INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts have charged Andrew Luck, the top selection in the 2012 NFL draft, with the monumental task of leading their transition from the Peyton Manning era, which included Manning’s Hall of Fame-caliber career and a Super Bowl victory.
On Saturday, the football world gets to see which of these supremely talented athletes has taken the lead in resurrecting a once-proud franchise that has fallen on hard times, when the Colts and Redskins meet in a preseason game at FedEx Field. It is the first meeting between quarterbacks who will forever be linked.
“You realize that’s the nature of the beast, nature of playing quarterback, nature of being drafted 1-2 at any position in any sport,” Luck said Wednesday. “It’s not too hard not to get caught up in it. We have much bigger things to worry about.”
Yet while Griffin is seemingly everywhere, endorsing everything, Luck has yet to star in his first commercial as a professional. He is considered the surest quarterback prospect in more than a decade, but his efficient throws, superb footwork and cerebral approach to the game often draw a ho-hum response — a marked contrast to the Griffin mania in Washington.
And the Colts, without Manning, haven’t exactly been the talk of the NFL after a 2-14 record in 2011. ESPN reported that the photogenic Griffin currently has the second-best selling jersey in the NFL, while Luck is No. 4.
Luck’s matter-of-fact, even-keeled, wise-beyond-his-years manner doesn’t make for highlight sound bites.
“He came in that way,” first-year Colts Coach Chuck Pagano said. “And that’s the way he’s wired. That’s just in his DNA. . . . He doesn’t let a lot of the outside distractions, whatever they may be, affect his preparation.
“He’s just a really mature kid.”
It didn’t take long for teammates to follow their new leader. Luck’s seriousness about the job won over the veterans. His skill spoke for itself. Picking up the tab at Buffalo Wild Wings during a training camp off-day didn’t hurt.
Then Luck quickly made his bones during his first two preseason games. He was nearly perfect in a 38-3 preseason-opening victory over the St. Louis Rams, going 10 for 16 with 188 yards and two touchdowns, including a 63-yard touchdown on his first throw of the game. Three of the incomplete passes were drops. (Manning, coincidentally, threw a touchdown on his first NFL preseason pass.)
Luck’s second game presented a bit more adversity. He threw two interceptions, including one that defensive back Ike Taylor returned 49 yards for a touchdown, in a 26-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The rookie responded each time with scoring drives and finished the day 16 for 25 for 175 yards and a rushing touchdown.
“It goes to show what kind of quarterback we have,” Colts center Samson Satele said. “He’s not a rookie. He’s a grown man. He made a couple errors up here and there and came right back and put 17 points right back up.
“The kid has so much pressure not only because of the No. 1 pick, but because of where he’s at and what job he took over. He’s handling it very well.”
Throngs of skeptical fans have warmed to No. 12, though No. 18 Manning jerseys still are easy to find on the streets of Indianapolis and were prevalent in the stands during the preseason opener. It’s not easy to say goodbye to a future Hall of Famer.
“There was a great deal of apprehension,” said John Michael Vincent, radio host on ESPN 1070 in Indianapolis. “That first preseason game against the Rams was so helpful to this market because it was a great first impression for Andrew Luck to the fans around here.
“Until they saw it in the preseason, some did not recognize how lucky spanning these eras will ultimately be.”
Despite his strong start, Luck is the first to admit he still has plenty to improve. He must continue to master the offense and be more consistent on throws, especially deep down the field. Rookie running back Vic Ballard said he sits back in practice and waits for the quarterback to do something new every day. Pagano said nothing about Luck surprises him anymore.
Coby Fleener, Luck’s tight end at Stanford and now a teammate on the Colts, has seen this all before. He watched Luck go through the Heisman expectations, his selection as the top draft choice and the comparisons to Manning and Griffin.
“I’m constantly in awe of how well he handles situations,” Fleener said. “He’s been put in a spot where there’s a lot of outside drama that people want to impose on a situation. In reality, he understands that his job is to play football to the best of his abilities.”
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