ANDERSON, Ind. — Chuck Pagano never really needed the rundown on how pro-ready Andrew Luck was as a quarterback prospect, even before he was named Indianapolis Colts head coach and inherited the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
But knowing what everyone else in Western civilization had heard is one thing. Having it play out 10 yards from you is something else entirely.
The latter moment came for Indianapolis’ new leader just eight days after Luck pulled on a Colts hat and held up a No. 12 jersey at Radio City Music Hall. First minicamp. First practice. And yes, despite everything the coach already knew, the experience managed to knock him back a step.
“He goes up to the line of scrimmage during blitz period, they set the protection, OK, the defense rotates a little bit early, he starts his cadence,” Pagano explained. “He’s got time on the play clock, and so he changes the protection. He throws out a code word, I’m not gonna tell you what that code word is, but he throws out a code word to change the protection because he recognized where the pressure was coming from.
“And we had to stop the play and re-huddle, because nobody knew what he was talking about. He was three or four installs ahead. Then, he just told everybody — boom, boom, boom, this is what you do, points out hots, points out sights. So I sit back there, and from my vantage point, it’s like you’re watching a guy that’s a three- or four-year veteran.”
Luck, of course, is not one. He doesn’t turn 23 until three days after his NFL debut in Chicago. And unlike Washington Redskins phenom Robert Griffin III, Luck enters the league as the first big on-the-field building block of an organizational overhaul.
There is pressure here. Plenty of it. Luck will be compared with the man he’s replacing (Peyton Manning) and the man drafted one spot behind him (RG3) for the rest of his football days. Few players, if any, have garnered this kind of years-long anticipation leading into an NFL career.
But just as clear is the Colts’ deep belief that Luck can handle it all.
Again, Pagano had heard, like everyone else, that nothing would be too big for this son of an NFL quarterback (sound familiar, Indy?) who played under a searing spotlight with impossible expectations last fall after deciding to return to Stanford for his redshirt junior season. And it didn’t take the coach long to gather his own evidence to confirm the word on the street.
“Everything you guys said and talked about leading up to the draft, through all the workouts, everything we’ve seen in his college career, everything he did at Stanford. … He makes everybody better around him,” Pagano said. “He willed everyone to wins over there.”
Pagano then put his hand at chest level and said Stanford’s “ability may have been here,” he paused, raising that hand over his head, “but they all played up here. And it’s because of that guy.”
Having seen signs that Luck is already having a similar effect in Indy, Pagano explains how the golden boy has gotten the grizzled vets on board: “Because he’s right. He’s making the right decisions, he’s making the right checks, he’s making the right calls. The guys know. This guy knows his stuff. And he’s relentless as far as his work ethic and his preparation.”
Smart. Right. Diligent. Dogged. Oh, and 6-foot-4, 235 pounds with athleticism and an arm, to boot.
Because he’s all these things and because his pedigree — be it growing up as Oliver Luck’s son or developing as Jim Harbaugh’s prized pupil — is impeccable, the question is: Where is progress needed? The answer is less complex than it might be for others learning the ropes at the position:
Nothing replaces experience.
“He’s gotta play now,” Pagano said. “We try to put him in as many game-like situations through the course of training camp as we can. But obviously, we’ve gotta get to the preseason games, we gotta cut him loose and let him play the game, and get used to the speed of the game. In the preseason, the mindset of these other teams that we’re gonna play, with a rookie quarterback, they’re gonna find out just how good he is. They’ll send the kitchen sink at the kid, and see if he can handle it.”
It’s the Rams this week, a trip to Pittsburgh next week, a showdown with Griffin in Washington after that and a home date against the Bengals to wrap up preseason. And then, finally, the real thing in Chicago.
This, in a lot of ways, is the end of three years of hype that began with the feeling that Luck could’ve gone first had he been eligible for the 2010 draft and would’ve gone first had he entered the 2011 draft. Finally, as Pagano said, the time to play has come.
But be aware that the coach has known for some time, first-hand, how ready his most important player is for this moment. And he keeps thinking back to that eye-opening day in early May.
“That was one of those moments where everybody’s sitting there, and all of a sudden, he checks that protection and everyone looks around — the offensive guys are looking around, the defensive guys are looking around,” Pagano said. “Everybody else that’s on the field is looking at him … Whatchu talkin’ about? That’s the very first time we said, ‘OK, as advertised.’ I mean, this kid is bright, we knew he could handle a ton of information.
“So as I sit back now and I watch him take control, take command of the huddle, he’s instantly earned the respect of everybody on this team, on both sides.”