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Andrew Luck, Colts face critical season after disappointing 2015

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There used to be a time when it was laughable to doubt the destiny of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. He earned trips to the Pro Bowl, led his team to multiple postseason appearances and made good on every last bit of promise that was attached to him when he entered the NFL four years ago.

That was all before Luck struggled through an injury-riddled 2015 campaign where the Colts finished with a disappointing 8-8 record. Now there are all sorts of questions hovering around Luck, the biggest being how he's going to handle the most critical season of his tenure with this franchise.

Luck enters the final year of his contract with the kind of circumstances that no quarterback this talented should be dealing with at this stage. He's working with his third offensive coordinator since becoming the first overall pick in the 2012 draft -- Rob Chudzinski started last year as the team's associate head coach before moving into the job after the dismissal of Pep Hamilton -- and there's also still no guarantee that his offensive line has improved dramatically. The deficiencies in that pass protection were a major reason why Luck only appeared in seven games last season. His list of injuries included a partially separated right shoulder, a lacerated kidney and a torn abdominal muscle.

It's not a good look when your quarterback resembles somebody who's been on the losing end of a cage match every week. It's even more unsettling when you realize what was also painfully obvious about the Colts last season: They needed a better plan for Luck, which is why there is so much changing around that franchise these days.

"Obviously I can't speak for him, but what I have noticed is he's all in," said Colts quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer, who is in his first year with the team. "I think he's excited. I think he's got a lot in his mind that he wants to prove. Again, he's been very, very eager. That's what you want to see as a coach is a guy that's very eager and excited to come to work."

Luck should have plenty that he wants to prove, especially as the Colts work on the mega-deal that will be his next contract. Before last season began, he was a trendy pick for Most Valuable Player and his team was talked about as being ready to reach the Super Bowl. Remember, the Colts had played in the AFC title game in the 2014 season -- when the New England Patriots obliterated them in a contest that became better known for the amount of air pressure used in the game balls that day -- and Luck had led them to three consecutive playoffs appearances in his first three seasons. Nobody could've predicted how disastrous last year would've been for him.

What's also worth noting is that the Colts no longer will be getting the AFC South discount when it comes to opposition. As well as Luck played in his first three seasons, he also benefitted from seeing three of the league's worst teams twice a year. Between 2012 and 2014, the Colts had a combined record of 16-2 against Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee. It's fair to say those days have ended, especially with the Texans (who won the division last year) and Jaguars making significant offseason upgrades over the last few months.

So if the Colts and Luck are going to return to championship-contention form, they're going to have to earn it. They've already taken one huge step by resolving the much-publicized rift that festered last season between head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson. The next big challenge is improving the offensive line. Grigson shied away from the aggressive free-agent moves that had been his trademark in previous years but did go big in last month's draft (choosing Alabama center Ryan Kelly in the first round and Texas Tech offensive tackle Le'Raven Clark in the third). Obviously, the Colts hope Kelly can help them immediately, but Luck still might have to carry this team as his entire supporting cast jells.

"Andrew has to be Andrew -- there's no doubt about that." Chudzinski said. "Obviously, the reason he was out last year and [the emphasis this season] is making sure that he's protected and he protects himself. That's been one of the focuses of the offseason: How are we going to protect him better and how is he going to protect himself better? Then he has his list of things from a fundamental standpoint that he wants to keep growing on, working on and improve at. With Andrew, you don't have to tell him too much about it. He's already on it."

Another dynamic that should help Luck is the exposure to Chudzinski's system for a full offseason. The team's decision to fire Hamilton midway through last season only added one more bit of drama to a campaign that already was flush with it. Though Hamilton coached Luck at Stanford, the quarterback was struggling even before injuries plagued his performance. Luck led the league in interceptions when Hamilton lost his job -- Luck finished with 12 picks in his seven games -- and his 74.9 passer rating was the lowest of his pro career.

Chudzinski has made it clear that he wants to make this adjustment as easy as possible on Luck. When meeting with local media recently, he talked about the importance of having a system that allows players to pick things up quickly while continuing to be as aggressive as possible. As Chudzinski said, "Everybody thinks of running the ball as balanced. It really means you can throw the ball when you need to [in order] to win and you can run the ball when you need to [in order] to win."

In this case, balance can mean something else as well: Having enough support around your quarterback that he doesn't feel the need to win the game by himself. The Colts tried to do that last season by beefing up their offense with free-agent acquisitions like running back Frank Gore and wide receiver Andre Johnson -- and by spending their first-round pick on speedy receiver Phillip Dorsett -- but those moves didn't create much impact. They've also been unable to build a reliable defense that can ease the pressure on their star quarterback, a struggle that is the byproduct of both Grigson's personnel moves and Pagano's coaching. It's not like the Colts haven't been trying to resolve these issues; we just didn't know how much Luck camouflaged them with his skills prior to last fall.

The Colts have to realize that those days have passed. The division is too good and their 2015 season has been branded into the memories of anybody who cares deeply about this team. This has to be an offseason where the Colts feel a strong sense of urgency. This is the time where they really have to prove how much they learned from last year's failings.

The good news is that they still have the best young quarterback in football to lead their team. He's been battered, bruised and maybe even befuddled by how quickly someone's fortunes can change in the NFL. Those experiences surely will make Luck a stronger player in both the short and long term. His team's ability to put all the right pieces around him will be just as critical in a season that will be vital to the quarterback's growth.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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