Indianapolis Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck was three games into his NFL career when he faced the Green Bay Packers, stared down an 18-point deficit and led Indianapolis to a 30-27 win with an 80-yard drive in the closing minutes.
When it was over, Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians declared, “You give me any quarterback in the league right now, I don’t care who, and I wouldn’t trade this kid for any of ’em.”
If you think long enough about that statement, you’re at a loss for rebuttal. Maybe you take Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers for right now. You’d love to stake your future in Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson.
But here’s the most remarkable thing about Luck as he steers his team from a 2-14 season into the playoffs:
The Colts took a huge gamble. They dispatched Peyton Manning, lost some 13,000 season-ticket holders in the process, and left Luck in charge of one of the league’s weakest-looking rosters.
Manning might be on his way to the league’s MVP award -- he’s absolutely torching people as Denver’s season progresses. And the Colts still know they made the right decision.
None of this is a mystery at Stanford, where Luck carved out a real-time legend and made one of the classiest decisions in recent memory.
With a massive NFL paycheck looming, most likely as the overall No. 1 pick, Luck decided to spend the 2011 season at Stanford, where he fully embraced the collegiate life and was running one of the most sophisticated offenses in the country.
Critics derided his decision, saying there was no point in returning to college, and what if he got hurt?
That’s not how Luck looks at life. He spent that season becoming a better player, a better student, a more complete man.
To watch the Colts now, so cohesive and inspired as sidelined head coach Chuck Pagano underwent treatment for leukemia, their 11-5 record doesn’t seem terribly surprising. Luck has engineered seven comeback wins in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most by a rookie since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, and fans have come to expect such heroics.
Watch most any Indianapolis game, though, and you wonder how Luck is still standing.
At times, he’s looking at a half-dozen other rookies in the huddle. His pass protection might break down at any moment. He takes a pounding every week, he invites further punishment with his aggressive running, and he turns into a linebacker if he throws an interception.
Opposing teams have made Luck a target, with Arians telling reporters that “a lot of people have taken cheap shots to his head. Guys should be ejected for that. But he’s tough enough to handle it. I’m not going to change the way he plays or approaches the game because other guys get concussions.”
As Luck put it after one particularly rough outing, “I don’t think anybody can play up to their potential if they worry about getting injured. You just have to play smart and learn to protect yourself. Coach (Jim) Harbaugh taught that to all the quarterbacks at Stanford: If you can get a first down with your legs, it can be tough on the defense.”
There is no blueprint for leadership in a quarterback, for it welcomes all types -- Don Meredith, a man with a good arm who knew how to have a good time; Roger Staubach, Navy-trained and arrow-straight; Kenny Stabler, throwing precision darts right through that hangover; Joe Kapp, doing it all on toughness and desire. Griffin was so impressive during the Redskins’ training camp – as much in demeanor as in talent – the most hardened teammates knew they’d found their captain.
Luck doesn’t have Griffin’s buttery speaking voice or natural sense of cool. He’s a straight-up dork who embodied the term “student athlete” as well as anyone during his time at Stanford.
“Dorky,” Colts quarterback coach Clyde Christensen confirmed, “but so, so smart.”
Nobody could comprehend Luck’s instant grasp of the Colts’ playbook as summer turned to autumn. Alongside the intelligence came humility, an irrepressible will to win, a thirst for physical contact and a self-deprecating nature.
When it’s over, given the blessing of good health, Luck will have registered the greatest-ever statistical season by a rookie quarterback. With Griffin, Wilson and others doing so well, we’ll hear more talk about such immediate impact becoming a trend, as if heading straight into an NFL starting job is some sort of cakewalk.
Don’t believe it. Scan any list of first-round draft picks, and there will be a David Klingler, Matt Leinart, Colt McCoy, Tim Couch or David Carr – a strapping lad who somehow doesn’t quite have it.
Check back when somebody matches Andrew Luck. And bring plenty of reading material for the wait.