Indianapolis — This is how greatness begins. It starts over a crackly headset, with a play that should have never worked, thrown by a quarterback beginning to unfurl as a legend.
After a disastrous start, Andrew Luck erupted in the second half against Kansas City but his Colts were still trailing by six points in the fourth quarter. It was first down at the Colts' 36 when a timeout was called. A discussion ensued between Luck and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton—Hamilton on his headset and Luck still on the field listening on his. They talked about options and Luck was given several different plays, each a potential counter to what Kansas City might do.
Then came this pivotal sentence from Hamilton.
"You okay with T.Y. on the post?" Hamilton asked Luck.
Luck looked over to the sideline where Hamilton stands during the game. Luck didn't say a word. He smiled and shook his head yes. He loved it.
Then came the snap. The T.Y. is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The play had Hilton run a post and another receiver run underneath.
Just seconds before the Colts broke the huddle, Hilton and Luck had a brief conversation. Luck told him: "Man, just run. Just run."
Almost 100 percent of the time, defensive backs attack the post. It's more dangerous to a defense because it's deeper across the middle of the field and can be a quick-strike score. But the Kansas City defensive backs jumped the underneath route.
"The post never works in that situation," said backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. "Ever."
But when greatness begins, somehow, the impossible works. Remember Luck smiling, wanting Hilton on the post? Something about that call…Luck knew. He launched the football before Hilton even made his break into the post and the throw was so perfect Hilton didn't have to move his eyes or disrupt his stride.
Greatness isn't just made by chance in a 45-44 Wild Card Game win by the Colts over Kansas City. It is made in the minutiae of planning, in the cerebral cortex, and in the accuracy of a deep throw. Or in the conversation between an offensive coordinator and his exemplary pass thrower. A quarterback who is starting to do things only past greats have ever accomplished.
"He is the stuff of legend and fairy tale," owner Jim Irsay said. "He is doing things I thought I'd never see from a guy this young."
"I was just trying to make a big play," said Luck, who is terrible at talking about himself.
With all due respect to the Chiefs, who fought hard, they were, in the end, props for Luck. They were the next carcass for the signal-caller to decimate as he continues to go places and do things very few second-year quarterbacks have done. The statistics are important but they don't tell the entirety of how the Colts were able to pull off the second greatest comeback win—they trailed 38-10 in the third quarter—in playoff history.
"You're not supposed to win a game like that," Hasselbeck said. "It just doesn't happen, but it happens when you have a guy like that at quarterback."
"I wasn't sure what was going to happen," Irsay said, "but the fat lady kept losing weight. She kept getting skinnier, skinnier and skinnier."
Luck wasn't perfect in a game that was one of the more strange, brilliant and exciting contests you will ever witness. He had three horrific interceptions, all passes to covered receivers. The Colts' first half betrayed what had been a relaxed week of practice in which everyone thought the team was highly prepared. Before the game, injured star receiver Reggie Wayne gave a speech to the team further cementing to some of the veterans that they were ready.
Everything with Luck also seemed normal. He had done his usual exemplary week of preparation including being quizzed the night before the game by Hasselbeck and others right before everyone goes to sleep.
But legends are not always free of mistakes. Brett Favre threw plenty of picks. Joe Montana made errors. Johnny Unitas tossed interceptions. What made them special, and what you're seeing with Luck, is the ability to rebound after a mistake with something special. That is the legendary part.
Montana once said a key part of being a great quarterback was having amnesia. It's not a new thought but it is one of the most pertinent for the position. Forget the interceptions and move on. Luck does this as well as anyone in football. Behind the goofy look and scraggly beard is someone with great intellectual control. When Luck's mind and will are in unison, then you get a second half like the one he had, where the Colts outscored the Chiefs 35-13 in the final 30 minutes.
It will seem silly but one of the best plays Luck had was when he picked up the loose football near the goal line, grabbed it and dived in to bring the Colts within three points of the Chiefs in the fourth quarter. Most quarterbacks would have simply fallen on the ball.
"We don't practice Walter Payton drills at practice," Hasselbeck said. "Not sure what I would have done. I would have fallen on it."
"He's smart," Hasselbeck said, "maybe smarter than all of us."
It's more than that. There's a nastiness and desire that the greats like Tom Brady possess. Luck doesn't have the Super Bowls yet, so some will say this "greatness" talk is premature. That's not unfair. Yet it is also accurate to say we are seeing something special. This is what we saw early on with Favre and Dan Marino and Warren Moon and a handful of others. We saw something that's hard to calculate and grasp. We knew it was special and just hung on for the ride.
"He is going to sleep well tonight," said Hasselbeck, "he left it all on the field."
The great ones always do.