Jan 2, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck (12) against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the 2012 Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE
Jan 1, 2012; Jacksonville FL, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (18) in the second quarter of their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. The Jaguars won 19-13. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-US PRESSWIRE
Peyton Manning is the venerable, Hall of Fame-bound quarterback coming off a career-threatening injury. Andrew Luck is the can’t-miss prospect of the last three decades that must be taken No. 1. Add outspoken owner Jim Irsay to the equation, and the Indianapolis Colts are a situation out of a cliche-littered sports movie.
When Indianapolis almost assuredly drafts Luck with the No. 1 pick — the pick this same franchise used to acquire Manning and the most can’t-miss prospect of 30 years ago, John Elway — so begins a career of comparisons to No. 18. Said comparisons begin now.
Luck will enter a much more difficult-to-navigate situation than did Manning. To wit, while there are similarities between their collegiate careers, Manning was not the surefire No. 1 overall pick Luck has been tabbed since last spring. Debate leading up to the 1998 NFL Draft was whether Indianapolis would solve its revolving door quarterback situation by drafting Manning, or Washington State’s fiery playmaker Ryan Leaf. Leaf had thrown for 34 touchdowns and a shade below 4000 yards his senior campaign on the Palouse, and had all the same professional prototype skills Manning boasted.
There is no such debate with Luck. And while Manning had the pressure of becoming the star the Colts franchise had lacked since Johnny Unitas, the proverbial Mulligan to Elway’s 1983 trade demand, he was joining an organization that had long languished in football doldrums. Luck should become the quarterback of a team that just two seasons ago, played for its second Lombardi Trophy in a three-year span. He’ll be asked to maintain that high caliber almost immediately. And he’ll do it not as the understudy to a legend, but likely as the replacement for a legend.
In this sense, Manning and Luck’s roles are reversed from college.
Jim Harbaugh took over a struggling Stanford football program in 2007, and by 2010 had it competing for the Pac-10 and Bowl Championship Series titles. Harbaugh is an outstanding head coach. His relatively short resume includes leading the University of San Diego to a perfect season in 2006, Stanford to the Orange Bowl, and the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship game. However, SU doesn’t go 12-1 in 2010 and smash Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl without Andrew Luck as its quarterback.
Luck accomplished some unprecedented things at Stanford. He was a two-time Heisman finalist, led the Cardinal to a bowl game every year he started behind center, and twice had SU in the nation’s top 10 at season’s end. Stanford reached levels the football program fell short of since pre-World War II days with Luck as its captain. Sure, the comparisons to Stanford’s most legendary quarterback, the aforementioned Elway, were made. But Elway never bowled, let alone three straight seasons. In many ways, Elway was the Johnny U. to Luck’s Manning — each will be remembered fondly as the benchmark for greatness.
Manning chose a different career path for his college experience. Those who remember 1990s football and earlier will remember that yes, Tennessee football was once great; really great. The 1993 season was one such great campaign, as the Volunteers finished the regular season 9-1-1 and went to the Citrus Bowl (which you know now as the Capital One Bowl, rivaling the Cotton as most prestigious non-BCS game). Leading Phil Fulmer’s UT team that campaign was Heath Shuler, a technician who compensated for lacking gaudy numbers with precision.
Shuler completed 64.6 percent of his pass attempts in ’93, threw 25 touchdowns to only eight interceptions, and rushed for three touchdowns. He went No. 3 in the following spring’s NFL Draft, and while his pro career didn’t quite pan out, Shuler left behind a solid legacy in Knoxville. Manning had to provide the encore, a pressure-packed proposition only compounded by his famous lineage.
At times, Manning lacked the precision that Shuler finished his career with; Shuler had thrown 12 interceptions total his final two seasons, while Manning had 12 and 11 in his last pair. Manning also never matched Shuler’s completion percentage from the ’93 season, even in Manning’s most efficient season (his 1995 sophomore campaign). Yet, one never reads or hears arguments that Shuler was better, equal to, or in any way rivaling Manning. That’s because No. 18 played a different style that distinguished him, and he did it so well that he’ll forever has a place in Tennessee lore.
All the talk of Luck following in Manning’s footsteps will be about Manning’s pro career, but following the blueprint of his college tenure would suit Luck more.