March 8, 2012. Indianapolis. A teary-eyed Peyton Manning and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay hold a joint press conference to announce that Manning would be released by the team. His future in serious doubt due to neck surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season, Manning is left free to sign with any team—if he can prove that he's healthy enough to play again.
April 26, 2012. New York. Andrew Luck walks across the stage to meet commissioner Roger Goodell as the first overall pick in the draft and a new member of the Indianapolis Colts.
Quarterback past. Quarterback future.
The first pick of the 1998 NFL draft and the first pick of the 2012 NFL draft were linked together long before Luck was drafted to replace Manning in Indianapolis. It just so happens that the connecting tissue between these two is stronger than we all thought possible. Just look at the comparisons.
A father who played in the NFL? Check. A brilliant college career without a national championship? Check. Being called the best quarterback prospect since John Elway? Check.
That Luck and Manning—close to 14 years apart—would both be looked at as the saviors of Indianapolis football should be no surprise, given all their similarities. And that means no one should be surprised to see that Luck has stepped in for the future Hall of Famer and picked up right where he left off.
What makes the two blue-chip quarterback prospects alike? What makes them different? Manning was the perfect quarterback for the last 14 years, but Luck is viewed as the new mold from which all young passers are judged. Where are the differences?
Manning is probably the most prepared QB to enter the NFL draft in several years. ... He has had a storybook college career, and has been in a top level program with excellent coaching, and he has maturity and great intangibles to go along with his natural skills. ... He should be able to pick up the mental aspects of the game early on the NFL level, and should play very quickly. — Sports Illustrated, 1998
Manning could go down as the greatest quarterback of all time, depending on who you ask, but there is no doubting that he is one of the elite quarterbacks of any era. What's made Manning so great isn't arm strength or mobility, but his intelligence and vision on the field.
No other quarterback in the modern era has been asked to do as much as Manning does pre-snap. He's mocked for his hand-flapping and yelling before the snap, but we all stand back in awe as he changes the play call to a perfectly designed counter to the defense.
The natural talents and traits we look for in quarterbacks—arm strength, accuracy, footwork, size—Manning is surprisingly average in many of these areas.
He doesn't have the strongest arm, especially at age 37. His footwork is technically sound, but it's also slow, heavy and methodical. His accuracy is very good, but there have been better (think Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas). What separates Manning from other quarterbacks isn't physical ability. It's mental acuity.
Being the smartest guy on the field isn't always thought of in a brutal game like football, but Manning has taken his analytical approach to football and combined it with good physical traits. The result is as close to perfection at the pro level as many of us have ever seen.
Take the above quote and remove the name. Now it reads like a 2012 scouting report on Andrew Luck. The coaching, maturity, intangibles and natural skills are the comparable features of the two. However, when NFL scouts looked at Luck, they didn't see a carbon copy of Manning. In fact, many saw John Elway. And that's where these two differ.
Coming out of Stanford, Luck was given the highest grade for a prospect that I've ever awarded. He was Manning-esque before the snap in his ability to see the defense and almost know ahead of time what its plan was. He was given more responsibility than any quarterback in college—and more than some in the NFL—and handled it with poise and production. Hence the Manning comparisons.
What makes Luck unique, and what's likely to cause a shift in what scouts look for in a quarterback, is his athletic ability.
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Even compared with a great athlete like Cam Newton and a blue-chip prospect like Matthew Stafford, it's easy to see why Luck's athletic ability separates him from the pack. When you combine his mental ability, vision, accuracy and touch with raw athletic ability, you get a picture of what NFL scouts want in a quarterback today.
You get a total package with Luck. He's athletic enough to get outside the pocket and pick up yards, but he's smart enough to know when and where to run.
Unlike other athletic quarterbacks, he's not taking off and running at the first sign of trouble. In fact, he's doing the opposite by staying in the pocket or slightly rolling out to find passing windows. Luck is a passer first and foremost. And he's pretty good at that, to say the least.
Accuracy and touch don't show up on box scores or in fantasy football, so many fans miss them when watching the game. If so, they're missing what makes Luck as great as he is.
Take away the dropped passes by his receivers—a crazy seven percent of all attempts, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—and you have a quarterback completing over 70 percent of his passes this season. That's remarkable, considering he's played in just 22 games.
Perhaps the most amazing stat you can place on Luck's career so far is this: He has led nine game-winning drives in 22 games.
I'm not one to put a win/loss record on the quarterback alone, but game-winning drives are on the quarterback to execute, and Luck has done an amazing job there. That's one game-winning drive every 2.4 games. No other quarterback can even come close to comparing.
Luck, much like Manning coming out of Tennessee, is still not a completely finished product. That said, his ability and traits—plus what film study shows—backs up the claim that Luck is well on his way to becoming a top quarterback in the NFL.
Our hindsight scouting makes Manning out to be this perfect quarterback from day one, when in fact that's not true at all. He was a perfect quarterback prospect, but early in his career, he faced many of the same struggles that Luck has faced thus far. That doesn't diminish the greatness (realized and potential) in the two quarterbacks.
It's surprising, really, just how similar the two quarterbacks are in many ways. Neither has a super-strong arm. Neither is outspoken or attention-seeking. Both are crisp, technically sound passers. For the two best quarterback prospects of the last 30 years to be so similar, it shows that the grading scale for elite QBs is accurate.
Once Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees hang up their cleats, it will be Luck waiting in the wings to take the title as the best quarterback in the league. And he's ready for that title.