ANDERSON — So good, so soon.
The headline is from a 1999 edition of Sports Illustrated with Peyton Manning on the cover. But it applies just as well to the Indianapolis Colts’ current second-year quarterback.
Andrew Luck entered the bye week with 1,574 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His completion percentage is up from 54.1 percent as a rookie to 60.7 percent this year, and he’s been at his best in the biggest games.
In the Colts’ victories against San Francisco, Seattle and Denver — three Super Bowl favorites — Luck has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s won 16 of his 23 career starts and already has led nine game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Luck has been everything Indianapolis could have hoped and more after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, and his most recent win came in a duel with the legend he replaced.
Luck completed 21 of 38 attempts for 228 yards and three touchdowns as the Colts held on to beat Manning and the Denver Broncos 39-33 in a thriller last week.
Afterward, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano was asked how much added pressure his young quarterback put on himself leading up to the nationally televised showdown.
“Zero,” Pagano said without hesitation. “Zero. About the same he put on here when he signed his first contract, which was none.”
That approach could serve Luck well in the final nine games of the season when he will be playing for the first time in the NFL without his favorite receiver. Reggie Wayne became the fifth key offensive player to be lost to injury for the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while attempting to catch a poorly underthrown ball in the fourth quarter against the Broncos.
Luck has accepted his share of the blame for the injury, but he also understands he must move on quickly.
Indianapolis previously lost tight end Dwayne Allen, left guard Donald Thomas and running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw to assorted injuries, but Wayne’s departure could be the most damaging.
The receiver had played in every game since 2002 and been a regular starter since 2003. His value on the field (38 catches for 503 yards and two touchdowns this season) might even be exceeded off it. He’s served as mentor to fellow wideouts T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, and now they must step into his shoes and keep this engine running.
The Colts entered the bye week with a 5-2 record and a two-game lead in the AFC South. On Sunday night, Indianapolis returns to prime time TV for a battle against the desperate Houston Texans (2-5).
So Luck must rally the offense and pick up the pieces quickly.
“I remember talking to my dad after the (Denver) game and saying football can really be a war of attrition in some cases,” Luck said. “It’s true. So many guys have gone down. It just stinks. You don’t really know how to talk about it. As cold-hearted as it may seem, you move on.
“The guys that are injured want you to move on. They don’t want you thinking. Reggie wants us to work harder than ever to keep going. Vick has always wanted us to work harder. Donald Thomas, Dwayne, they don’t want our pity once it happens. They want us to work harder. We’ll continue to do that.”
Luck just might be the key.
His ability to make plays with his legs as well as his arm keeps defenses on their heels. And he’ll need to quickly work new faces like LaVon Brazill and David Reed into the wide receiver rotation so defenses can’t expend too much extra attention on Hilton and Heyward-Bey.
The 24-year-old who has been so good so soon will have to be even better the rest of the way if this team is to live up to its potential.
Wins over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos haven’t earned the Colts anything yet. But they are shining proof this team can play with the NFL’s elite.
When Indianapolis raised an image of the Lombardi Trophy in the practice facility during the offseason and openly talked about playing in the Super Bowl and raising the championship trinket in celebration, outsiders scoffed.
After positioning themselves to make just such a run during the first half of the season, however, the Colts have changed nothing about their approach.
“Put on your pads, bring your lunch pail and just play ball,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “Everybody can talk about who’s going to do this, who’s going to represent the NFC, AFC, all this mess. But the game is played on the field in between them white lines. That’s where all the talking should be done.
“So who cares about whatever everybody is saying outside this building? It does not matter. We talk in between the lines, period. That’s all we can do. So say what you want to say. We’re going to keep grinding. We’re going to keep playing. We’re going to keep believing in one another, and we’re going to keep playing for one another. We’ll see what happens at the end of the season.”