be fine. Just watch.
“He’s a football player, man. Pure football player. If he’s not a quarterback, he’s be a tough-ass linebacker or pass rusher or something. That dude’s tough, man.’’
And that dude holds the key to the Colts’ quick turnaround.
“When you’ve got No. 12 under center,’’ Gore said, “you’ve always got a chance to win the game.’’