INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Luck has never attempted to replace Peyton Manning.
His image does not adorn Lucas Oil Stadium in the place where Manning’s banner once hung. He doesn’t run a fast-paced, no-huddle offense with a running soundtrack of audibles at the line of scrimmage. And he doesn’t hold the heart of an entire state in his hand.
He does, however, wear the same blue horseshoe on his helmet that became synonymous with Manning over 14 seasons. And comparisons are inevitable.
“I understand when people ask the question,” Luck said this week in front of his locker at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “I would ask the same question if I was a fan or part of the media or in different shoes in a sense. I’ve always felt I’m very fortunate to play quarterback in this league. A chance to get paid to play a kid’s game is a wonderful opportunity. It never grinded on me or wore me down.”
Luck is aware of the standard set before him. How could he not be?
Seven consecutive seasons with 12 or more victories. Six AFC South championships. Two conference titles. And, of course, an NFL championship in Super Bowl XLI.
Manning quarterbacked teams in Indianapolis that won more games from 2000-09 than any other team in any decade in league history. No Colt ever will wear the No. 18 jersey again, and there even is talk of a statue being erected to celebrate Manning’s career sometime in the near future.
So it’s not too difficult to understand how Luck has been relegated to sidekick status as Manning prepares to return to Indianapolis for the first time with the Denver Broncos tonight.
But it would be wrong to marginalize the accomplishments the 24-year-old Stanford graduate already has achieved.
He’s won 68.2 percent of his 22 career starts (15-7) after stepping under center for a team that finished 2-14 in 2011.
As much as Manning is talked about as Luck’s predecessor, he chronologically replaced Dan Orlovsky as the Colts’ starting quarterback. And that timeline is enlightening.
Orlovsky, now a backup in Tampa Bay, was the third quarterback used by Indianapolis during the disastrous 2011 campaign. He replaced Curtis Painter, who now backs up Eli Manning with the New York Giants. And Painter, in turn, replaced veteran Kerry Collins — who was concussed in his third start with the Colts and retired following the season.
Think about that for a moment.
Three quarterbacks — including Collins, who started in a Super Bowl for the Giants — playing with the same coaching staff and many of the same teammates who helped Manning win a division title the year before, collapsed under the pressure of playing in the four-time MVP’s shadow.
Luck, in his rookie season with a brand-new coaching staff and a heavily remodeled roster, won 11 games a year later and led the Colts back to the playoffs.
Replacing a legend is never easy, but Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano said Luck is uniquely wired to confront the challenge.
“If he sat there and dwelled on all that (Manning’s legacy), he wouldn’t be able to focus on the task at hand,” Pagano said. “And that was be the best quarterback that he could be.”
Luck’s off to a 4-2 start again this season. He already has victories in his young career against Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. But he lost his lone showdown with Manning’s closest peer — New England’s Tom Brady — and he’s well aware of the immediate challenge ahead.
Luck grew up watching and cheering for Manning, and he still sounds like a big fan.
“He is a great role model for guys my age growing up, younger guys, just how to play the position, how to handle yourself on and off the field,” Luck said. “I’ve always had the highest respect of him. My dad (Oliver) backed Archie (Manning) up my dad’s rookie year (with the Houston Oilers). We always really enjoyed watching all the Mannings play. I definitely hold him in the highest respect.”
Among the least repeated comments from Colts owner Jim Irsay this week was his assertion that Manning told him to draft Luck when the two were discussing Manning’s future early last year.
The Broncos quarterback didn’t confirm or deny that talk this week, but he made his high opinion of Luck clear. And even he couldn’t avoid making a few comparisons.
“He’s a heck of a quarterback,” Manning said. “He played early as a rookie, which is always a challenge, but something I’ve always believed made a big impact on me and playing as a rookie. I know Eli said the same thing. He sure did have a great first season and certainly used that first season to his advantage, and he’s off to a heck of a start this year.”