Only a few can understand the burden shouldered by Andrew Luck. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is one of them.
Smith and Luck were No. 1 picks in the NFL Draft and expected to lead the revivals of once-proud and former championship-winning franchises.
Smith, the first overall pick in 2005 by the San Francisco 49ers, had to conquer the specters of Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Luck, the first overall pick in 2012 by the Indianapolis Colts, had to step in for future Hall of Famer and living legend Peyton Manning, who was released after missing the 2011 season because of a neck surgery.
It took Smith seven years and three head coaches before he led the 49ers to the postseason in 2011. It took Luck one season.
“To be a No. 1 pick in the league, to go to the worst team in the league … you’re filling Peyton Manning’s shoes, leading them to the playoffs … “ Smith marveled of Luck.
“He’s mature beyond his years, not only in the way he plays, but the way he handles himself. A rare, rare guy. … That doesn’t happen. … It almost never happens.”
Only three teams in NFL history have won 11 games in a season after winning just two or fewer the previous season — the 2008 Miami Dolphins, who went from 1-15 to 11-5; the 2012 Colts, who went from 2-14 to 11-5; and the 2013 Chiefs, who went from 2-14 last year and take an 11-3 record into Sunday’s game against the Colts.
Following their 2-14 seasons, Chiefs and Colts changed general managers and head coaches while bringing in new quarterbacks: Luck drafted by Indianapolis; Smith coming to Kansas City in a trade.
And now, the two teams are on parallel courses. They’ll not only play Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, but the Chiefs and Colts likely will meet in an AFC wild-card playoff game in two weeks at Indianapolis, 9-5, which leads the AFC South.
Luck has led the Colts to 20 wins in his first two seasons, which is tied for the fourth-most victories to start a career since the 1970 merger.
Only Seattle’s Russell Wilson, with 23 wins in 2012-13; Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger with 22 during 2004-05; and Miami’s Dan Marino with 21 during 1983-84, have made a more immediate impact than Luck.
“Not me, but the team has done a great job,” said Luck, who became the first quarterback ever selected No. 1 in the draft to start a playoff game as a rookie. “Coach (Chuck) Pagano since day one has created a great work environment … an fun working environment that is a little easier to win in.
“It’s an environment where you’re accountable to everybody in the building, where no one is worried about someone stabbing you in the back or doing something to undermine you. It’s fun to work. I know that may be a little elementary, but it’s true. Because of that, we’ve been fortunate and we’ve won some good games and also have lost some bad games. I think it’s been definitely a collective effort.”
In his first two seasons, Luck has thrown for 7,673 yards, which is the third-most for a quarterback in his first two seasons in NFL history. He needs just 202 yards against the Chiefs to pass Manning for second-most and 248 yards to pass Carolina’s Cam Newton (7,920 yards in 2011-12) for the most through two seasons.
Luck threw 23 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions as a rookie, and this season, despite losing star wide receiver Reggie Wayne to injury, he has thrown 21 touchdown but just nine interceptions, thanks to what he calls an improvement in “situational awareness.”
“It’s understanding when you need to throw the ball away, and maybe it’s OK to take a sack right now or throw an incompletion,” said Luck. “And not, ‘Oh no, we really need to force a ball in here now.’ I think we have limited turnovers because of that and that’s been a positive of this season.”
Luck has also been the master of the fourth-quarter comeback. He has led the Colts on 10 fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives, which is the most for a quarterback in his first two seasons since 1970.
One of those drives came last Dec. 23 against the Chiefs, when Luck drove the Colts 73 yards in 13 plays in the fourth quarter, capped by a 7-yard pass to Wayne for the decisive points in a 20-13 win at Arrowhead.
“He’s confident. He has a heck of an arm,” said Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry. “He plays football. … He’s a competitor. He does it all.”
Luck does more than just throw the ball. Like the Chiefs’ Smith, he can run. Luck has rushed 55 times for 365 yards and a 6.6-yard average, with four rushing touchdowns. Last year, he ran for five touchdowns.
“He’s an exceptional talent,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who faced Luck last season while on the New York Jets staff. “The two things that surprised our players the most is how fast he is. He’s legitimately fast. And he’s really strong. He’s a big man, he has a great arm, he can extend the play … he makes a lot of the right decisions.
“He’s been asked to do an awful lot and has done it awfully well.”
Luck has fond memories from his visit to Arrowhead Stadium last year, because the Colts clinched a playoff spot with their victory.
“It was a big win for us last year,” Luck recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘What a neat stadium.’ … So looking forward to coming back. Also, realize that last year has no bearing on this year.”