Fourteen years ago, when Peyton Manning played in his second home game as a member of the Indianapolis Colts, nearly 13,000 seats remained empty at what was then known as the RCA Dome. The Colts lost, and for the 12th time in their 15 seasons in the Midwest, they finished the year without a playoff berth.
Manning, of course, eventually solved all that, the performances on the field and the reception off it. He, the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana endured only one season out of the playoffs in the next dozen. The Colts have sold out 113 of their past 114 regular season and playoff games. Manning won four MVPs. The Colts won a Super Bowl. Together, they changed how a region felt about a sport.
“The good thing about Peyton was: He won the right way,” said Greg Ballard, an Indianapolis native and now the city’s mayor. “You can’t just win in Indiana. You have to win the right way with the right folks.”
Thursday night, the weight of expectations to win with a certain straightforward, Midwestern earnestness will be passed to the wide-smiling, architecture-loving son of an NFL quarterback. The Colts have the first pick in the NFL draft and have announced they will take Andrew Luck. The Stanford quarterback will be thrust into a virtually unprecedented situation, taking over for a legend who not only transformed a franchise but, to some degree, a city — and then was pushed out.
Since the Colts selected Manning with the first pick in the 1998 draft, 11 other quarterbacks have gone to 11 other franchises with the top overall choice. Some (Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford) have found varying degrees of success. Others (Tim Couch, JaMarcus Russell, David Carr) have been busts.
None, though, has encountered the circumstances that will confront Luck. Last month, the Colts released Manning, who signed with Denver. They could not have done so if they didn’t feel they had the perfect fit as his replacement.
“People always ask about pressure,” said Luck’s father, Oliver, a quarterback for the Houston Oilers for five years and now athletic director at West Virginia, his alma mater. “At the end of the day, there’s pressure on every quarterback playing in the National Football League. Unlike in physics, I’m not sure there are different degrees of pressure. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
That is the consensus among most who have evaluated Luck, who threw for 82 touchdowns and just 22 interceptions in 38 games at Stanford. In each of his final two years, he completed more than 70 percent of his passes. His strong, accurate arm, nimble feet and smarts have had NFL scouts raving.
Still, much of the buzz since late in the college football season surrounded Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who edged Luck for the 2011 Heisman Trophy and will be selected with the pick after him, by the Washington Redskins. Everything about Griffin — his smile, his personality, his athleticism — sparkles, so it was easy to formulate an intriguing pre-draft question: Should the Colts actually pass on Luck?
“Andrew Luck is, in my opinion. . . one of the best quarterbacks to come out,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. “You can go back to Manning. You can certainly go back, as I do, to [John] Elway. I think he has everything it takes.”
Luck, though, will arrive in a city that has known precious few quarterbacks, yet has come to expect a great deal from them. Indianapolis became an NFL city in 1984, when that infamous line of moving trucks left Baltimore under cover of night, packed with Colts equipment, and headed to the Midwest. The early list of quarterbacks — Mike Pagel, Jack Trudeau, Jeff George — didn’t help secure the team’s position in town, and it constantly seemed a candidate for another relocation.
In 1994, Indianapolis acquired Jim Harbaugh as its new quarterback. A year later, behind “Captain Comeback,” the Colts nearly went to the Super Bowl. Two years later, after a difficult 3-13 season, the Colts dealt Harbaugh to Baltimore so the path would be clear for Manning.
The story this time is similar, with the wrinkle that Harbaugh was the coach who lured Luck to Stanford, even though the Cardinal was coming off a 1-11 season and Harbaugh was entering his first year. “I told him, ‘Andrew, I think Jim can teach you a lot about playing quarterback,’ ” Oliver Luck said. “‘I’m not sure there’s anybody who can teach you as much.’ ”
Now, Luck will take those lessons learned from that old Indianapolis quarterback to Indianapolis himself.
“All three men are really of the same stripe,” said Bill Polian, the Colts’ general manager from 1998 until last season and the man who drafted Manning. “They’re all three great competitors. Andrew and Peyton are incredible preparation guys. They’re all hard workers. They’re all passionate about what they do. So I think he’ll fit in perfectly. He’s a worthy successor to those other two men.”
Luck was born, of all places, in Washington, D.C., when his parents were both fresh out of law school and working at District firms. The young family lived on Connecticut Avenue NW, but soon moved to Europe. They didn’t return to until Andrew was 11.
“I think kids who grow up overseas, and that includes military kids, realize there’s a big wide world out there,” Oliver Luck said. “You realize people do things differently. They have different mores, different customs, different languages obviously, different cultures. I do think it leads kids to be a little more tolerant, accepting and probably a little bit more inquisitive.”
Colts fans, concerned about the neck injury that kept Manning out all of 2011, long ago became inquisitive about Luck. “They’re talking about it all the time,” said Ballard, the mayor. Now, with the draft upon them, there is some trepidation. Can they really be transitioning to the next Peyton?
“I think most of the feeling that I have is kind of wait-and-see,” Ballard said. “But at the same time in the analysis, the similarities are almost eerie: former NFL quarterback as a father, good guy, smart guy, seems to be kind of down to earth. That’s what we’re hearing, but we’ll find out.”
For his part, Luck has evaluated, too. Long ago, as a kid in Frankfurt and London, Luck became intrigued with the design of sports stadiums. He majored in architectural design at Stanford. So he has thought some about the Colts’ facility, Lucas Oil Stadium, the stadium that Manning essentially built.
“He told me he liked it,” Oliver Luck said. “It really has some distinctive Indiana feel, kind of a barn feel. That’s cool. It reflects the values of the place.”
Thursday night, Andrew Luck will begin the process of learning more about those values. Colts fans hope he can reflect them as well as his predecessor did.