INDIANAPOLIS — The continuation of the Indianapolis Colts’ 2018 season hinges on the results of their Week 17 matchup with the Tennessee Titans this Sunday night. However, even if the season ended today then they’ve clearly made an impression on a national scale, as at least a couple of their players could be in line for some major hardware come award season.
On Thursday, ESPN staff writer Bill Barnwell published his 2018 NFL Awards in which he names Colts quarterback Andrew Luck the Comeback Player of the Year and linebacker Darius Leonard the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Here's what Barnwell had to write about Luck:
“It's worth remembering that this time last year, Luck was returning from more than a month in the Netherlands, undergoing treatment for a shoulder injury with no timetable for return. Every member of the Colts organization had to be terrified that they weren't going to see the Luck who carried middling teams to the playoffs ever again.”
“The Colts aren't really seeing the old Luck, to be honest; they're seeing a slightly better version of the quarterback from 2014. Luck is narrowly posting the best passer rating of his career, and while he's not throwing the ball downfield as frequently, Frank Reich has a guy who completed 59.2 percent of his passes before the shoulder injury hitting on 67.2 percent of his throws this season. Most importantly, during Indy's 8-1 stretch to Sunday's play-in game against the Titans, Luck has been knocked down only 32 times. That would have taken a month in the old days. Thankfully, the next time Luck goes to Europe, it's going to be on vacation.”
The arguments about Luck’s playing future seem like a distant, annoying memory after what he and the Colts have accomplished this year. Not just a Comeback Player of the Year candidate but also a dark horse MVP candidate, Luck is having arguably the best season of his career.
He has set a new single-season career-high in completions (406), appears to be set to accomplish new personal bests in pass attempts, completion percentage, passer rating and ESPN QBR. Luck also appears to be in line to have his second-best season in terms of passing yards and touchdowns.
As Barnwell alluded to, this should also be the fewest times Luck has been hit or sacked in a full season since entering the NFL in 2012.
After beginning the season 1-5, the Colts have turned things around in spectacular fashion, going 8-1 since the season’s lowest period. While Luck hasn’t had to carry the team like he has in years past, he has absolutely shown his value and has taken over when necessary, both on the field and in the locker room.
If Luck wins the actual Comeback Player of the Year award, it will be the icing on the individual awards cake that has seen him named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, the AFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 11, and the FedEx Air Player of the Week in Week 12.
LEONARD = DROY?
Darius Leonard has affixed himself into the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation since very early on in the season, earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for September.
He is on almost everybody’s shortlist of candidates, if not at the top. Per Barnwell:
“I don't think Leonard will win the real award, but I can't justify putting anyone else first. How many defensive players on the Colts can you even name? Leonard is the beating heart of Matt Eberflus' defense, which might be the biggest surprise on that side of the ball in football at 12th in defensive DVOA. The only argument I can make against Leonard is that the second-round pick missed a game with an ankle injury, with the Colts subsequently allowing 38 points to the Patriots."
"The Indy linebacker leads the NFL with a staggering 155 tackles, 23 more than any other player. There can be some home cooking in tackle statistics, but if you look at strictly solo tackles, Leonard is at 107 and no other player in the league has topped 100. It would be one thing if Leonard were mopping up 10 yards downfield, but he has 12 tackles for loss, which is tied for second among non-edge rushing linebackers."
"Leonard also has stuffed the scoresheet beyond tackles. At seven sacks, he has more takedowns than any rookie besides Chubb. Leonard has knocked away six passes, picked up an interception and forced four fumbles. I don't love these sort of arbitrary endpoint comparisons, but if you look through history for players with 150 or more tackles, five or more sacks and four or more forced fumbles in a season since 1990, you get Leonard and Broderick Thomas in 1991. Here's hoping Leonard shines on the national stage against the Titans on Sunday night.”
When people use phrases like, “came out of nowhere” and “took the league by storm,” Leonard is the type of player that should come to mind.
An underdog all his life, Leonard was spurned by his dream school of Clemson, where his brother went before him, and then became a “Maniac” at tiny South Carolina State. Although the Colts selected him in the second round, most people nationally knew very little about him, if anything at all.
That has since changed.
Barnwell mentioned the stat-sheet stuffing that Leonard has done, and he began to get so much attention that he became one of many people’s main choices for the Pro Bowl snub of the year (Leonard is currently an alternate, but he did not make the team initially when the rosters were announced last week).
Colts general manager Chris Ballard, head coach Frank Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus set out to completely remake the Colts’ defensive image, and Leonard became the face of it right away.
Aside from September Defensive Rookie of the Month honors, Leonard was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 2 as well as the NFL Rookie of the Week in Weeks 2 and 8.
He has broken the Colts’ rookie record for tackles in a season, is almost certainly going to break the single-season team record for tackles in a season on Sunday — he needs six tackles to do it, which would be the fewest amount he’s had in a game this season — and he is typically among only a few players in NFL history who have his single-season resumé no matter how you manipulate the stats.
The Colts undoubtedly have a face on both sides of the ball, and it’s no mistake that these two players represent each side.