Analysis: Struggling Colts are playing a dangerous game

Continual failure to accept the reality of an injured Andrew Luck committing turnovers will extend losing skid beyond 3 games.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was asked after Monday night’s 29-26 overtime loss at Carolina if there ever was a point when trailing the Panthers where he considered replacing quarterback Andrew Luck with Matt Hasselbeck.

“No,” Pagano said.

And when the “sore subject” was broached about if the quarterback has been playing with multiple rib fractures, as FoxSports’ Jay Glazer reported Sunday, neither Luck nor Pagano wanted to discuss that, either.

What does that lead us to think?

That Luck is playing with cracked ribs. Because if that weren’t the case, general manager Ryan Grigson would say otherwise in Sunday’s statement about how the injury reports are “accurate.” And Pagano would contradict the Glazer report, too.

They can’t because it would be a lie. And they know it, although considering in NFL parlance such deception is deemed as “gamesmanship,” the bigger problem here is the league is investigating to determine if the Colts violated the policy on reporting injuries. It sure seems pretty clear they did.

So we play a game in the gray area between telling the truth and lying, and as Jack Nicholson once taught us in a Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!”

So be it. Here’s my opinionated truth. The reality is the Colts have hitched their wagons to a wounded warrior who has the guts to give it everything he’s got and will never back down from a challenge regardless of his physical issues. But we’re not seeing the same Luck, the three-time Pro Bowl passer.

Don’t just dwell on the 12 interceptions. Look at how many more times he could have been picked off Monday night. Look at how hesitant he’s become. And did you notice how the ball tends to sail on him when he misses open targets, and those teammates stare back in disbelief because they’re not used to this?

But Pagano has dug in, so to speak. He’s sticking with his guy because that’s what players’ coaches do. And say this for the man, he was almost rewarded as the Colts staged a most unexpected comeback from 23-6 down in the fourth quarter to lead 26-23 in overtime. One Panthers mistake and the Colts would have pulled off an upset. And it was because Luck made enough plays late that gave his team a chance to win.

Then he threw yet another interception, because he didn't throw the ball quick enough to Coby Fleener. Just a second or two late is all it takes for a key overtime play to become the final costly turnover.

Unfortunately, the comeback to be in that position means No. 12 will stay out there as long as he can, make more mistakes, then meet with the media and apologize as he did yet again after his third interception led to the Panthers’ game-winning field goal.

“It’s my problem and it’s hurting the team,” Luck said. “I’ve got to fix it or else it’s tough to win doing it. Disappointed in myself.”

Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but my disappointment is in Pagano, not Luck. We’ve heard more than once how players must be protected from themselves when hurt or on the mend, how running back Frank Gore needs to be on a play count to keep him fresh, same with outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who has had three sacks in two games since the team finally took the shackles off of him.

Yet Luck? He’s our franchise quarterback, the most important player on game day. He says he can play through it. So we let him keep trying, presumably because of the belief he gives this team the “best chance to win.”

But an easy argument can be made that Hasselbeck should play when Luck struggles. Granted, playing Hasselbeck is an indictment of Luck, but pick your poison. Seriously. How much more do we need to see him struggle? Does anyone think he will have what it takes to defeat the Denver Broncos’ No. 1-ranked defense Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium? Did you catch what the Broncos did to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers Sunday night?

Nobody will defend Luck more than me. And I wrote long before his injury became a weekly topic that my foremost concern was his health. He’s taken such a pounding and the hits inevitably add up.

Another undeniable truth is the Colts haven’t played a complete game yet this season. The best they’ve played was when Hasselbeck led them to a 27-20 win at Houston. Now the Colts and Texans are tied at 3-5 atop the worst division in the football, the AFC South. And because the next two games are against the Broncos (7-0) and Atlanta Falcons (6-2), a three-game losing streak could very easily reach five.

At some point, someone has to be thinking about beyond this season. We can’t expect Pagano to do this because he’s coaching for his future. The way it’s going now, he won’t be here next year. Maybe Grigson will also pay for his mistakes, too, when owner Jim Irsay has his long-awaited final say.

Where will the Colts be if Luck is damaged goods after 2015 and a new regime has to pick up the pieces with a franchise quarterback who is still gun shy from a season that imploded? What chance do the Colts have of winning at least two Super Bowls in the Luck Era, Irsay’s stated goal, if Luck can’t regain his form? I've written, tweeted and said this for weeks.

The Colts are playing a dangerous game with their quarterback and nobody wants to see such a promising talent wasted. Guys like Luck don’t come around often. Just look at all the NFL teams who have rarely had a special player at the most important position.

We’re merely just halfway through this bumpy ride, folks. But brace yourselves because it sure seems like it’s about to become even more hazardous moving forward.

And for Luck’s sake, you hope he can somehow survive to see better days well down that road. 

You hope, and maybe even pray.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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