Like it or not, and many find it an awkward situation at best, the race in reverse that is the Andrew Luck sweepstakes will be one of the dominant and most frequently updated storylines in the second half of the NFL's 2011 season.
With just two winless teams remaining at roughly the season's midpoint, we at least have the favorites established in the lose-to-win competition for the draft rights to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, considered the finest passing prospect to hit the league in perhaps 15 years or so. It's the 0-8 Indianapolis Colts vs. the 0-7 Miami Dolphins. May the worst team lose (and win).
With the Luck hype beginning to come to full boil -- it doesn't hurt one bit, of course, that he and his Cardinal teammates are 8-0 and ranked No. 4 nationally, which is a mirror opposite of the two teams in best position to land him next year -- let's take a look at all things Luck as we approach the final nine weeks of this particular derby:
• The name you hear Luck compared to the most is Peyton Manning, and as it turns out there's a lot more than just the obvious correlation between the vast potential of the quarterback who went first overall in 1998 and the quarterback who will go first overall in 2012.
For starters, the Manning and Luck similarities are numerous. Both Manning and Luck had fathers who were highly drafted NFL quarterbacks, so the bloodlines are solid. Archie Manning went second overall in 1971 to New Orleans, while Oliver Luck was chosen 44th overall (17th in the second round) by Houston in 1982. Though Oliver Luck didn't have as high-profile an NFL career as Archie Manning did, it is almost downright eerie that the two spent all or most of their days in the league playing for losing teams in the Gulf Coast region. Luck spent five years with the Oilers (1982-86) and Manning toiled 10 of his 13 years in the NFL with the Saints (1971-81). Peyton Manning played his high school ball in New Orleans, while Andrew Luck's prep career unfolded in Houston.
Taking it one step further, Archie Manning and Oliver Luck are no strangers to one another, having played together on the Oilers for a portion of the 1982 and 1983 seasons (Luck saw no action as a rookie in '82). Ironically enough, the '83 Oilers took a run at a winless season themselves, starting the year 0-10 before finishing 2-14 and in last place in the AFC Central. Luck started six games, going 2-4, while Manning made three starts and finished 0-3 in that role.
Those Oilers, however, couldn't win for losing, missing out on the No. 1 slot in the 1984 NFL draft. Tampa Bay also went 2-14 that year to earn the first pick, but the Bucs had traded their first-rounder in '84 to Cincinnati for veteran quarterback Jack Thompson the year before. The Bengals eventually shopped the top selection to New England, who used it to take Nebraska receiver Irving Fryar. No quarterback went in the first round in 1984, with Maryland's Boomer Esiason being the first passer to come off the board, to the Bengals at No. 38 in the second round.
As for Thompson, there's a bizarre six degrees of Kevin Bacon quality to his involvement in this little quarterback tale. Thompson himself was a first-round pick in 1979, going third overall to the Bengals out of Washington State, the same school that produced infamous QB draft bust Ryan Leaf, who was taken second overall, by San Diego, behind Peyton Manning in 1998. Of course, many NFL talent evaluators at the time thought Leaf's NFL potential outdistanced Manning's, but we know better now. And one more strange twist bears mentioning: Thompson's nephew is Tavita Pritchard, who started at quarterback for Stanford from 2007-09, before losing his job in '09 to a redshirt freshman by the name of, you guessed it, Andrew Luck.
• Luck as a pro prospect has also drawn many comparisons to John Elway, and that's easy enough, given that both starred at Stanford and led the Cardinal in record-setting fashion. In addition, Elway had his own football father of some renown in that his dad, Jack, was a longtime college head coach who led the program at nearby San Jose State during John's playing career at Stanford.
But it is the intersection of Luck, Manning, Elway and the Colts franchise that might just some day tie up the entire saga of these three quarterbacks in a nice, neat package. While Manning was the first overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, and Luck very well could be the Colts' pick at No. 1 next April, Elway went first overall to the then-Baltimore Colts in 1983, but refused to play for them and forced a trade to Denver before the season began. The rest is history. Who knows if the Baltimore Colts would have moved to Indianapolis if Elway had stayed with the organization and developed into a star, perhaps leading the Colts to a Super Bowl title or two?
Elway's final season of his 16-year Hall of Fame NFL career, all of which was spent in Denver, was 1998, the year Manning was drafted by the Colts. And now there's the looming specter of Luck in Indianapolis next year, perhaps signaling the end of Manning's stellar tenure as a Colt.
Small world, the NFL.
• As for the handicapping of the remaining stages of the battle between the Colts and Dolphins for Luck, Indy, at 0-8, is already one loss closer to the prize of earning 2012's top pick, but 0-7 Miami's schedule is much tougher from here on out. We're not completely disregarding the chances of one-win teams such as Arizona (1-6) and St. Louis (1-6), or even the two-win clubs in Jacksonville (2-6), Denver (2-5), Seattle (2-5), Carolina (2-6) and Minnesota (2-6). But for now, this is Indy and Miami's game to lose (or win).
Crunching the numbers, the Colts' eight remaining opponents have a combined record of 29-31, for a winning percentage of .483. The Dolphins' last nine foes are a cumulative 36-27, a winning percentage of .571. Miami's schedule includes four remaining road games, and five at home, where the Dolphins have lost 12 of their past 13 games, dating to late 2009. The Colts' still play five more times at home, and hit the road for just three games in the season's final nine weeks. That's advantage Dolphins.
Miami on the road still has to face resurgent first-place Kansas City, winners of four in a row, Dallas on Thanksgiving, which is 2-1 at home this year, and then winds things up with a brutal mid-to-late December two-game road trip to Buffalo and New England. At home, four of the Dolphins' five remaining opponents figure to be squarely in the playoff chase the rest of the way: Buffalo, Oakland, Philadelphia and the Jets. With seven games left against teams from the NFC East and AFC East, Miami's got it pretty tough.
But on the flip side, the Dolphins have played a number of teams closely and look destined to finally get over the hump and win a game or two at some point. Their most recent two losses were by three points at home to Denver in overtime, and three points at the Giants, a game the Dolphins led almost throughout. Miami's best shots at victory might be at home against injury-decimated Washington in Week 10, and at home against the inconsistent Raiders in Week 13, especially if Carson Palmer doesn't stabilize the quarterback position in Oakland.
As for the Colts, their fans can be buoyed by the fact they perhaps have already taken their best shot at victory this season, and failed. Indianapolis lost in Weeks 3-5 by three points to Pittsburgh, seven points to Tampa Bay and four points to Kansas City. In their past three games, the Colts have been drubbed by a combined 116-34, or more than 27 points per game.
Still, the Colts aren't out of the woods and home free just yet. Not with two games remaining against 2-6 Jacksonville, which starts rookie Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, a home game against 2-6 Carolina and Cam Newton, and a home game against a 4-3 Tennessee club that has been streaky this season and may wind up playing rookie quarterback Jake Locker in their mid-December matchup. And I suppose there's still a miniscule chance Peyton Manning returns to the field at some point late this season, which would jack up Indy's victory potential by at least 75 percent.
• I'm already tired of the debate about whether teams might "tank'' to earn the right to draft Luck, because I think it's a fairly ludicrous supposition in the first place. Players and coaches simply aren't wired that way, and on some level almost everybody in the NFL feels the pressure to produce to protect their own job security. Tony Sparano in Miami, Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis and Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis certainly aren't thinking about 2012 these days.
Just wondering, but would there be quite so much chatter about the whole idea if the phrase "Suck for Luck'' wasn't such a pithy rhyme, or "Lose for Luck'' hadn't been coined in a burst of alliteration? Maybe, but I'm not completely convinced.
• The possibility of the Colts being able to blend seamlessly from the Peyton Manning to the Luck eras got me thinking: What's the longest period of time one franchise has ever covered with just two standout starting quarterbacks? Joe Montana and Steve Young roughly spanned the period from mid-1980 to early 1999 as full-time starters in San Francisco. Miami had only a slight gap between the end of the Bob Griese era (1967-80) and the beginning of the Dan Marino era (1983-99). And Green Bay is doing pretty well for itself so far with Brett Favre (1992-2007) and Aaron Rodgers (2008-present) going back-to-back. The Packers' tandem might wind up being the standard before all is said and done.
But if Luck is another Peyton Manning, and he winds up wearing the horseshoe on his helmet and lasting at least as long as No. 18 did to start his career in Indy (from 1998-2010, or 13 seasons, without missing a game), that would be a remarkable run, stretching for more than a quarter century.
But for the Colts, in what has been a season of misery so far, it might just be the prize that comes tantalizingly ever closer. And there's only one way to guarantee the goal is reached: Just lose, baby.