Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Luck: In second season, QB proved Colts made right decision to release Peyton Manning

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When the Indianapolis Colts released Peyton Manning almost two years ago, it was thought of as the first step in a major rebuilding process. And, in many ways, that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Aside from letting go of Manning, the Colts released the likes of Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, and Gary Brackett, all of whom were significant contributors during the team’s two Super Bowl runs. To complement the roster moves, owner Jim Irsay also made personnel changes, firing head coach Jim Caldwell and both Bill and Chris Polian, the team’s front office decision makers.

Indianapolis would go on to draft Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but this wasn’t just the Colts replacing Manning with Luck, this was a complete revamp of the organization’s identity.

As a fan, it was hard to watch that offseason unfold. The Colts had won at least twelve games in seven straight seasons from 2003 until 2009, and suddenly–with a mere blink of the eye–the dynasty-caliber team was no more.

And being that it was an exhaustive overhaul of the team and of the organization, most–myself included–expected Indianapolis to spend at least a few seasons in the cellar of the AFC South. The only issue? Nobody seemed to relay that plan to Andrew Luck, who looked more like a seasoned veteran than he did a rookie in his first year as a pro.

Luck led the Colts to an 11-5 record in 2012, good for the fifth seed in the AFC. He broke Cam Newton’s rookie record for passing yards and, more importantly, tied the Super Bowl era record with seven game-winning drives in a single season.

Perhaps the most notable of those drives came in Week 13, when the Colts trailed the Lions 33-21 with 2:48 remaining and rallied to win, thanks in large part to Luck, who threw two touchdowns in that span, including the game-winner to Donnie Avery as time expired. Those final two minutes and 48 seconds at Ford Field were the moments that Luck officially announced to the rest of the football world that he had arrived.

As we all know, Luck and the Colts ultimately fell short in a Wild Card round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, but the rookie quarterback overcame all odds just to get his team to that point. On the season, Indianapolis ranked 26th in total defense, 22nd in rushing, and 26th in rush yards per attempt. And as if those weren’t bad enough of circumstances, Luck was without the aid of his head coach for most of the year, as Chuck Pagano spent months courageously battling Leukemia.

Think about that. An interim head coach, a bad running game, and a defense incapable of stopping anybody added up to an 11-win season. How? Andrew Luck, that’s how. At just 23 years old, he was given complete control of the offense and asked to do almost everything, and the Stanford graduate responded with nothing short of excellence.

Considering his situation, I’m not sure that Luck’s rookie season wasn’t the greatest rookie season that any quarterback has ever had. He should have been the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year, but that award inexplicably went to Robert Griffin III, who was assisted by a two-time Super Bowl champion head coach in Mike Shanahan, one of the league’s best young running backs in Alfred Morris, and a defense no worse than the one in Indy.

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When the 2013 season rolled around, my expectations for the Colts were sky-high, mainly because of Andrew Luck. If he could pull off what he pulled off as a rookie, I could only imagine Luck’s potential in his second season, when he would have more of an understanding of the offense and of opposing defenses.

Of course, Andrew validated every last bit of belief in him that I had. He cut his interceptions from 18 in 2012 to just nine this season and completed 60.2 percent of his passes after completing just 54 percent a year ago. The Colts again won 11 games, but it was a much more impressive 11-5 campaign than the one they had in 2012. Indy had victories over the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Denver Broncos–three of the four teams that have made it to Championship Sunday.

The season’s pinnacle, however, came in the first round of the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs. After trailing 38-10 in the third quarter, Luck–who threw three second half touchdown passes and scored another one on his own–helped the Colts complete the second-largest comeback in postseason history and win, 45-44.

After the improbable first round victory, I found myself expecting Andrew Luck to lead his team into Foxboro and beat Tom Brady’s New England Patriots. When that didn’t happen, I was disappointed, and I sulked about it for the better part of the next 24 hours before it hit me that I had absolutely nothing to be upset about.

With each accomplishment, Luck and his greatness caused me to become greedier and greedier, making me want more and more, even when he had already taken the Colts to places where they had no business being in the first place.

In retrospect, this season was just as impressive–if not more impressive–than last season was for Indianapolis. Despite losing 17 players to injured reserve, the Colts finished one win shy of an appearance in the AFC Championship Game and at times looked like one of the league’s very best teams, all because of one player: Andrew Luck.

Luck’s best tight end–Dwayne Allen–played less than three quarters before suffering a hip injury that caused him to miss the season, Luck lost his two best running backs–Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard–before Week 3, and, worst of all, Luck was without security blanket and All-Pro wide receiver Reggie Wayne for more than half of the season. The offense that he orchestrated relied heavily on no-name guys like Da’Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill, and Griff Whalen, and the second-year quarterback did everything behind one of the worst offensive lines in all of football.

No other quarterback–not even Tom Brady–did more with less than Luck this season. That’s not an attempt to take away from any of Brady’s accomplishments, but the Pats did have the league’s ninth best rushing attack and a very favorable schedule, compared to the Colts’ 20th-ranked rushing offense and brutal schedule that featured six games against playoff teams and another two against teams (the Dolphins and Cardinals) that weren’t eliminated from postseason contention until Week 17’s conclusion.

To be clear, I believe that Peyton Manning–who just produced the greatest regular-season any quarterback has ever had–should be the unanimous MVP. But I also believe that Luck deserves to finish second in the voting. I’m vehemently against the idea of giving the award to a running back or any skill position player–they just don’t have the same effect on a game that the quarterback does–so that rules out Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy. And, as I’ve already touched on, I maintain that what Luck did with his team was more impressive than what Brady did with the Patriots.

Even if you disagree that Luck should be the MVP runner-up, it’s impossible to deny the tremendous level of success that he reached this season. The Colts don’t have a top-tier roster, but every time I watched them play over the past four months, I felt they had a real chance to win, just because of Luck. He’s that good. Already.

And, because he’s so great at such a young stage in his career, I–along with most Indianapolis fans–have been spoiled by him. Never should I have expected the Colts to win last Saturday night in Foxboro. They were overmatched by a more physical, well-coached, and flat out better football team in the Patriots. Still, the Colts–despite some crucial missed calls, a few pivotal dropped passes, and two first half interceptions, one of which was Stanley Havili’s fault–had a chance to win up until the fourth quarter, mainly because Andrew Luck made play after play after play to keep them in the game.

In my opinion, Luck’s most telling moment of the night actually came after the loss, during his postgame interview. He was distraught. It became very apparent to me that he wasn’t just content on taking a relatively untalented football team to within one win of the AFC Championship Game. He wanted to win the Super Bowl this season, and it seemed like he almost expected to. He’ll spend the offseason being driven by that feeling of dejection, and Luck will return in 2014 a better quarterback, which is kind of scary in itself. The Colts, too, will return as a better, healthier, and more talented team in 2014, maybe even one good enough to win Super Bowl XLIX.

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Peyton Manning is my favorite athlete of all time, but as I reflect on these past two seasons, I couldn’t be happier that the Colts decided to go in a different direction from the aging star in order to center the franchise around Andrew Luck. I’ve been on record saying that I believe he has the potential to go down as the greatest quarterback ever. Two years into his career, I only feel better about that claim. No other quarterback in the history of the NFL–not Marino, not Montana, not Elway, not Manning, not Brady–could have achieved back-to-back 11-5 win seasons in their first two professional seasons with those Colts teams.

And aside from just winning football games, Luck has impressed me by displaying the full package of an elite quarterback. Unlike any other great at the position, there is no “but” with Andrew Luck. Brady and Manning are two of the best ever, but they’re both getting old and have never been able to run the ball effectively. Aaron Rodgers might be the most talented quarterback in the league, but he comes across as blame-deflecting and condescending, and doesn’t seem to be obsessed with the game. Drew Brees is the most statistically prolific quarterback in the league, but he struggles away from the Superdome. Eli Manning is the best road-playoff quarterback, but he’s inconsistent in the regular season and hasn’t been in the postseason since 2011.

With Luck, there’s really not a single negative that can be pointed out. He didn’t turn the ball over much this year, but when he did, he was able to show off an incredible short-term memory, as demonstrated in the playoff win over the Chiefs, when he threw three interceptions and recovered to account for four second half touchdowns en route to an inconceivable comeback victory. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he’s a physical freak. He has Ben Roethlisberger-like escapability in the pocket, and though he does not run with the football excessively, he does do so efficiently. He has some of the best late-game, fourth-quarter intangibles that I have ever seen, even at just 24 years of age. After he had seven game-winning drives as a rookie, Luck had four more this season, including one against the league’s best defense (Seattle) and one against Kansas City in the Wild Card round victory. And maybe most importantly of all, Luck is just another one of the guys on the team. He’ll never act as though he’s better than anyone else, and he’ll always take full blame when something goes wrong. Even though he’s infinitely more valuable than any of the other 52 players in Indy’s locker room, you would never know it by talking to him. His humility isn’t often discussed, but I believe it’s a huge asset to the team’s unbreakable chemistry.

Even Bill Belichick–the league’s best head coach–admitted that Luck has no weaknesses:

“He’s a really complete player. Great long-ball thrower. Very accurate. Has a good touch on short, intermediate passes. Reads defenses well. Does a good job checking plays at the line of scrimmage and making some of those adjustments. Active in the pocket. Hard guy to tackle. Hard guy to bring down. Good feet. Can scramble and run. Can scramble and buy time to throw. Has good vision down the field. Makes good decisions. There’s not really any weaknesses to his game.”

Am I implying that Luck is already the best quarterback in the NFL? No, I’m not. Even with his postseason struggles and at 37 years of age, I’ll still take Peyton Manning over anyone else. But within the next three years, and probably even sooner than that, Luck will hold the title as the league’s very best quarterback.

If you’re a Colts fan like I am, it’s important that you savor every last second of the Luck era, starting now. This team is not going to win the Super Bowl every year from here on out while they have Luck–hell, it’s possible that they won’t even win one with him–but, for the next 10 to 15 seasons, we know that the Colts will be one of the few legitimate contenders each season, just because of their quarterback. This is only the beginning of his legend.

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