Across the Indianapolis Colts' lost autumn of 2011, with Peyton Manning recovering from spinal fusion surgery and his ability to return to an elite level very much in doubt, owner Jim Irsay zeroed in on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
Indy was en route to a 2-14 season and with it the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft. The decision was high stakes. Do you gamble on the old franchise quarterback returning to glory or a new one ever reaching it in the first place?
Luck could throw. He could run. He could lead. He was smart. He was tough. He was as close to a can't-miss prospect as the league has seen. He was the son of a former NFL quarterback (Oliver) and was coached for three years by a former NFL quarterback (Jim Harbaugh).
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"Guys like that come along so rarely," Irsay told Yahoo Sports as early as October of that season, discussing both Manning and Luck, the wheels already spinning.
There were just a few things no one could measure.
Could Luck handle the pressure of replacing a legend? And if, yes, what if that legend returned to greatness with another team, offering a weekly reminder to players and fans back in Indianapolis of what they were missing, what they had let go?
What no one could imagine was the possibility that Manning might not only return to form, but actually be better than ever – as he's been this season in Denver. Or, to take even further, to play the position better than anyone has ever played it.
What kind of a young player could handle that?
As it turns out, Andrew Luck.
Luck's ability to play immediately at a high level, both in Manning's considerable shadow and under the constant reminders of an epic season thus far, is one of his most important attributes. This isn't just replacing the legend. It's replacing the legend who is now an even bigger legend. Even good, self-confident NFL quarterbacks would crumble in such situations.
Maybe they'd press too hard, doubt too much, bristle at the talk of the old icon.
Luck just keeps smiling and slinging.
The Colts are 4-1 after a dramatic 34-28 victory over Seattle on Sunday that would have gotten a lot more attention if not for Denver's dramatic 51-48 victory over Dallas that pushed the Broncos to 5-0.
And that's the point, the two teams and two quarterbacks are inevitably linked. And if you're being compared, in any way, to Manning and the Broncos right now, it probably won't turn out well.
Consider that Luck threw for 229 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. Nice line, except Manning threw for 414 and four (and he rushed for another).
Yet it hardly matters. No one compares to what Manning is doing. Not a current player, not even someone in the Hall of Fame. He has thrown 20 touchdowns against one interception and done it by playing the game with an awareness and intelligence that is unfathomable.
1-yard naked bootleg that he decided to attempt only a split-second before the snap he noticed a weakness in the Cowboys' defensive alignment.Consider the touchdown Manning ran in against Dallas. It was a
"As soon as we brought Julius [Thomas] in motion, the guy covered him, went with him," Manning said. "I kind of said, 'Well, that's a good look.' "
When the ball was hiked, he further saw everyone shift to his right to follow the flow of blocking and the running back behind him. Instead of going that way and handing off as the play called for, he tucked the ball in and rolled to his left untouched. His teammates were as surprised as the Cowboys. No one knew it was coming.
It's the kind of play and decision almost no one makes; not even Peyton when he was in his second year.
Yet what Manning is doing out in Denver doesn't appear to be affecting Luck in the least. It's just a side story. It doesn't hover over the franchise. It doesn't force its way into every discussion.
Luck is completing 62.2 percent of his passes and has seven touchdowns against two picks. It's not Manning-esque but it's more than good enough – in their last 16 regular-season games, the Colts are 13-3.
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Save for a small but vocal crew of Colts fans who still wish it had the old guy back, Luck's poise and play has made this trade a win-win, made it all make sense. Not for a second does Indianapolis have to explain, let alone apologize, for letting Peyton walk out the door for zero compensation.
It's helpful, especially when Manning's Oct. 20 return to Lucas Oil Stadium is sure to dominate national discussion.
The flip side for the Colts is that Manning is 37 while Luck is just 24. Check back in 2016 and there is no debate. Plus Luck continues to get better. He already has nine game-winning fourth quarter or overtime touchdown drives in his career, including one against the Seahawks.
"He just wills this team to victory,'' Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "He's able to stick to the plan. It doesn't matter what the score is, what the situation is … we can jump on his shoulders. We're again, very, very fortunate to have him … he's unbelievable."
So unbelievable, that even as the man he replaced continues to deliver a stretch of play as unbelievable as we've ever seen, the Colts are happy to be Andrew Luck's team right now.
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