Andrew Luck: Is He the NFL's Next Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf?

Casey Mabbott@@oregonsportsguyContributor INovember 12, 2011

The way many football fans refer to Andrew Luck, the much-hyped and clearly talented senior quarterback out of Stanford, it’s surprising that people aren’t etching trees and number twelves onto their tokens of faith.

Fans of teams with losing records seem particularly enthralled with Luck, which may have more to do with the dismal play of their current quarterbacks than it does Luck’s talents.

The Colts, Dolphins, Broncos and Seahawks are some of the worst teams in the NFL, and one player is not going to drastically change things—but it may set them on the right course.

For the record, there have been many great quarterbacks in the NFL, and even more at the college level. And yet none of them ever won anything on the team level on their own. You can go and find any reference on the history of the NFL, and never will you find a single player who on his own reversed the fortunes of his franchise.

For whoever winds up losing enough games to put themselves in position to draft him, there is no way to know if Luck is as good as advertised—and he may be just as much risk as reward.

The belief being tossed around is that Luck is the single greatest quarterback to ever enter the pro draft. Better perhaps, than even four-time league MVP Peyton Manning was. That is a heck of a lofty perspective to place on Luck, who has had just one successful collegiate season under his belt.

Manning, widely considered to be the most polished rookie signal caller to ever lead a team, remains the standard to which other first-year players will be judged, unfairly or not. Manning surprised many by returning for his senior year at Tennessee and put together a season to remember in what is considered one of the greatest seasons for a quarterback in SEC and NCAA history.

Manning torched defenses to the tune of 3,819 yards, 37 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions while leading his team to a 10-1 record, a No. 3 ranking and a berth in the Orange Bowl. Manning would finish his college career with just six losses, going 39-6 as a starter.

During his three full years as a starter, Manning amassed 10,060 passing yards along with 79 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

Andrew Luck, on the other hand, has a chance to do something Peyton Manning never did, and that is playing in the National Championship. Winning a title would be great, but if he wants to match Manning’s numbers, he has some work to do.

Luck is playing in his third year of collegiate football as a starter and holds a 29-6 record overall—with the potential to be 33-6 by year’s end. He has thrown for 2,424 yards this season and is on pace for 3,604. Luck tossed 32 touchdowns last season, and is on pace for 39 this year, which would bring his projected career total to 84 against just 19 interceptions and 9,516 passing yards.

Nice numbers, if they stick. 

While Luck certainly seems on pace to match or exceed Manning’s college numbers, the path to NFL immortality is quite a different slope, and the history regarding quarterbacks drafted first overall is not pretty.

Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, NFL teams have drafted a quarterback with the first overall selection 18 times. Six of those players wound up winning at least one Super Bowl, and just four of them did it with the team that drafted them.

In the 13 years since the Colts drafted Manning, 10 QBs have been taken first overall, and just two (Peyton Manning and Eli Manning) have brought their team a Lombardi Trophy. It is far too early to judge some of those QBs—specifically Cam Newton and Sam Bradford—however, much of the remaining players either did not pan out or look severely close to being labeled a bust.

Manning, meanwhile, did more than survive life at the pro level.  He raised many eyebrows in his first season, throwing for 3,739 yards, 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. While these are quality stats for a young NFL QB, Manning was able to win just three games in 1998, putting the team in position to select Edgerrin James in the 1999 draft.

With a trio of Manning, James and pro-bowl wideout Marvin Harrison, the Colts were ready to take the league by storm, completely reversing their fortunes and going 13-3 in Manning’s second season, during which Manning threw for 4,135 yards, again passing for 26 touchdowns but just 15 interceptions—13 fewer than the previous season.

1999 would mark the first of Manning’s league-record 11 seasons with at least 4,000 yards passing, including six straight from 1999-2004, another league record.

Manning has essentially become the NFL standard against which all quarterbacks, young or old, are judged. His accuracy, timing and pocket presence are all uncanny, and he has been the rock for the Colts' offense since his first day with the team.

Even now, as they sit at 0-9, he is their most valuable player, and the reason the team is looking to draft Luck, if given the chance.

Perhaps the Colts will decide to do what Green Bay did in 2005, and draft the heir to their future, which would absolutely set Luck up nicely with one of the best offenses in the league.

Luck could also be drafted by the Dolphins, Broncos or Seahawks, none of whom have much of a supporting cast to offer Luck.

And that should be the real message here. Supporting casts really do make all of the difference. Manning had Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk in his first year—two of the best players in the history of the game. If Luck goes to Denver, Miami or Seattle, his best supporting player could be Reggie Bush or Marshawn Lynch.

Scary thoughts for Luck to consider.

Scary for NFL teams to consider is that Luck is comparable to Ryan Leaf. During his junior and final season at Washington State, Leaf passed for 3,958 yards, while tossing 34 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions.

Leaf led the Cougars to their first outright Pac-10 title, and the Rose Bowl, where they narrowly lost to Michigan and Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. Leaf would go on to a particularly dismal pro career, and was out of football altogether in 2002 after being drafted in 1998.

While it is safe to assume that Luck does not suffer from the same anger and attitude issues that derailed Leaf’s career, their collegiate numbers are eerily similar,

The moral of the story is that there is no such thing as a sure thing. Luck may actually be the most polished player to ever pass the pigskin; however, there is no way for anyone to know for sure what lies in store for him at the pro level.

The idea behind a “franchise QB” is to give your team a real shot at consistent success, and ideally, multiple titles. While Luck no doubt looks promising, the team that picks him will need to give him tools for success.

It has become common practice to refer to a quarterback being unleashed in the NFL as being given the “keys to the offense;” however, that adage only works properly if the vehicle in question has tires and a powerful engine.

Indy would no doubt provide the kind of championship pedigree anyone seeking success would favor, but the other three teams closest in line to drafting Luck lack much of what makes a team successful in the first place, and that starts with the supporting cast and a proven head coach.

What Luck must also consider is staying at Stanford one more season—especially if he comes up short in the championship hunt in 2011. Or perhaps he wins one title and longs for a second, a la another Stanford man, John Elway, who won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.

Both leaving or staying present potential pitfalls—for example, injury and/or a drop in production—but there is always the shot to have that one last great year before turning pro.

As Luck is technically a fourth-year redshirt junior and is close to finishing his degree, there may be little to no reason for him to remain in school another year.

In fact one could make the case the staying another year could hurt Luck, as there many QBs—including Jake Locker, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn and Tim Tebow—who have passed up being the first overall pick in the draft to remain in school and hone their skills.

Locker, in his rookie year, has yet to play in the pros, while Tebow, Quinn and Leinart have yet to show the talent they exhibited in their college days at the pro level.

Even a third case can be made, as Sam Bradford stayed at Oklahoma for his senior year, which was an injury-riddled disaster, yet he still went No. 1 overall and now finds himself in a walking boot trying to get back on the field for the 1-7 St. Louis Rams.

So what have we learned?

That there is no perfect player, and that even the “pro-ready” ones need help—even if they are the best prospect in years. Perhaps Luck will pan out, and perhaps not. Questions are sure to come up about his level of competition, whether or not he can make “all the throws,” and especially if he has 'it'—the most important of all intangibles.

Something to consider for all of you fans out there drooling over the prospect of Luck playing for your team, remember that for every “guy you had never heard of” like Tom Brady, there is a letdown like Ryan Leaf.

For every Peyton Manning, there are guys like Joey Harrington, who may have been a fantastic pro had he ever actually played on a real pro team. And there are plenty of one-hit wonder QBs such as Akili Smith, JaMarcus Russel and Alex Smith—all guys who bolted for the pros after one good year and never found lasting success in the NFL.

In the end, there is no shame in staying at Stanford for another year. If the right team comes calling, fantastic. If not, in the words of the immortal Mr T:

“Don’t Be a Fool, Stay in School”.


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