The Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck is pretty much the poster-boy of young quarterbacks in today’s NFL, with a Sports Illustrated cover to his credit, one that assures us by year’s end we’ll be acknowledging him as the best quarterback in football. I think Andrew Luck’s pretty good—in fact, I’d even make the compliment stronger and say I think he’s pretty tough. He’s competitive and he keeps his confidence up when things go wrong.
But is Andrew Luck really “all that”? This morning on First Take, ESPN’s Skip Bayless, who normally goes completely over-the-top on questions, asked one that was measured and reasonable and it summed up my thoughts perfectly—“why does this guy get a pass?”
Why, after the Colts lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 30-27 last night, does Luck get a pass from playing a subpar game at home and throwing an interception when his team was in position to kick a clinching field goal by going up ten points with five minutes left?
The answer is that the receiver, T.Y. Hilton was interfered with. He was, but since when his nuanced context ever mattered to the media? And Indy still got the ball back with a chance to win, but it was Nick Foles, not Luck, who was leading the game-winning drive.
This comes on top of Luck throwing a critical interception last week when his team was trying to rally from 24-0 down to beat the Denver Broncos. The Colts were in Bronco territory and an overthrow resulted in a pick.
The media reaction focused on Indy’s comeback in the first game—they ended up losing 31-24—and on the bad call last night. That’s not entirely unreasonable in either case, but are you telling me that other quarterbacks would get away with it? Colin Kaepernick is being taken to task for his three interceptions on Sunday night against the Chicago Bears. Why isn’t Luck?
Luck as a passer is rough around the edges. His short-to-intermediate range game can be boom or bust. He can throw a razor sharp dart one play, then overshoot or throw behind a receiver the next. It’s nothing incredibly alarming, especially at this stage in his career. And he throws a great deep ball (something I wonder why the Colts don’t utilize more often, but that’s a subject for another time).
In this regard, Luck is quite similar to Kaepernick. So why has the Indy quarterback been canonized, while the San Francisco signal-caller get constantly questioned?
If you watch quarterbacks enough, you realize that everything can be shaded in a certain direction. Was a shaky game the result of a bad offensive line or bad gameplan, or being forced into bad situations by your defense? Was a good game because you had all day to throw, because the defense had to respect the run and because your receivers bailed you out a couple times?
As a fan of the Washington Redskins, I’ve spent most of the last year-plus noting that everything about another one of Luck’s contemporaries, the now-fallen Robert Griffin III, had everything shaded against him. He could drop 45 points on the Bears, drop 27 on the Vikings and have a game-tying touchdown dropped in the end zone, complete 24/32 against the Giants with five easy passes dropped, and still get crushed in the media because his team lost.
So why isn’t Luck being taken to task the same way? Why aren’t people asking more about his seven interceptions in the playoffs? He gets rightful praise for leading the Colts from 38-10 down to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round, but has anyone bothered to remember that it was Luck’s three interceptions that helped dig the hole to begin with? Or that he threw four more picks in a winnable game the next week in New England? Maybe I’m overly sensitive about RG3, but he never got this kind of benefit of the doubt.
Colts fans are now laughing and saying that Luck has gone 11-5 as a starter each of the first two years while Griffin went 9-6 his rookie year and then 3-10 his second. Okay, fine. Let’s move to another one of the quarterbacks in the draft class of 2012—Russell Wilson. If you believe quarterbacks are the sole reason for wins and losses and that’s how to measure them, then Wilson is indisputably the best quarterback to come out of that draft.
The media does sing Wilson’s praises, but primarily for his ability as a game-manager. Where’s his SI cover announcing him as The Next Great Thing?
There’s a hidden subtext in all this that I want to dispel. Even though I’ve just argued on behalf of three quarterbacks who are racial minorities, while Luck is white, I’m not attempting to secretly imply anything. I think the reason is something different, and it’s what I call the Insanity Of 2011.
It was Luck’s senior year at Stanford and he was considered the top pick in the NFL draft. Nothing wrong with that—I agreed with it then, and in spite of all I’ve written here, I agree with it now. Even though my heart was kind of with RG3 when he was at Baylor, and it became my full-fledged obsession when he became a Redskin, there was never any doubting Luck’s physical build and his toughness. He was the best investment in the draft.
But the media hype went far beyond that. Multiple NFL teams, including the Colts, were rumored to be tanking their seasons for the chance to get Luck. This wasn’t a couple teams at 3-12 in the last week of the season and one of them deciding to tank. This was anywhere from five to six teams rumored to be deciding as early as October to go in the tank for the first overall pick.
Remember the “Suck For Luck” campaigns that fans started. It was all enabled by pundits, like ESPN’s self-proclaimed draft expert Mel Kiper, leading the charge on Luck as “the best quarterback in a generation.”
How big is that? Well, I’m in my early forties, and I’ve seen the entire careers of Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Jim Kelly. I probably forgot a couple in there, and we might as well tack on Aaron Rodgers for good measure. Even if you use a more narrow definition of “generation” and restrict to a 25-year window, that still includes the complete careers of Favre, Peyton, Brady and of course Rodgers.
That was the standard that accompanied Andrew Luck into the NFL. And it’s why I believe he gets a pass from the same sort of rigorous scrutiny that other quarterbacks face. There’s too many people in the sports media who have a vested interest in propping him up, lest they admit that things got out of control in the Insanity Of ’11.
Which brings us to what I consider the million-dollar question. It’s not whether Andrew Luck was worthy of being the #1 pick in the NFL draft. It’s whether he was so irreplaceable, that it was absolutely necessary for the Indianapolis Colts to take one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time—the most important man in the history of their franchise, who had made pro football relevant in an area where there was a lack of interest (I went to school in Indiana from 1989-92 and the Bears were significantly more popular then). Was it really necessary to take this man and kick him to the curb, so Luck could get in a Colts uniform.
Peyton Manning is now on his third great year in Denver. Yes, the Colts let him walk when there was uncertainty about his neck. But is his comeback really all that shocking? And again, is Luck so far and above the standard quarterback, that the Colts couldn’t have given Manning a chance in 2012 and just replaced him the following spring if it didn’t work.
The Colts have given up at least two MVP-caliber seasons and one Super Bowl trip to get Andrew Luck. And that price tag is still growing. And you thought the Redskins gave up a lot to get RG3. We just dealt a couple draft picks.
So there’s no misunderstanding my feelings about Luck as a football player, I would agree with the following proposition—he’s tough, he throws a good deep ball, he keeps his head in the game, his mobile and physical, he’s better than either Eli Manning or Joe Flacco have been at their best, and he’s well on his way to becoming the next Ben Roethlisberger—a little ragged at times, but clutch and someone you can with if the right pieces are in place. And yes, that he’s still got the time to get even higher.
That’s high praise. That’s the standard I measure Andrew Luck the football player. But as to his enablers in the media, the standard that has to be applied to them is the one I’ve asked in this column—was he worth trading two MVP-caliber seasons, a Super Bowl trip, possibly more on both counts, plus the immense intangible value that having Peyton Manning retire as a Colt would have meant to the fan base?
Not if he’s just another pretty good quarterback. Those come out every year. Only if he’s a generation standard-bearer. I don’t see that yet, and it’s time for the media to hold their Anointed One to the same standards they’ve applied to those of whom less was expected.
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