Indianapolis Colts fans better hope Andrew Luck doesn’t follow the NBA too closely, because if the 22-year-old rookie quarterback has any idea what LeBron James went through during his grueling nine-year journey from prospect to champion that finally ended last month, part of him just has to be secretly dreading the profession he’s chosen right about now.
Luck is the most hyped sports phenom to hit America since James himself, and just like James, Luck will be starting his career this fall with expectations of historic greatness underscoring every move he makes.
The difference? Well besides the fact James had the luxury of knowing he could always just say “screw it” and form a super team with the All-Stars of his choosing one day if things didn’t work out, Luck must also deal with the added pressure of having to follow in the cleat-steps of one of the greatest players in the history of his sport: Peyton Manning.
Luck isn’t just following Manning, however, he’s replacing him. There’s a difference. It’s not like Andrew Luck just happened to be the next guy to play quarterback for the Colts or anything, he was hand-picked to become Manning’s heir. That’s right, Peyton Manning: the Super Bowl champion All-Pro quarterback who can’t stretch his arms in the morning without throwing a touchdown pass.
By drafting Luck at No. 1, wooing the quarterback for as long as they did and releasing Manning after 14 seasons of round-the-clock excellence in order to make room for him, Indy basically just said to this kid, “You’re just as good as Peyton Manning was, right?”
Can Luck pull it off? Of course he can, but only with focus, discipline and a whole lot of, well, luck, and only if he fully understands right now just what he’s up against.
Here’s a subtle reminder in case he forgot:
Andrew Luck is still nothing but a 22-year-old rookie at this point, so as tempting as it may be to go ahead and start speculating now about just how epic a career the nation’s best prospect is going to have, common sense (and about 100 other former No. 1 picks who never amounted to anything) tells us we should probably start with something small.
Why don’t we first just figure out if the guy can even show up? Fair enough?
Peyton Manning sure knew how to show up, that much is clear after the 1998 No. 1 draft pick started 227 consecutive games before finally succumbing to a neck injury last fall, and if Andrew Luck expects to leave a mark on the football world anywhere near as impressive as No. 18 did, his attendance record better be pretty darn impeccable in its own right to even have a chance.
Luck does get to start his streak on day one, just like Manning, and with all the other team needs Indy must address in the near term, he won’t be facing any competition for the role anytime soon. But that’s where the external forces at play in this quest immediately stop working in Luck’s favor.
All he has to do next is keep performing the hardest job in sports at an elite level for a decade straight without getting injured, losing his cool or missing a single game for any reason, valid or not.
If he’s able to pull it off, he’ll surpass John Elway, Dan Marino and countless other established NFL legends along the way, and in the process will strengthen the case for why his name belongs in the same conversation as just those very players.
If he can’t, however, his failure to do so will always represent a key disparity between himself and Manning, and when you consider how much help Luck already needs just to prove he’s worthy of such a comparison in the first place, that failure may ultimately make this endeavor only that much harder to complete.
Who cares how good Luck is on the field, after all, if the time he ends up spending there is fleeting, sporadic or both?
Andrew Luck better not plan on becoming a snowbird now that he lives in Indianapolis, because if the Colts’ new quarterback has any chance at recreating the success of Peyton Manning, his winters will be pretty much spoken for from this point forward.
Manning’s name has been synonymous with the playoffs for virtually his entire career. His first berth took place in only his second year as a pro, and before sitting out last season he’d only missed the annual tournament in two of his 13 attempts.
His performances after getting there certainly varied, resulting in three AFC championship appearances, two Super Bowl appearances and seven heartbreaking one-and-done flameouts, but his presence was never in question.
Whatever it took to get the Colts to the postseason, this guy was going to do it, and when you consider how legitimate a chance any playoff team has of winning it all each year just because they reached that point, there’s not much else a fan base can ask for when it comes to evaluating star players.
Even though it will take a total team effort for the Colts to again become a postseason mainstay, then, that return must become a long-term priority for Luck and will become a measuring stick for his success at some point whether he realizes it now or not.
Luck could reach his potential, develop into a great quarterback and end up breaking every record ever set for all it matters—if he isn’t putting his team in position to win a title year in and year out, he’s no Peyton Manning and that’s that.
When Peyton Manning threw for a career high 49 touchdown passes in 2004, he broke a 20-year-old single season record that until then had only been seriously threatened a handful of times.
Fortunately for Luck, however, that record has not only since been broken (the Patriots’ Tom Brady threw for 50 in 2007), it’s in danger of being surpassed pretty much every season now in an era of NFL football more quarterback-friendly than any before it.
Franchise quarterbacks dominate today’s NFL and their share of the offensive load has only expanded in recent years as a result. Four of the only eight quarterback seasons with over 40 touchdown passes ever have taken place in just the last five years, for example, while league-wide the five most productive seasons in terms of total touchdown passes have all occurred in the last decade.
Better yet, while those trends definitely bode well for Luck’s chances in chasing Manning’s 49, the truth is a quarterback this sufficiently talented may not even need any help to begin with; Luck did throw more than 80 touchdown passes in three seasons with Stanford, after all, breaking multiple school records once held by John Elway in the process, and he did it with an offense that sent only one wide receiver to the pros during that entire span.
Throwing 49 touchdown passes in 16 games will always constitute a monumental achievement, and even if Andrew Luck does become the outstanding player his scouting report suggests he will it’s still entirely possible he never notches a single-season total quite that high.
Then again, when you consider all the other remarkable things Peyton Manning did during his time in Indianapolis, how could Luck not designate this former record as an obvious benchmark to target?
Finally, a measurable objective Andrew Luck can strive for that won’t necessarily require 10 years of extremely productive, mistake-free football in order to obtain it!
Much of Peyton Manning’s greatness can really only be appreciated, after all, when viewed over a long-term scale. It’s not just that Manning was so good, it’s that he was so historically good for such a long time and that so few quarterbacks have ever been able to sustain the level of success he’s had for nearly as long.
For a guy like Luck who now has to try and pick up where Manning left off, this must make the challenge he faces only that much more overwhelming; Luck isn’t just being asked to develop into a franchise quarterback here, he’s expected to excel at his position for 10-15 years straight, and all before he’s even thrown his first pass!
Even if Luck does feel intimidated by that pressure, however, a prospect this polished should at least be able to string together a couple of memorable performances at some point, right?
Perfect games aren’t exactly common for NFL quarterbacks, but they do happen, and in case you hadn’t figured it out already, the four Peyton Manning has completed so far are more than anyone in history.
History so far, however, does not include Andrew Luck.
To be considered a perfect game, an NFL quarterback must throw at least 10 passes and complete at least 77.5 percent of them while averaging at least 12.5 yards per attempt and converting at least 11.875 percent of them into touchdowns. He can’t throw any interceptions either.
In college, Luck completed more than 77.5 percent of his passes in five out of 38 games. He met the strangely specific touchdown ratio seven times and he finished 19 career games without throwing a pick.
Obviously there’s no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to the NFL, but a record that efficient does at least prove Indy’s new starting quarterback has the potential to dominate any game in which he plays and very well may end up joining this elusive list at some point down the road.
Did we mention the last guy did it four times (in a span of just four seasons, to boot)?
Peyton Manning may have won just one Super Bowl with Indianapolis, but the individual accolades he earned during his time there are as substantial as any player before him.
His eight All-Pro selections are particularly impressive (five first-team and three second-team), and not just because they illustrate how long his dominant run lasted, either. Those selections represent a key distinction between Manning and many all-time great quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Brett Favre, John Elway, and even Johnny Unitas, none of whom made more than six All-Pro teams during their own careers.
Dan Marino is the only legendary quarterback that’s made as many All-Pro teams as Manning, in fact, and if Peyton can put together just one more near-perfect season (like he always does) before his time runs outs, he may end up holding this honor all by himself.
Unfortunately for Luck, however, it’s outlandish honors just like this that make following Peyton Manning such a laughably inconceivable notion in the first place, and while few would be surprised if Luck did end up appearing on the All-Pro roster every year from this point forward, it’s downright foolish for a rookie to set a goal this lofty so ridiculously early in his career.
And yet, here we are.
Andrew Luck is no ordinary rookie, you see, and Peyton Manning, for what it’s worth, is no ordinary predecessor either. Luck would need to set his sights absurdly high anyway just to live up to the hype of being a consensus No. 1 draft pick, and by simultaneously trying to replace a future Hall-of-Famer, it’s only appropriate those sights elevate even higher.
Manning won one Super Bowl? Luck should shoot for two. 400 touchdown passes? Luck should go for 500. Eight All-Pro selections?
Why not make it 10?
One surefire way Luck can convince Colts fans he’s worthy of following his legendary predecessor is to match the single greatest accomplishment on Manning’s resume to date: be officially recognized as the best player in the league on four separate occasions.
Fortunately, even though that staggering achievement represents an all-time record, Luck does have a huge advantage in this pursuit by entering the league at a time when offensive production is generated almost exclusively through the arms of quarterbacks.
This is not 1998 anymore, when Manning was a rookie and 4,000-yard passing seasons were still something to brag about. It’s 2012, an era when simply looking at a quarterback the wrong way can trigger a 15-yard penalty and when pretty much every team has an indefensible freak of nature nestled somewhere on its roster just waiting for someone to toss him the ball.
Three of the only five 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history took place just last year (produced by Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford), for example, while each of the last five MVP winners have been quarterbacks, the longest streak for a single position since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
Winning multiple MVP awards will never be easy, everybody knows that, but with all the changes in recent years from the rulebook to the talent pool to the way the game is played, the opportunity for an elite quarterback to do so today is greater than ever before.
Luck just better hope Manning isn’t able to capitalize on those same advantages himself during his encore performance in Denver this season, otherwise he may end up padding his lead so comfortably no one will be able to catch him.
If that happens, Luck's whole endeavor might just become a lost cause.
It’s time for a reality check because, let’s be honest, Andrew Luck’s career is completely separate from Peyton Manning’s and how the two compare is, for all practical purposes, completely meaningless.
Just because there’s no real need for Andrew Luck to live up to Peyton Manning does not mean the quarterback should simply disregard the pressure to do so, however, because whether legitimate or not that pressure does still exist and whether accomplished or not, the goals Luck may end up setting for himself as a result could prove very beneficial to the rookie’s development as a pro.
What better player to be forced to emulate, after all, than the amazing Peyton Manning?
Manning laid the blueprint for how to go from No. 1 draft pick to Super Bowl MVP and he did it with passion, dedication and class. That’s the real reason Luck should be idolizing this guy right now, not just because they both happened to be drafted by the same team.
Manning’s impact on the game extends far beyond setting examples, however, and as long we’re keeping it real, the sad truth is that impact may have extended so far Luck will never be able to match him.
Manning changed the game forever. He proved that if you find a genuine franchise quarterback and simply give him the weapons he needs to score, nothing else matters. Never before has a team been so equally dominate and one-dimensional as the Indianapolis Colts were under Manning, and no team in the league failed to take notice while it was happening either.
Thanks to his success, the NFL hierarchy is now determined almost entirely by quarterbacks (seven of the top 10 passing offenses last season made the playoffs compared to only four top 10 defenses) and guys like Matt Flynn and Kevin Kolb end up landing fat paychecks pretty much every offseason now just because they play the right position. Today’s NFL is a quarterback’s league, and we all have Peyton Manning to thank for it.
Does Andrew Luck really have the opportunity to leave a legacy that powerful?
Sure he’s more mobile than Manning and yes, his team does appear intent on making sure he has all the help he needs to be successful right from day one, but in terms of literally changing the way NFL teams are built—probably forever—that very well may be the one act Peyton Manning performed that is just too tough for anyone to follow.
Not that anyone should be feeling sorry for Andrew Luck these days. Aside from the $24 million contract he’s expected to sign any day now, Luck can also bask in knowing by the time LeBron James was his age, he’d already been a household name living under the public microscope for a good five years straight.
As far as LeBron is concerned, Luck’s whole career is a walk in the park.