Before we break down the debut of Andrew Luck—before we hold it up to the sun, shake it, smell it, replay its every snap and measure it against the debuts of Peyton Manning with the Broncos, Robert Griffin III with the Redskins or anybody else—we should probably tell you that one person will not be listening: Andrew Luck.
This is an article from the Sept. 17, 2012 issue
As his father, Oliver, says of the hype and counterhype, "He dismisses it." This is one of the beauties of Andrew Luck, and it explains why the Colts were not fazed by his four-turnover opener against the Bears. Because Luck was not fazed.
Some rookies have to fetch donuts for their teammates; Luck had to give footballs to his opponents. He threw three interceptions and coughed up one fumble in a 41--21 loss. But he also made some gorgeous passes, including a perfect fade route touch pass to Reggie Wayne, whose diving catch resulted in a 23-yard gain. Luck can cut down on the turnovers, but only a few quarterbacks can make the plays that he made on Sunday.
While Luck showed why he was the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Colts showed why they had that No. 1 pick. They looked much like the team that went 2--14 last season. Linemen struggled to protect, receivers struggled to get open, a kickoff return was fumbled and the defense generally failed to harass the oft-harassed Jay Cutler. They left Soldier Field 0--1, yet utterly confident about the future of their franchise.
"He kept his poise no matter what the situation," said Wayne. "He had a lot of guys in his face, had some dropped balls. We gotta help him out. We gotta make him look good."
Luck's numbers (23 of 45, 309 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) were remarkably similar to Manning's debut for Indy in 1998 (21 of 37, 302 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions). In both cases the picks were just the cost of being in the quarterback business. In '98, Manning threw 28 of them, a record for a rookie, as his team went 3--13. But he also passed for 3,739 yards and never once looked as if he just wanted the punt team to come in so that he could call his mother.
Luck may have a similar season. The Colts won't enjoy it, but they'll accept it as long as he handles the pressure and keeps picking up yardage.
Manning was a voracious student of the game; he seemed to watch film in his sleep. Over time he had a mental advantage over almost every defense he faced. Luck is the same way. He can process information instantly. Even as a six-year-old kid playing soccer he would look up as he dribbled, and he had an amazing ability to find the open boy.
Oliver, who played quarterback in the NFL for five years, says that even in high school, Andrew "didn't wow people with his sheer physical skill." His greatest strength is his ability and desire to solve complex problems. This is why he chose to attend Stanford, and why he stayed in school and finished his degree before turning pro.
Luck generally does not make mistakes because of panic or lousy mechanics. He makes mistakes because he is probing the defense to figure out what he can and cannot do. His first interception on Sunday came after he thought that the Bears had jumped offsides, giving him a free play. Chicago did, referees didn't catch it, and Luck took a chance. On his second he appeared to have been trying to draw a pass interference penalty ("I don't know how much contact there was or not," he said afterward) and the ball got tipped. His third was an underthrow in garbage time.
Luck threw 18 passes to Wayne, at least partly because he knew Wayne would be in the right spot. Only nine were complete, at least partly because the Bears knew that Wayne would be a frequent target. Wayne had seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons with Manning. If any Colt could compare Luck negatively with Manning, it should be Wayne. Instead, he speaks effusively.
"We know what we have," he says. "It's gonna be good. Give him time.... Sit back and watch, and enjoy."
Colts second-stringer Drew Stanton, who backed up Matthew Stafford on the Lions, says, "In certain aspects [Luck] is far superior to anybody I've been around. He can make phone-booth throws where he is tight in a pocket. But he can also step into throws and be fluid on-balance. You don't see a lot of quarterbacks who can do both."
Luck's gifts are more subtle than Griffin's, and at the moment his team is not as good as Griffin's Redskins. People will inevitably compare the draft's top two picks, and right now Griffin has the edge. Just remember, Luck isn't listening.
On Sunday he said he blocked out his errors until he walked off the field. That is when he finally thought, Gotta avoid those types of mistakes, whether it's a bad read, not trusting a throw or babying it in there.
He chatted with Stanton in the locker room, answered questions patiently in his press conference, took full responsibility for his mistakes and shared a few minutes with his family before heading back to Indianapolis. The most famous architectural design major in Stanford's 2012 class is one week into his professional education. NFL defenses had better stump him while they can.