Peyton Manning’s departure last week from the Colts was emotional–for the 13-year veteran, the ownership and the Indiana sports faithful, who were all lucky enough to experience more than a decade of superb football together. But the split was rational. Manning will get a chance to write a coda to his already remarkable career without a once-in-a-generation prospect looking over his shoulder. The Colts will avoid the kind of bitter rift that nearly ruined Brett Favre’s legacy in Green Bay while clearing enough salary room to build around their next quarterback. Everyone wins. Everyone except Colts QB-of-the-future Andrew Luck, who all the draft-board geeks say Indy will pick at No. 1 next month.
We should preface this with an acknowledgment of the perennial debate in pro football about whether it’s better to put top-drafted rookie quarterbacks right into starting jobs or groom them on the sideline for a few years as understudies to wily vets. As with questions like ‘What’s the right call on 4th and inches?’ or ‘Is Tony Romo a good quarterback?’ the answer to the start ‘em or sit ‘em debate is completely situational. And this particular situation–the Indianapolis Colts in 2012–is not a good one for young Luck.
To state the obvious, Peyton Manning would have been great to learn from. He was an on-field offensive coordinator for much of his time in Indy, unrivaled in the no-huddle and probably the best pure passer in the NFL for a decade. The Colts couldn’t pay him $28 million for a tutoring gig, but it’s hard to imagine a guy you’d rather put your rookie quarterback behind. Unfortunately for Luck, this is the least of his problems.
New head coach Chuck Pagano, who comes over from the fearsome Ravens defense, has never run an offense before, although Luck will have the benefit of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (who was actually Manning’s QB coach in ’98) and experienced Colts hand Clyde Christensen at quarterbacks coach. They’ll be asking a lot of him.
Optimistic Colts fans often invoke Manning’s own rookie starter beginnings, which ultimately led to four MVP titles and a Super Bowl. While he only won 3 games in 1998, Manning put up impressive numbers that first year (beside 28 interceptions) and improved from there. But he did it with a solid offensive line anchored by left tackle Tarik Glenn, Marvin Harrison split wide, and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk in his backfield. Faulk had more than 2,200 yards from scrimmage that year, about half the offense’s output.
In 2012, Luck will have no such weapons. The Colts threw the ball 150 times more than it ran last season, finishing 26th overall in rushing; yet they’ve just cut first-string running back Joseph Addai. They were middle of the pack in sacks allowed last season, but 11th in absorbing QB hits, and that’s before losing their best linemen. Jeff Saturday, the all-pro center and perhaps the most talented remaining Colt, will likely retire or leave in free agency. Guard Ryan Diem is probably gone too. As for targets, tight end Dallas Clark was cut and three of the top four wideouts on the roster–Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez–are all free agents. The Colts could still make some acquisitions in free agency, but they have a lot of their money tied up in old deals and just too many needs to fill. It’s going to be a lean year.
For a cautionary tale illustrating how debilitating these kind of situations can be, Luck need only talk to the coach who fostered him at Stanford. QB-whisperer Jim Harbaugh, now coaching the 49ers, got a solid season out of 2005 No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith in San Francisco last season. It was Smith’s first. Buffeted between six different coordinators on a muddled team that lacked talent when he first arrived, Smith never lived up to his potential. And his case is often cited in defense of sitting rookies, largely because Aaron Rodgers, 2005′s other top QB prospect, won a Super Bowl title and MVP honors after three years warming the bench for Favre; but Rodgers took over a young, well-built team with stable coaching.
Luck won’t have that. In a league that’s made exorbitant starting salaries for its top rookies standard, one of the most hyped amateur athletes in 30 years will have to prove himself in the most trying of circumstances: alone under center on what looks like a shattered team.