The emotional press conference announcing the parting of the ways between the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning Wednesday has all but eliminated any shadow of a doubt that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck will be the first pick in this April's NFL draft, and much like Manning in 1998 it appears Luck will be the starting quarterback for the Colts in his first game in the National Football League.
Luck has been called by many pundits the best quarterback prospect to enter the NFL since Manning, and many scouts have been effusive in their praise of Luck's "pro readiness," including the NFL Network's Gil Brandt, who recently told the Indianapolis Star that Luck may well be even more ready for football's biggest stage than Manning was entering the NFL.
"I don't know how you can be more ready for an NFL football team than Andrew Luck is right now. I think he's more prepared than Peyton was (his rookie year in 1998). Andrew is totally prepared for this," Brandt said.
These comments are eerily similar to some made by former Colts executive Bill Polian, who spoke to USA Today about the Indianapolis Colts' decision in 1998 to select Manning with the first pick overall over quarterback Ryan Leaf, which turned out to be one of the wisest choices in NFL draft history.
The intangible part, that was Peyton by a very wide margin. But I have to admit I had some arm-strength concerns, which turned out to be incorrect, because [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore and I stood together at his workout and were astonished at his arm strength.
However, while the Colts braintrust turned out to be spot-on and Manning went on to a Hall of Fame career, many folks conveniently forget Manning's rookie season was anything but spectacular, as he struggled mightily behind a bad offensive line, posted a passer rating of just over 70 and went on to throw a career-high 28 interceptions as the Colts lurched to a 3-13 record.
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The team that Luck will inherit may actually be worse than what Manning walked into in 1998, as at least Manning had wide receiver Marvin Harrison to throw to while Luck will have the same offensive line troubles and may well see the Colts top two wideouts from a season ago, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, depart in free agency before the draft even gets here.
A rough rookie campaign for Luck could actually be a blessing in disguise for the Colts, as the last time this happened the Colts rebounded quickly, trading running back Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams for two draft picks prior to the 1999 draft and using the fourth overall selection to acquire running back Edgerrin James en route to going 13-3 and winning the AFC East that season.
Both Andrew Luck and Indianapolis fans had better hope the Colts can complete this turnaround as quickly as they did the last one, as it appears that the 2012 season may be more about how Luck handles on-field struggles and off-field comparisons to the legend he's replacing than it will be about Luck getting to practice post-victory interviews.