May 24, 2024

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with news that Richardson will undergo season-ending surgery.

INDIANAPOLIS — As Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson laid on the turf in pain on Oct. 8, one question immediately came to the mind of team owner Jim Irsay.

Why?

“Is there no mercy from the football gods after what we went through with Andrew [Luck]?” Irsay asked this week.

Richardson injured his right (throwing) shoulder after being tackled against the Tennessee Titans, a shoulder sprain that will require season-ending surgery, it was announced Wednesday.

The sequence turned Irsay’s thoughts to Luck, whose career was marred by complications stemming from a 2015 shoulder injury.

Was this some sort of cruel joke, Irsay wondered. Richardson, the fourth overall pick and the team’s first real shot at a franchise quarterback since Luck’s surprising retirement in 2019, was walking around with his right arm in a sling after generating so much hope.

“It was crazy,” Irsay said. “And the play looked like a nothing play. It was just a tackle. It looked like it was a no-problem tackle. And then you get this?”

What happens next links the two injuries by more than just coincidence. The decisions that dictated how Luck’s injury was treated informed the Colts on how to proceed with Richardson.

Irsay, along with multiple sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation, emphasized Richardson’s long-term outlook drove the decision-making.

“Anthony is a competitor, and we know how difficult and disappointing this is for him and our team,” Irsay posted on social media Wednesday. “We collected several medical opinions and we felt this was the best course of action for his long-term health. We anticipate a full recovery and there is no doubt Anthony has a promising future.”

It’s a lesson learned from the Luck saga. While the injuries are not the same — Luck sustained a partially-torn labrum and Richardson has an AC joint injury — there are parallel through lines.

The 2015 Colts were a preseason favorite to challenge for the AFC title, and the pressure associated with those expectations hung over the franchise after a 1-2 start. Perhaps because of his own competitive nature and a desire to meet those expectations, Luck — in collaboration with the Colts — postponed surgery and missed just two games after sustaining the injury. He returned to the lineup three weeks later and threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to the New England Patriots.

But the wisdom of that decision has long been called into question, given the events of the following two years.

Luck declined to undergo surgery after the 2015 season, opting instead for intensive rehab ahead of 2016. But because the labrum was not repaired, the wear and tear of the 2016 season made for an excruciating experience. Luck was able to practice only on a limited basis. He spent hours on end in the training room, constantly managing the injury.

Luck finally underwent surgery early in 2017, and because of complications in his recovery, missed all of the 2017 season. He returned to make the Pro Bowl in 2018 but retired in 2019, citing the mental and physical toll of battling his many injuries.

Luck has always owned the choices made around his injury. He said in 2017, “It was my decision. I never felt like anybody else was trying to make the decision for me.”

Still up for debate, however, is whether those decisions prioritized Luck’s availability in the short term over the long term.

Now, with Richardson, there also was pressure to get back on the field. The flashes Richardson has shown in the short time have “whetted your appetite” for more, Irsay said. And the fact he’s already missed time in the lineup with injuries prior to the AC joint sprain will lead to questions about his durability.

But the Colts, from the top of the franchise on down, were intent on preventing those factors from clouding the decisions made about Richardson’s shoulder. This line of thinking, sources said, shaped the internal conversations around Richardson at Colts headquarters.

“We want to do what’s best for him and this organization moving forward,” coach Shane Steichen said this week.

Even some of Richardson’s teammates — who have felt the impact of losing him — offered similar advice.

“It’s definitely hard, because you want to prove to everybody that you’re worth that [draft] pick,” receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. “So, I just told him not to sell himself for the short term. He’s our guy, our franchise guy. They brought him in here to play for the next 15 years, hopefully.”

This is why there were no quick declarations by the team about how Richardson’s injury would be dealt with. The passing of time allowed for clearer assessments as inflammation in the shoulder subsided.

“One of my themes is always the most critical factor in franchise building is patience,” Irsay said. “Patience is an element that’s essential.”

A key point to remember: Decisions on surgery are ultimately up to the individual player, as was the case here.

“They’re the deciders with what they do with their bodies,” Irsay said.

But the Colts and Richardson’s camp handled this collaboratively, and both sides agreed the emphasis should be on the future — not 2023.

Irsay envisions a day when Richardson’s rookie-year experience will be a testimony to the benefits of handling injuries with the proper perspective. That’s the kind of testimony Luck never got to tell.

“It’s all about the long term and ultimate healing,” Irsay said. “We want this to be a story [Richardson] tells some young quarterback 10 years from now where he says, ‘Oh yeah, I had that injury. And it went well.'”

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