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Column: As Luck improves, clock ticking on Colts’ return to contention

Andrew Luck is 28 years old. While there are no set peak years in an NFL quarterback’s career (see: Brady, Tom), Luck’s entering the neighborhood.

I’d give Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard two more years to put the best possible team around Luck and take advantage of a three- to five-year window for the highest potential to capitalize on Luck’s career. The clock ticks on Super Bowl or bust.

Some fans aren’t willing to wait two more years to get fully rolling, given our instant gratification society and the requirement to tweet a nonnegotiable verdict five minutes ago. I understand that. They can’t stand watching Colts’ mediocrity after the years of Peyton Manning-led excellence.

Remember the complaints when Manning’s 12- and 13-win teams didn’t go far enough in playoffs? Those were the days, weren’t they? There’s a reason the Colts are unveiling a Manning statue and retiring his number this weekend. Nostalgia is a great masking agent.

Unfortunately, nostalgia provides short-lived cover. If we’re willing to spot Ballard two years to get this group together for a real run, the question becomes whether it can be done.

As a general rule, I’m an optimist. Yes, I think the Colts can rebuild a contender. But it won’t be easy, and an unwritten deadline looms.

When Luck has been on top of his game – that is, when his arm, shoulder and kidneys haven’t been mangled – he’s one of the best in the game. Is he Brady or Aaron Rodgers? No, not yet. But he’s darn good. So the optimist inside the realist says he can return to his best level, and maybe boost it, when he’s fully healthy.

Will Luck be fully healthy this season? He seems so close, yet so far away.

Ballard said on the Colts radio show that Luck will return this week to practice for the first time this season, but coach Chuck Pagano preached patience with Luck’s participation.

“He’s making great progress,” Pagano told reporters. “Everybody has to understand he’s not going to come back out and take all the first-team snaps. We have to integrate him back into practice. It’d be great just to have him out there with his teammates.”

Ballard must build the team around Luck moving forward, and with an eye today toward 2018 and 2019. He has some young or relatively young pieces, such as wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, tight end Jack Doyle and offensive linemen Ryan Kelly (when healthy) and Jack Mewhort. There is some defensive promise in rookie safety Malik Hooker and rookie cornerback Quincy Wilson.

There are a lot of holes, or holes on the horizon. Can we expect Frank Gore to be running the ball in two years? Next year? Probably not. Is the starting future running back on the roster? That seems doubtful, too.

Ballard has two more drafts, with some dabbling in free agency, to get the team in place.

There’s also the matter of a coach. Few outside observers expect Pagano to hold onto the job moving forward, but few expected him to be here today. That decision, which is as much Colts owner Jim Irsay’s as it is Ballard’s, lingers conspicuously over the process, too.

Irsay made a mistake, intentional or not, four years ago when he referenced the Manning years’ “Star Wars numbers” and talked of multiple Super Bowls for Luck. Every owner wants to see his franchise reach and win multiple championships. Most of them leave it unsaid.

Unfortunately for the Colts, Irsay likes to talk and he raised the bar of expectations for Luck and the Colts.

They can still make a run at those expectations while Luck is in his prime. But there’s no more time to waste.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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