INDIANAPOLIS — All-Pro Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard issued a message in his weekly media availability.
Leonard, who has missed the season's first three games after undergoing offseason back surgery to relieve the pressure two discs in his spine were putting on his nerves, was shown often on the video board at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, moving, cheering and celebrating a remarkable performance by his Colts defense.
Because of those clips, apparently, Leonard has been criticized for sitting out the first three games of the season.
“I’m going to say this, because I’ve seen it all on social media: If I’m ready to go, I’m going to play,” Leonard said. “Everybody knows me. I went out there last year with one ankle. I love this game, I love this game with all my heart and I’d do anything to play this game for 100 years. There’s no such thing as me standing on the sideline because of me.”
Merely moving on the sidelines is not the same as playing in an NFL game.
Leonard has not returned to the field yet because he does not believe he’s ready to help the defense.
Plain and simple.
“If I feel like I can play to the ability I know I can play and help this team win, I’m going to be out there, but if I think that my ability is going to put the team in trouble, I’ve got to respect my decision to say, ‘OK, Zaire (Franklin)’s playing a whole lot faster, this defense would be better with me standing on the sideline,’” Leonard said. “It’s on me: I look myself in the mirror, tell the coaches that. But I’m just going to do everything in my will to be on the field each and every week, and when that time comes, I’m ready to rock n’ roll.”
Leonard has been practicing for almost a month, and although he’s been listed on the injury report every day, the Colts have listed the linebacker as a full participant in practice, prompting some to wonder why he isn’t back on the field yet.
Leonard responded to that criticism by offering more insight into his recovery process than he has at any other point this season.
“People think it was just back and ankle, but there were a lot of nerve things that went wrong,” Leonard said. “Practicing for four weeks: People have to understand, that first week was nothing but stiffness. The second week was OK, how can I cover ground? Third week, OK, let me see how can I tackle? Can I tackle in space? Can I move left and right? Can I do the things that I know I’m supposed to do? That’s what it comes down to.”
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Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich offered a window into that process last week. The Colts have been comparing tape of Leonard’s practices with tape of their star linebacker at something close to full strength, and he hasn’t looked like himself on the practice field yet.
The reason Leonard has been so active on the sidelines is that he wants to add value in any way he can.
For years, Leonard has been the emotional core of the defense, bringing the energy that feeds everybody else on the unit. Even on the sideline, Leonard wants to bring as much of that as he possibly can.
“I just want to win,” Leonard said. “I don’t care how, I just want to win. So that’s why on the sideline I’m locked in as much as I possibly can. I want to be that leader, to tell the guys, OK, this is what I see, you can play this better.”
Not being able to play eats at Leonard.
The All-Pro has talked about it at length several times in his career. Leonard hasn’t been able to play in every game of a season yet in his career, and he opened up last fall about how playing in all 17 games has become an important goal for him. Despite an ankle that often misfired last season, the only game Leonard missed was due to COVID-19.
But he does not want to put his personal goals above the team, and that means that he’s not going to be back on the field until he can be "the Maniac." Playing at something far less than his normal self can only hurt the Colts.
“Just know: If I’m able to play, I’ll be out there, give it everything I’ve got, but if I can’t, y’all have got to respect that,” Leonard said. “I can’t put this team in jeopardy of losing when I’m out there, knowing that they’re better if I’m standing on the sideline.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts LB Shaquille Leonard responds to criticism of him not playing