Friday January 7th, 2011

There has to be a reason. Andrew Luck doesn't want to be a Panther. Andrew Luck is crazy. Maybe Luck, who went to high school in Texas, cannot bring himself to switch to Carolina barbecue. Maybe he is scared of the NFL, delusional, socialist, getting bad advice, hanging with the wrong crowd, a flake, a geek, thinks he is invincible ...

With the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft in his grasp, Andrew Luck selected college. His Stanford coach, Jim Harbaugh, has been telling people for months: I think he is going back to school. He wants his degree. He loves his teammates. He loves college life. Nobody believed him. There has to be a reason.

This says so much more about us than it does about Luck. Thirty years ago, opting for life over money was perfectly acceptable social behavior. You used to have to explain why you went for the cash. Now you have to explain why you don't.

Andrew Luck just doesn't get it, and good for him. He is rejecting two American articles of faith: You always go for the money, and the NFL is king. He is just a college kid who is freakishly gifted at football, and that's all he wants to be right now. He is secure enough in who he is to say no to the world and be happy about it.

If you have a problem with this, you have a problem.

Luck will be the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy next year, and maybe he thinks Stanford has a chance to win the national title. I doubt he is really coming back for either of those prizes. He says he wants to finish his degree in architectural design and graduate with his class. He seems to understand that you only get to be a senior in college once, or if you're a sportswriter, four times.

The irony is that almost everybody who leaves early for the pros could use another year. Ryan Mallett, the supremely talented Arkansas quarterback who will probably go in the first round, could surely use another year of maturing. Cam Newton, the Heisman winner who is expected to turn pro, could surely use another year of seasoning to ease his transition to an NFL season.

Luck? He doesn't need anything. He isn't just the No. 1 prospect in the draft. He is an elite No. 1 overall prospect, the best of the best, ordained earlier in the process than any quarterback in memory. Even Peyton Manning had competition from Ryan Leaf, as silly as that sounds now. It was a serious debate in 1998. When Detroit took Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall two years ago, Lions fans booed; they wanted linebacker Aaron Curry. Sam Bradford of the Rams was considered a great prospect, but not a sure thing that Luck is.

Luck has the size, the arm, the accuracy, the footwork, the decision-making skills, the leadership gene and the smarts. He has a gift for playing his position at the highest level. You are as likely to see Kim Jong Il accept the Nobel Peace Prize as hear that Luck has a bad attitude. Harbaugh has a lot of bright student-athletes at Stanford, but as he has said, being a smart student doesn't necessarily mean you are a smart player. Luck is both.

"He learns so fast and so well that you only have to tell him things once," said Harbaugh, who is flirting with the NFL but looks like he could be coming back to Stanford. "Twice at the most."

It is sad that when Luck made his announcement, the talk was immediately about what he could lose instead of what he could gain. He could get hurt. His draft stock could drop -- look at Jake Locker and Matt Leinart and Brady Quinn, guys who came back for their senior year and slid in the draft.

NFL scouts now have another year to find flaws in Luck's game. They probably will find flaws. They're scouts; finding flaws is what they do. But they should put down the microscopes for a second and take a broader view of Luck. He isn't scared of dropping in the draft. He is inviting them to look for flaws. That's real confidence, not the false bravado that too often passes for confidence, and they should love him for it.

Yes, he could get injured. So what? Any of us could get injured at any time, and do you really want your quarterback to be a guy who is worried about getting hurt?

First comes to the fan skepticism, then the media punditry, and by next fall, there is a real chance that Luck will get hurt or struggle and scouts will start to question him, at least a little. But Andrew Luck showed us this week why he will make a great leader for an NFL team someday. He understands what a lot of us never figure out: People can't pick you apart unless you let them.

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