Chris Ballard: No doubt Andrew Luck is ready to go

Zak Keefer
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Chris Ballard, General Manager of the Indianapolis Colts, talks with the press at the day's NFL Scouting Combine, in preparation for the year's draft, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

INDIANAPOLIS -- For 10 long months, while the team’s garrulous owner kept assuring everyone Nothing to see here! and the lame-duck coach vowed he was in the dark, same as everyone else, the new guy in town tempered his words, and with it, his expectations.

Chris Ballard faced Andrew Luck questions the minute he took the job; he’s faced them for the 13 months that have followed; he’ll face them until Luck is again under center for the Indianapolis Colts, doing Andrew Luck things, his surgically-repaired shoulder fully healed, this never-ending saga finally, mercifully behind a franchise that hasn’t been close to the same since its star quarterback went under the knife last January.

Which is why the following remark – uttered Wednesday at the NFL Combine – was particularly telling. Ballard’s been the Colts’ General Manager for over a year now, and at no point has he gone this far regarding the status of Andrew Luck.

“Do I have any doubt that he’s going to be ready?” Ballard said. “No, I don’t.”

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It’s the boldest public proclamation yet by Ballard, the Colts’ most reliable and measured voice on the matter. This wasn’t Jim Irsay saying Luck will be ready, as he did repeatedly last spring and summer. (He was wrong.) This wasn’t Chuck Pagano hemming and hawing on the topic, as he did for much of the fall, a coach without answers. (He’s since been fired.)

This was Ballard, telling it like he believes it at this point in time: Luck will be the Colts’ quarterback come Week 1 in September.

There are no guarantees, of course. There can’t be. Ballard knows. The entire building knows. They lived through 2017. At first, there was the genuine expectation that Luck would be back, likely near the end of the first month of the regular season. Slowly, that expectation faded, and so did the outside hope he could return, and all they were left with was 4-12.

The reports from the west coast continue to be encouraging: Luck remains in Los Angeles working daily with renown QB gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, strengthening his shoulder for the throwing regimen he will begin this spring. No footballs yet. At the moment, Luck is throwing weighted balls designed to strengthen and shape his motion, further solidifying it for the intensity of an NFL throwing routine.

That will come soon. The plan is for Luck to be throwing on a full-time basis by April or May, and that will be a critical point in the recovery.

“We’ve all ruled out surgery, everybody’s ruled out surgery,” said Ballard, who’s getting reports from Luck nearly every day. “I know there are reports out there ... we’ve all ruled that out. I think it’s just to the point where we make sure – you’ve got to remember now he played for two years banged up, then he had this whole year off – so taking a year where you’re not, every day, working (on) the motion, it takes time to get back.”

Luck will be on hand when the 2018 Colts commence offseason workouts April 2 under new coach Frank Reich, who confirmed Wednesday that Luck “is checking off every box” in his rehab and “making progress as expected.”

Reich’s new to the uncertainty surrounding Luck. He’s been on the job two weeks. He’s spent the bulk of his time in two- and three-hour interviews with assistant coaching candidates, filling his staff, familiarizing himself with a roster he knew very little about a month ago.

But to hear Reich tell it, he’s a head coach who is fully expecting his star QB to be under center. He’s talking like Luck will be there, no questions asked.

“I’m anticipating that he’s gonna be ready to go (for offseason workouts),” Reich said. “I mean, again, we’ll have to determine what level that’ll mean. And there’s no way to predict that. I’m thinking optimistically, but we’ll wait and see.”

The aim is two-fold: The fact that Luck will be on hand for the team’s offseason workouts in April is an indication he hasn’t hit any snags in his recovery. Both Ballard and Luck have stressed recently the focus now isn’t so much on throwing, but refusing the temptation to skip a step.

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Remember: It’s still February. Most NFL quarterbacks haven’t picked up a football by this point in the offseason. The Colts have time.

“I have to catch myself, as much as I wanna grab a ball and throw it a million times, I know I have to build up to be able to handle that,” Luck said last week via video conference during the team’s town hall event. “And right now I’m in that building phase. And it’s exciting.”

“Every step that he’s taking right now has a purpose behind it and we feel good about where he’s at right now,” Ballard added Wednesday. “Even though he hasn’t picked up a football right now, he’s doing some things that’s showing us that he is where he is. He’s going in the right direction.”

The second part of Luck’s April return that is so vital for this organization: There’s a new coach, and a completely new staff, determined to begin a new era. No single player is more central to that than Luck.

Having him in the building, and on board with Reich’s vision, is essential to the team’s success.

If Luck buys in, everyone else can follow. The Colts can, finally, move forward.

“He’s a smart guy – he could probably learn whatever he needed to in a week,” Reich said of his new QB. “(But) it’s really about culture, it’s about teamwork. He’s more than just our quarterback. He’s a big-time leader of our team. To be a part of that, and be a part of the culture that Chris and I have sat down and said, ‘What are we building here?’ Obviously Andrew is a critical piece to that, and obviously his leadership is important at every level.”

What the Colts look like on April 2 remains to be seen. There are free-agent decisions to make, pro days to attend, draft boards to assemble and amend.

One truth that won’t change: If Andrew Luck is back, and healthier than he’s been in two years, the Colts can start to believe the nightmare might finally be ending.

Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134 and follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.

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