INDIANAPOLIS – Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts make their debut this Sunday, and if that seems like putting the rook before the horse, get used to the order.
When Colts owner Jim Irsay decided to do the previously unthinkable and part ways with Peyton Manning, this team became Luck's. Luck has his superiors, of course, in Irsay, general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano, but NFL teams revolve around their quarterbacks. As Luck goes, so the Colts will go.
Here's the question, a few days before the 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff in Chicago's Soldier Field: How ready is Luck to take the reins?
Most people answer with a version of this analysis from Colts defensive end Cory Redding:
“There is no doubt in my mind that this kid is everything that was (written) about him, talked about him, and said about him in the past months,” Redding said. “I see him make unbelievable throws in practice, unbelievable line checks, getting the command of that huddle, taking a leadership role every single day with the guys. Seeing that from a young guy, a rookie like him, the sky's the limit.”
Pagano has emerged as a straight-forward, tell-it-like-it-is breath of fresh air as Colts coach. He explains decisions. He talks about injuries. He points out successes and failures with bluntness.
Pagano won't label Luck as perfect, but neither will he temper the enthusiasm he has over starting his head coaching career with Luck at quarterback.
“I can't wait to see him perform again, along with everybody else,” Pagano said. “So I guess I'm excited and anxious, probably like he is, to correct some of the mistakes that he's made in the preseason and in the last ball game. So I think we're all excited to see him when it really counts.”
It counts Sunday. It counts as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and the Bears defense tries to throw aggression and game plan at Luck with a zest that he hasn't encountered during the preseason. They'll want to baptize him with fire. They'll want to leave their mark on him, figuratively and literally.
Colts center Samson Satale joked that all rookies face a welcome-to-the NFL moment this week: “After that first hit,” Satele said, “they'll know it's not preseason anymore.”
Luck mentioned being taken aback for a second watching film, studying Peppers and Urlacher and guys he watched while still in high school. That's the rookie in him. The good thing for the Colts is that there doesn't seem to be all that much rookie in him.
“I realize I can't go out in awe of these guys,” Luck said. “I watched them growing up. But I'm not trying to get autographs from them, I'm trying to win a game.”
Luck appears ready, taking his preseason performance into account. He put up some stats, completing 41 of 66 passes for 522 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
When judging Luck on Opening Day, to determine if this preseason has been sufficient to prepare him to lead the Colts, there are going to be a few areas to watch. We'll judge by his pass completions, his touchdowns, his interceptions and how those reflect his game-time decision making.
Those inside the Colts offense will assess other areas, more subtle indications of his effectiveness. Pagano points to third-down situations, when opposing teams will be shifting personnel, showing different blitzes, giving Luck more mental gymnastics than he had at Stanford in his toughest days.
Luck doesn't pretend to know it all yet, which is another indication of his maturity as a first-year player.
“(The toughest part) so far is the breadth of protection, the different types of protection – drop-back, play-action, nakeds, boots, whatever. We didn't have that many in college,” Luck said.
In almost all other areas, Luck has shown he's ahead of the average rookie. He should be, of course. That's why he was the No.1 pick in the draft. But there's no way to know for sure until a player is thrown into the fire.
The hints are obvious, Satele said. Satele pointed to the preseason game against the Steelers, when Luck threw an early “pick-six” and the Colts fell behind 14-0.
Frustrated but undeterred, Luck led the Colts to three scores and a 17-14 halftime lead.
“He's poised, he's a leader,” Satele said. “He came in, he wasn't being a rookie. He wasn't acting like a rookie. He was acting like a vet. For us, that's key – having a confident quarterback.”
Luck compared this week to his freshman year at Stanford, awaiting his first college game. He remembers not being able to sleep the night before. He says that he expects he'll get more rest before his first regular-season start, simply because he was able to play in the preseason as a preview. He also says – and this should make Colts fans happy – he knows this offense better than he did Stanford's his first game.
“The kid expects a lot of himself,” Pagano said. “He'd be the first one to tell you he expects high standards and expects to play well.”
Luck will make mistakes, Pagano cautions, like any other young player.
Is he ready for Sunday? After a couple more days of game planning and preparation, he'll be as ready as he can possibly be.
It's Step 1 of making this Andrew Luck's team.
“This kid is going to do great things, trust me,” Redding said. “Mark my words. The kid is going to do great things for us.”
Greatness is expected whether Luck is ready or not. I'm with the majority in thinking he's much more ready than not.