SEATTLE — Nearly three hours before his first game in 585 days, Andrew Luck stood near the middle of CenturyLink Field’s west sideline Thursday and wistfully pondered what might have been.
Next door at Safeco Field the previous night, Pearl Jam had staged an epic show on their home turf, rocking the baseball stadium for more than three hours while Luck and the rest of the Indianapolis Colts holed up across Lake Washington at a Bellevue hotel.
"Oh, man, I wish I could have gone to that show," said Luck, who’d ventured over to the home sideline to visit with Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who held the same position for Indy the previous two seasons. "Maybe if I’d gone full grunge and tried to blend in, I could have pulled it off."
Luck laughed; at that point, the star quarterback was surprisingly loose as he closed in on his long-awaited return from an injury to his throwing shoulder that sidelined him for the entire 2017 season.
Soon, he would get as amped up in the visitors’ locker room, and on the field before the game, as a sizzling Mike McCready guitar solo. And while Luck didn’t exit Thursday’s preseason opener doing an Eddie Vedder pose and screaming, "I’m still alive!" he at least convinced much of a skeptical football-watching world that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
"I had a lot of fun out there," Luck beamed as he dressed at his locker following the game. "There’s a lot to clean up, but that’s part of the process. This was a big step."
Luck started the game and acquitted himself capably, engineering a pair of drives that ended with Adam Vinatieri field goals before removing his pads for the night. He completed 6-of-9 passes for 64 yards, extended a possession with a third-and-12 throw that drew a pass-interference penalty and, most important, took a pair of hits without incurring any discernible damage.
"That was probably the most excited I’ve ever been to get hit," Luck said. "It was pretty cool… take the hit, realize I’m OK, then just get up and go."
Getting through the game was a significant milestone in the prolonged recovery from the shoulder surgery Luck underwent in January of 2017 — an effort to address the pain he’d been experiencing for 15 months, and to repair a partially torn labrum. Yet an expected return in last year’s training camp never materialized, nor did it happen at any point during the regular season, some of which he spent in the Netherlands seeking unspecified treatment.
After additional months of rehab throughout the 2018 offseason, Luck finally began throwing footballs during a June minicamp — albeit high school-sized balls. He made progress throughout training camp and, finally, got to show spectators and television viewers Thursday that he’s ready to resume what had been an exceptionally promising career.
If Thursday’s performance lacked that single, conclusive, let it rip throw that announced Luck’s triumphant return, it also failed to produce any evidence to the contrary.
Luck relied heavily on the swing pass, beginning with a quick dumpoff that second-year running back Marlon Mack turned into a 17-yard gain on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Later in that drive, on third-and-11 from the Seattle 47, Luck dumped off the ball to wide-open wideout Chester Rogers, who raced ahead for a 10-yard gain. On fourth-and-1 Luck went to the swing pass once more, with Colts halfback Robert Turbin turning this one into a 14-yard catch-and-run.
The drive stalled after Luck, on third-and-3 from the 16, took a shotgun snap and ran forward after feeling pressure, absorbing a hard hit from Wagner at the 15. He got up, high-fived tight end Jack Doyle and made way for the field goal unit, with Vinatieri connecting from 33 yards.
"I don’t love seeing him get hit," Frank Reich, the Colts‘ rookie coach, conceded afterward as he walked to the team bus. "But it was probably good that it happened. There’s something to that."
Or, as Luck said in his postgame press conference, "I think there was a sense of ‘OK, get hit, get up, make sure you’re not broken in half on the field.’ It was probably the most excited I have been, or ever will be, for getting hit. (I’m glad I) got that out of the way."
There was one more stressful moment for Colts fans: On the second play of Indy’s next drive, Luck was sacked by Seahawks rookie Rasheem Green, a third-round draft pick from USC. Everyone exhaled as the quarterback bounced back up off the turf and bounced back nicely on the following play: Facing a third-and-12 from his own 23, Luck threw hard over the middle to No. 1 receiver T.Y. Hilton, and another Seattle rookie, fifth-round cornerback Tre Flowers, was flagged for pass interference.
The deep, downfield pass that could have served as an emphatic display of shoulder-related soundness never came, but Luck wasn’t sweating it.
"It’s slowly but surely ramping up," he said. "To be frank, I feel more comfortable right now with the intermediate and short game, and the deep game is something we’re going to have to work on. And we will… I don’t feel like I have a physical limitation holding me back."
Luck also said he needed to work on improving his accuracy against tight man coverage. On Thursday, he had a pair of sideline passes to Hilton broken up by Seahawks corners, with Shaquille Griffin doing the honors on the first drive and Akeem King making a nice play to end the second.
That brought on Vinatieri, whose 51-yard field goal cut Indy’s deficit to 7-6 with 13:37 left in the second quarter, and ended the night for Luck, who gave way to backup (and 2017 starter) Jacoby Brissett when Indy regained possession with 8:38 remaining in the half.
The score at the time was 7-6 Seahawks, with Russell Wilson having thrown a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Nick Vannett on the quarterback’s first and only drive of the game. Luck, however, had already achieved a personal victory.
"I think it is nice to maybe put a couple of questions that linger, as much as you don’t want them to, to the back of your mind. ‘Will you be able to take a hit? Will you be able to do x, y and z,’" Luck said. "So it eases a little bit of that anxiety that I kept alive and maybe game-type action could cure or alleviate, per se."
If Luck was anxious, he might bear at least a small slice of blame. After waking up well before his alarm on Thursday morning, he took a walk through the Bellevue streets and engaged in a highly popular regional custom, slipping into a coffee spot (where he went unrecognized) and ordering a macchiato.
By gametime, he was wired like a Pearl Jam concertgoer in the middle of a mosh pit; next time, he might want to consider decaf?
That said, by the time he left CenturyLink, he was relaxed, relieved and looking ahead to the next challenge.
"I think I took a little pressure off of myself," Luck said. "It’s a preseason game — I’m not gonna blow anything out of proportion. But it was still a game, and another step along the way."
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.