East Rutherford, N.J.
He is The Now. He never luxuriated as The Pampered Understudy. Who knows how practical it would have been to lasso Andrew Luck to the sideline, eight figures of future carrying a $3 clipboard, as a creaky Peyton Manning attempted an Indianapolis revival. The Colts ducked the awkwardness. Manning skipped to Denver. Luck was drafted No. 1, and the 23-year-old Stanford grad was tossed into the NFL wilderness, where, through four games, he’d performed solidly, sometimes much better than solid. Indianapolis’s comeback win last week against Green Bay had been emotional, sublime. A franchise’s future appeared secure.
But in the young NFL career of Andrew Luck, there are going to be days like Sunday, when touch tosses become botched overthrows, completions plop to the turf, touchdowns twist into interceptions and pass protection feels like a murky suggestion. There will be long afternoons in which Luck looks less like a preternatural savior and more like what he is: a raw first-year player. There will be miserable losses—bunches of them, probably. Even losses to the messy New York Jets.
This is the deal. Football may be fixated on its shiny class of rookie quarterbacks—five newbies started the 2012 season—but the faith comes wrapped in the realization that turbulence will occur. Highlights happen, but so often, the momentum sputters, reminding everyone that the maturation of a quarterback takes time. Nobody is fully-formed out of the box. After five games as a rookie, Peyton Manning was 1-4. After Sunday’s 35-9 embarrassment at MetLife Stadium, Luck is now 2-3.
Not ideal. But not a disaster. Not even close.
Before the game, there’d been a presumptive wave of hype that Luck, if not yet among the NFL elite, was beginning to put an ear to the door. There was a suspicion that this fledgling superstar would rumble into the Meadowlands and give himself a proper New Jersey/New York launch, the kind of stirring debut that would show the rudderless Jets what they were missing behind center. Luck had been terrific versus the Packers, rallying Indianapolis from a 21-3 deficit in a win they dedicated to their hospitalized coach, Chuck Pagano, currently battling leukemia. Through four games, the Colts had won two, the same number the pre-Luck Colts won all last season.
But Luck didn’t show much against the Jets. On the game’s opening series, he overthrew one of his tight ends on third-and-short, and later he missed another tight end, Coby Fleener, on what appeared to be an uncomplicated touchdown pass. While there were unmistakable signs of talent and poise—Luck looked in control at the line of scrimmage, moved fluidly out of the pocket, and put a clever touch on several short passes—he failed to execute in key moments. The Colts were three of 11 on third downs. Luck threw 22 of 44 passes for 280 yards. He turned the ball over three times. It was his first game without a touchdown pass.
Not a disaster. But not ideal. Not even close.
When it was over, Colts coach Bruce Arians was asked to assess Luck’s performance.
“Rookie,” he said, flatly, letting the word hang in the air.
Luck didn’t try to spin his poor outing, accepting his mistakes, vowing improvement. He wore a navy suit and a blue-and-white windowpane shirt, open at the collar. His beard was scruffy, collected under his chin, like an underclassman’s during midterms.
Luck said he was “learning to be consistent.” He talked about the need for “focus and attention to detail.” He declined an opportunity to pin his passing troubles on an ineffective running game, which produced only 41 yards. He acknowledged Arians’s concern that he was taking too many hard hits, especially in the garbage time of the second half. “I think I have to improve in that area and realize—nothing’s open, let’s not subject your body to harm, let’s get rid of the ball,” Luck said.
He spoke with focus and eye contact, like he was still auditioning for this headlining part. Maybe there will come a day when Luck stares vacantly through questions, his mind elsewhere. That day is not now.
Down the hall, the Jets were celebrating a win that lifted them to 3-3 in an exhausting season that already feels like it’s 600 years long. Mark Sanchez, so riddled with second-guessing for the past two seasons, had a rare moment of relief after an easy, competent day. The comical frenzy to replace Sanchez with backup Tim Tebow may subside for a few hours.
Until it happens again. Which of course it will. These are the Jets.
The Colts have no such internal battle. Andrew Luck is the present and future. Indianapolis may or may not make the playoffs or finish over .500 or even produce a highlight that equals the stunner of the Packers. There may be more afternoons like this lost one in New Jersey.
But the Colts have themselves a quarterback. And this is a process.