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Andrew Luck: Football's version of Derek Jeter is still the NFL's best young quarterback

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As a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, I have had the privilege of following Derek Jeter’s career since his rookie season in 1996.

Jeter is, by far, the single athlete that I appreciate and admire most, in any sport.

Forget the five World Series championships and seven American League pennants that Jeter helped the Yankees win from 1996 through 2009. Forget Jeter’s 13 All-Star Game appearances. Forget his five Gold Glove awards. Forget the fact that the 2006 AL MVP award should have been his, not Justin Morneau’s.

No, Jeter’s accolades–though he has plenty–aren’t what have me in awe. What has impressed me most–and still impresses me most–about him are the intangibles, the aspects of his game that can’t be measured.

Jeter has a sixth sense on the diamond, allowing him to see plays develop before they actually do. It’s why he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. It’s why he has the ability to pull off the most improvised plays imaginable, such as the famous ‘flip’ play in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS. (For those less familiar with the Flip, as some like to call it, Jeter–running from shortstop–had the presence of mind to cut off an overthrown ball that was dribbling down the first base line, pick it up, and flip it to Jorge Posada at home plate to gun down Jeremy Giambi of the Oakland A’s.)

The play was, in my opinion, the perfect representation of Derek Jeter as a shortstop. Is he the quickest, the strongest, or the most skilled player at the position? No, no, and no. He is, however, the most intelligent shortstop that I’ve ever watched.

And, outside of Michael Jordan and maybe Joe Montana, Jeter is the greatest clutch performer in the history of sports. “Captain Clutch” is a lifetime .351 hitter in the World Series and a .308 hitter in postseason play. Whether it was his walk-off home run in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series or his sixth-inning, game-tying homer in Game 5 of the 2000 World Series, Jeter has always had a knack for producing when the Yankees need it most. It’s just what he does.

So, why exactly am I gushing about Derek Jeter’s greatness? Because one NFL quarterback reminds me very much of a young Derek Jeter. One NFL quarterback who has orchestrated no fewer than 11 game-winning drives in just two seasons as a pro. One NFL quarterback who, similarly to Jeet, is a consummate winner.

That quarterback, of course, is Andrew Luck.

I’ll admit it: Off the field, Luck and Jeter are nothing alike. Jeter has donned the cover of GQ Magazine; Luck is often ridiculed for his neck beard and for his overall appearance. It’s widely known that Jeter has dated multiple women over the years; Luck has been with the same girlfriend since high school. Jeter grew up in Michigan; Luck grew up in Texas.

But, just as pure athletes, I see irrefutable similarities between the two. Like Jeter did early in his career, Luck has quickly emerged as the most clutch–yes, most clutch–player in his respective sport. Sorry Tom Brady, sorry Drew Brees, and sorry Aaron Rodgers, but each of you has taken a back seat to the former Stanford quarterback.

As I noted earlier, Luck has manufactured 11 game-winning drives in just two NFL seasons. He had a Super Bowl era-record seven of them in his rookie season, including one against Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers and another against the Detroit Lions in which–after trailing 33-21 with 2:48 remaining–he threw two late-game touchdown passes to earn a 35-33 win.

This season, Luck had four more game-winning drives, one of which was against the NFL’s best defense and the eventual-Super Bowl XLVIII champions (the Seattle Seahawks) in Week 5. And, of course, his final and most memorable game-winning drive was against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round, when Luck led the Colts all the way back from down 38-10 early in the third quarter to win 45-44.

Time and time again throughout his first two seasons, Luck has been Jeteresque with his late-game heroics.

And also like the Yankee captain, the Colts’ signal-caller has that rare sixth sense, giving him the ability to see plays happen before anybody else can.

I, along with so many others, witnessed that sixth sense first hand during the Colts’ Wild Card round win over the Chiefs, when–with fewer than 11 minutes remaining and his team trailing 41-31–Luck made what I considered and still consider to be the play of the season.

With the ball at the Kansas City two yard-line, he handed off to running back Donald Brown, who quickly had the ball jarred loose by Eric Berry. Before anyone–myself included–had enough time to understand what had just transpired, the second-year quarterback picked up the ball and dove into the end zone, pulling his team to within three points.

If Luck doesn’t make that play, the Colts lose and are eliminated, just like the Yankees would have likely been eliminated had Jeter not made the “flip” play. The fumble-recovery touchdown was, in my opinion, Luck’s very own “flip” play.

I know it might seem like I’m paying him too high of a compliment, but in many ways, Andrew Luck is Derek Jeter. He’s just that special.

In fact, he’s so special that I have found myself becoming increasingly displeased throughout this week, as some NFL experts and many fans have begun to suggest that Russell Wilson–the Super Bowl XLVIII-winning quarterback–has now surpassed Luck as the best young quarterback in football.

Usually, I would take no issue with that type of praise for the most recent Super Bowl-winning quarterback. If you wanted to argue that Joe Flacco was the league’s best quarterback after last year’s Super Bowl XLVII, I wouldn’t have been able to deny it. If, after he beat Tom Brady with a game-winning drive on Super Bowl Sunday for the second time in four years, you had claimed that Eli Manning was the best of the best two years ago, I likely would have agreed.

But, sorry, the same cannot be said for Russell Wilson, who doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as one Andrew Luck.

I like Wilson–he has a great work ethic, he’s mature, and winning seems to be all that matters to him. But on a team with the NFL’s best defense and the league’s sixth-leading rusher in Marshawn Lynch, Wilson is a glorified game manager.

Over the final seven weeks of the season (including playoffs), Wilson never threw for more than 215 yards in a single game, and he averaged just 173 yards passing per contest. In the six games leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII, he fielded an average QBR (scale of 1 to 100) of just 33.3.

Even in the Super Bowl, when Wilson’s QBR was a near-perfect 88.1, his performance didn’t blow me away. After being awarded a 22-0 advantage almost instantly, he was never forced to play under any amount of pressure. He simply did what he had to do. And, as was the case throughout the season, “what he had to do” didn’t include anything extraordinary. 

I mean, seriously, do fans realize that Wilson was just 11-of-27 for 108 yards passing and an 11.5 QBR in a Week 16 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals? Do fans realize that in a Week 2 win against the San Francisco 49ers, Wilson was 8-of-19 for 142 yards passing and a 25.9 QBR? Do fans realize that Wilson completed only nine of 18 passes for 103 yards and a 25.9 QBR in the Seahawks’ Divisional round win over the New Orleans Saints?

It was the story of the season: Wilson piled up mediocre game after mediocre game, yet the Seahawks–because they have such a deadly defense–continued to also pile up win after win, making Russell’s individual performances mostly irrelevant.

Luck, unfortunately, doesn’t have that luxury. The Colts, who ranked 20th overall in both rushing and total defense in 2013, have consistently asked him carry a load that I’m not sure Wilson–or any of the other young quarterbacks–could handle.

That the Colts even made the playoffs was, to some degree, a miracle. During the season, Luck lost asset after asset and offensive weapon after offensive weapon to season-ending injuries, including his best playmaker and security blanket (Reggie Wayne), his two most talented running backs (Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw), and his tight end (Dwayne Allen). As a result, he spent much of the season throwing to two undrafted players (Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen) and one sixth-rounder (LaVon Brazill), and he did it all behind one of the more dreadful offensive lines in football.

Still, the Colts won 11 regular season games and were even able to beat three of the four teams–San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver–that played on Championship Sunday, and in those wins, Luck’s QBR’s were–in order–79.5, 80.4, and 65.4.

The Colts finished just one win shy of a trip to the AFC Championship Game, and if it weren’t for several questionable no-calls in the Divisional round loss to the New England Patriots, Andrew Luck and company could have potentially had a date with Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

Really? Luck came this close to the AFC Championship Game without Reggie Wayne, Vick Ballard, Dwayne Allen, or Ahmad Bradshaw, and with one of the league’s worst offensive lines? He did more with less than any other quarterback–yes, that’s including Tom Brady–in the league, and I still believe that he–not Brady, Jamaal Charles, or anyone else–deserved to finish second in the MVP voting, after Manning.

There’s simply no chance that–in a hypothetical world–Russell Wilson could have quarterbacked the 2013 Colts and did with them what Andrew Luck did.

When Luck and Wilson actually went head-to-head this season, in that Week 5 showdown, I thought it was very telling that–against all odds–the Colts’ quarterback severely outplayed the visiting quarterback. Luck threw for 229 yards to Wilson’s 210 yards passing; Luck had an 80.4 QBR to Wilson’s 67.1 QBR; and Luck led his offensive on the game-winning drive moments before Wilson threw the game-ending interception.

Advantage: Andrew Luck.

Again, I’m not–in any way–trying to diminish the accomplishments of Russell Wilson. He’s just not Andrew Luck. And, trust me Russell, that’s no crime.

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