Andrew Luck is healthy again and determined to stay that way

INDIANAPOLIS -- The competitive Andrew Luck wanted to deliver a block to help running back Nyheim Hines on one play, and lower his head and go for the end zone another play.

But this wasn't Andrew Luck of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 or even 2016. The 2018 Andrew Luck has come to his senses.

All he had to do is think back to his shoulder, ribs, lacerated kidney and having missed 26 games over the past three-plus seasons to realize that his long-term health is more vital to the Indianapolis Colts organization than using his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame to try to make a play.

As good as Luck's passing has been in his comeback from missing 2017 with his shoulder injury, he's been just as good with his decision-making when it comes to protecting his body. It's part of his maturation process.

"It's weird, but I am happy I chose -- in those two instances -- to do what I did," Luck said. "It's more important to be on the field as a quarterback. That's the truth. Certainly situationally, you will take hits. I'd like to think that if it was the fourth quarter in a really tight game that I would have put my shoulder down to get in the end zone and taken a hit. But within the context of this game, I think I did the right thing."

Colts owner Jim Irsay has consistently talked over the years about how Luck needs to think like a quarterback and not like a tight end when it comes to protecting his body. Irsay mentioned in London in 2016 how Peyton Manning would do a "little fox trot" while also staying out of the "fray" of possibly taking unnecessary hits to preserve his longevity after throwing an interception.

"He has to change the way he plays, only because it's just natural that he is not a 22-year-old kid at Stanford who could play tight end or quarterback," Irsay said about Luck on Oct. 1, 2016. "He has to understand -- and he learned from the Denver game -- the importance of staying on the field. I think honing his game is the key."

That message has finally sunk in for Luck.

An example occurred when Luck threw his third interception against the New York Jets in Week 6. He started to pursue linebacker Darron Lee before slowing down. On Sunday, Luck handed the ball off to Hines on a reverse and was in position to help block on the run, but he just stopped in the middle of the field and let the play go by him on Hines' 18-yard gain.

The most obvious situation where it was clear Luck is more worried about protecting himself occurred when he broke the pocket and scrambled five yards getting as close to the goal line as he could before running out of bounds on Buffalo's 1-yard line. There wouldn't have been any denying the old Luck in that situation. He would have taken on any Bills defender by trying to go through or over him, no matter the size. But Luck wanted to avoid being injured, and it helped that the Colts had a 24-5 lead at the time.

"I was really proud of him on the one that he ran out of bounds, because I had told him," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "We were at that point of the game and I just told him, I said, 'Listen, if you happen to get into scramble mode, take care of yourself. Do not. Do not. Be smart.' I mean the game wasn't on the line at that point, so we had that conversation on the sideline, and thankfully he listened to me."

Reich, a former quarterback himself, understands the competitiveness of wanting to finish a play off.

"It's hard, especially for a guy like Andrew, right?," Reich said. "In years past, he would put his head down, and I don't know if he would have got in or not, but he certainly would have tried. Maturation -- that's what we like to see."

Luck continues to make his mark this season. The smart decision-making added to a game when he had one of the most effortless, impressive performances of his career. Luck was 17-of-23 for 156 yards, four touchdowns and wasn't sacked for the second straight week before giving way to Jacoby Brissett late in the game. The 156 yards passing were a season low for Luck because the Colts rushed for 220 yards. His four touchdown passes were for a total of 52 yards.

Luck's 15 touchdown passes over the past four games are the most by any quarterback in a four-game stretch this season and the most he's had over a four-game stretch in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"He's just loving the game," receiver T.Y. Hilton said. "He's been out so long. He missed it. Sometimes you take things away, you appreciate it more -- that's [what] he's doing. Appreciates the game more and playing it the right way."