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Andrew Luck retirement: Bears must remember lesson Colts learned too late

It’s one thing to invest in a quarterback but another to protect him. The Colts didn’t do the latter until last season. The damage, though, had been done.

Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky reacts after a play in the preseason game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night.
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Colts general manager Chris Ballard and Bears GM Ryan Pace split the NFL’s two Executive of the Year awards last offseason.

Based on his team’s dramatic turnaround and his trade acquisition of Khalil Mack, Pace won The Sporting News award, which was voted on by other GMs.

Ballard took home the Pro Football Writers Association award for two reasons: The Colts reached the playoffs after being left at the altar by coach Josh McDaniels, and they kept quarterback Andrew Luck upright — something they couldn’t do under Ballard’s predecessor.

It reinforced a lesson the Colts learned too late and the Bears would be wise to keep in mind: It’s one thing to invest in a quarterback but another to protect him. The Colts didn’t do the latter until last season, and the damage already had been done.

Luck retired Saturday, saying he no longer could stomach the ‘‘unceasing and unrelenting’’ cycle of ‘‘injury, pain, rehab.’’ Luck was diagnosed with a strained calf in March and said he was dealing with a high ankle sprain and a posterior ankle impingement, too.

Ballard, a former Bears executive hired by the Colts in January 2017, aggressively built up the offensive line. He used the sixth pick of the 2018 draft on Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, making him the highest-drafted pure guard in modern NFL history.

A round after he drafted Nelson, Ballard selected standout right tackle Braden Smith. A year earlier, Ballard had claimed guard Mark Glowinski off waivers from the Seahawks. He played so well that the Colts gave him a three-year extension.

The three teamed with two first-round picks from the Ryan Grigson era — Anthony Castonzo and Ryan Kelly — to form a formidable offensive line. At one point last season, Luck went 239 dropbacks without being sacked. He was sacked 1.1 times per start, half the 2.2 he averaged in 2012-17.

During those six seasons, Luck was sacked 156 times in 70 starts. He was sacked 41 times in two seasons and didn’t make it through two more.

Luck sprained his right shoulder early in September 2015 and missed two games. A month later, he was lost for the rest of the season when he lacerated a kidney and tore an abdominal muscle.

He had shoulder surgery in January 2017 and didn’t play the entire season. The Colts quarterbacks who did were sacked an NFL-high 56 times.

The damage done prompted perhaps the most surprising NFL retirement since Barry Sanders 20 years ago. The brevity of Luck’s career rivals that of Bears legend Gale Sayers, who was ravaged by knee injuries and also retired after seven incomplete seasons.

The what-if questions Luck leaves behind rival those of former Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, whose flawless technique portended a Hall of Fame career. What manager Dusty Baker’s overuse was to Prior’s right arm, the Colts’ offensive line was to Luck’s right shoulder. And kidney. And calf.

The Bears’ No. 1 job is to make sure quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who boasts more elusiveness than the heavy-legged Luck, never joins that list. Pace has spent years taking steps to try to ensure just that.

Pace coveted Nelson, but when the Colts took him two spots ahead of the Bears, he pivoted to draft center James Daniels in the second round.

Three years ago next week, Pace signed right guard Kyle Long to a four-year, $40 million extension. Two years ago last week, he gave left tackle Charles Leno $38 million over four years. In January, right tackle Bobby Massie got $30.8 million over four years.

Pace talked Long into taking a pay cut this offseason and restructured Leno’s deal last week to create more salary-cap space. He figures to use that money to extend left guard Cody Whitehair, who is entering a walk year, before the first snap of the season opener.

If Pace is to repeat as Executive of the Year, that might be the most important decision he makes this month.