AFC West: Andrew Luck
They want to do a better job slowing down opposing receivers, they want to disrupt the timing of opposing offenses and they want to get opposing pass-catchers out of their routes.
And yet they’ll have to do all that with the NFL’s officials looking, under the “points of emphasis’’ edict from the league, to tighten things up even more on defenses when it comes to illegal contact on receivers and defensive holding.
It is certainly a potential issue for the Broncos because when you combine defensive holding and illegal contact penalties the Broncos were tied for the league lead last season – with the Kansas City Chiefs – for those two fouls combined. Harris, who plays both on the outside and in the slot in the Broncos defense had four of the team’s 13 defensive holding penalties while Duke Ihenacho had three and Tony Carter had two.
In all it does mean a Broncos defense that is looking to be more rugged will have to find the line about how far it can go.
“My biggest thing is to really understand how they’re trying to emphasize and call it and make sure we’re teaching our guys, so we can play within the rules,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “I don’t waste a whole lot of energy worrying about whether I like it or don’t like it. To me, it’s about helping our guys understand what they have to do to play well and spending your energy on that and teach and instruct. Hopefully, they get an understanding of how we can play within the rules and make sure we’re prepared to do that.’’
As part of the effort to show players and coaches what the officials will be looking at on that front, officials will visit each team in the preseason. Several of the league’s officials will be at the Broncos complex next week to break it all down during video sessions as well as on-field during several practices.
But the Broncos didn’t sign the likes of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in the secondary because they’re interested in playing back on their heels. Denver is looking to make life far more difficult for opposing receivers, who were too often allowed to get free releases off the line of scrimmage and run free beyond the coverage.
Some of the issues were traced directly to injuries – five defensive starters were on injured reserve by season's end, including Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore in the secondary alone. But many personnel executives around the league simply believed the injuries showed the Broncos didn’t have championship level depth and lacked team speed at the defensive skill positions once the second- and third-teamers were forced into the lineup.
Overall the team was 27th in pass defense in the regular season, surrendered an alarming 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards – an enormous jump from 38 such plays surrendered in the 2012 season – and data from ESPN’s Stats & Information group shows the Broncos allowed 58 completions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air before being caught, tied for fourth most in the league.
The Broncos believe a healthy Von Miller to go with free-agent signee DeMarcus Ware in the pass rush will help significantly, given the best pass defense is often played by those defenses that are the most proficient at preventing the quarterback from throwing the ball.
Del Rio, however, said he believes the Broncos' defensive coaches have a good idea on what the boundaries are going to look like in pass coverage in the coming season. Asked Saturday if he felt like he had a good understanding of what would constitute illegal contact or defensive holding, Del Rio said, “I do, based on what I heard when they came through [earlier in the offseason]. [The officials will] be in next week, and we’ll get a better feel for it as they work with us in practice. It’s always beneficial for us.’’
Del Rio added: “You know there are things that are going to be emphasized. Depending on how that goes—if the emphasis results in a five hour game, then they probably would de-emphasize it. Again, I don’t think I need to worry about that kind of thing. It typically takes care of itself. We just make sure, as coaches, that we instruct the best we can so guys are well-prepared.’’
But it’s an issue that’s going to come up, and come up quickly, with quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady all on the Broncos’ schedule in the season’s first eight games.
Something will have to give when the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs meet in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.
The Chiefs have lost seven straight playoff games, tying them for the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history. The Colts have lost three straight wild-card playoff games.
This is the second time the teams will meet in a three-game period. The Colts, who are on a three-game winning streak, beat the Chiefs 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 22.
ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher break down the matchup.
Teicher: The Colts were wobbling coming into Kansas City a couple of weeks ago but seem to have righted themselves that day. What can you point to as the reasons?
Wells: Most fans would say it's because of quarterback Andrew Luck. Don't get me wrong, Luck has been as good as expected, but the change has been led by the defense. The Colts have 12 sacks and have forced eight turnovers, including four against the Chiefs in Week 16, during their three-game winning streak. That's where Luck and the offense come in. You give Luck a short field to work with, and the odds are pretty good that he'll lead the Colts to a score. They scored a quick 17 points in the first quarter against Jacksonville last week.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid decided to rest most of his starters against San Diego in the finale. Do you think that was the right thing to do?
Teicher: Undoubtedly. The Chiefs didn’t get a bye in the playoffs, but Reid created one for eight defensive and seven offensive starters who didn’t play against the Chargers. I would expect that to be reflected in how those guys play against the Colts. Momentum going into the playoffs is overrated. The NFL is such a week-to-week deal that it’s almost impossible for a team to carry anything over from one game to the next, and even at that, the starters were able to get in some practice time last week. Not that this is a huge thing with the playoffs beginning, but the Chiefs got a good look at some of their backups under game conditions against an opponent that needed to win. In several cases, they liked what they saw.
Donald Brown was the Colts’ playmaker against the Chiefs a couple of weeks ago. He obviously is fast and has more power than you would think by looking at him. Why don’t the Colts use him more as their featured back and why did they trade for Trent Richardson?
Wells: Brown took over the starting spot from Richardson against Tennessee on Dec. 1 because Richardson was having a difficult time finding a rhythm. I still think the Colts made the right move in trading for Richardson, because Brown has been inconsistent for most of his five seasons with the Colts up until now. Richardson is still the future for the Colts; they have no intention of parting ways with him after the season. They still envision him and Luck having a great future together. And Brown said it best earlier this week, “There are only a handful of teams that only use one running back. We’re going to need two, three running backs to get through the playoffs.”
Speaking of running backs, it looked like Jamaal Charles was going to have a huge game against the Colts (not that 106 yards is a bad game) after the first series. He ended up with only 13 carries. How come the team’s best player didn’t have more carries or more catches, for that matter?
Teicher: Reid messed up that one and he beat himself up for it afterward. You can count on that not happening again this time around. Charles was given the ball 18 times (13 carries, five receptions) against the Colts two weeks ago. That actually wasn’t a season low for him. He had 16 touches (and a monster game) the week before in Oakland and 18 touches in two other games (both Chiefs losses). Another thing to remember is the Chiefs had only 53 offensive plays against the Colts, their second-lowest total of the season. They didn’t have the normal amount of opportunities to get him the ball. But whether or not the Chiefs have a limited amount of snaps on Saturday, they will get him the ball more often. He’s their best offensive player, so they’re making a huge mistake if they don’t.
Linebacker Jerrell Freeman is another player who had a big game for the Colts when they played against the Chiefs. Has he had other games like that this season? Give us a little scouting report on his strengths and weaknesses.
Wells: You have to credit Colts general manager Ryan Grigson for finding Freeman. Grigson is known for finding players in different parts of the world. He’d probably go to Antarctica to scout if there were a football team there. Freeman is a former Canadian Football League player. He led the Colts in tackles as a rookie and would be the team’s defensive MVP if not for a player named Robert Mathis. Freeman reached double figures in tackles in 12 of the 16 games this season. He has no problem being matched up against a running back out of the backfield, a tight end or even a wide receiver if he has to, because he’s athletic enough to defend them. An argument could be made that Freeman deserved a Pro Bowl nod.
This is not a knock against Charles, but how come the Chiefs had a running back lead them in receiving this season? I would have said Dwayne Bowe led them in receiving if you asked me to take a guess on their leading receiver this season.
Teicher: It’s a number of factors. The Chiefs wanted to use Charles more in the open field and get him in favorable one-on-one matchups, and it’s easier to do that by throwing him the ball. Ideally, the Chiefs would go down the field to their wide receivers more often, but Bowe, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster haven’t been able to get open consistently and have delivered few plays. Quarterback Alex Smith has tended to do the safe thing and opt for the checkdown to Charles rather than take a chance down the field. It’s something the Chiefs will need to correct next season. They’ll find another receiver or two in the draft or through free agency.
1. Containing Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs running back finished with 106 yards on 13 carries in the first matchup between the two teams on Dec. 22. But those yards don't tell the whole story. Charles gained 37 yards on Kansas City's opening series. That means the Colts held one of the NFL's premier all-around players to only 69 yards the rest of the game. Indianapolis will have to do the same again because Charles has proved that he can run the ball -- he ran for 226 yards against the Colts in 2012 -- and he had 195 yards receiving against the Oakland Raiders in Week 15 this season. Charles finished the season with 1,287 yards rushing, 693 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns.
2. Do it on defense. Yes, Andrew Luck is the Colts' most valuable player, but they'll need their defense to play well. They're heading into the playoffs with the defense getting 11 sacks and forcing eight turnovers during their three-game winning streak. The Colts sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith four times to go with four turnovers in the game. Indianapolis held Kansas City to 287 yards of total offense.
3. Continue to protect the quarterback. The offensive line has done a good job protecting Luck. He was sacked only three times in the final three games of the season. The ability to keep the young quarterback on his feet has helped the Colts' passing game, as he was 26-of-37 for 282 yards in the season finale against Jacksonville on Sunday. Luck also completed 67 percent of his passes to receivers with six touchdowns and only one interception in the final four games of the season. He had completed only 50.5 percent of his passes to his receivers in the first five games without Reggie Wayne.
You know what you're going to get out of receiver T.Y. Hilton. But fellow receivers Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen are about to step into unfamiliar territory. The three have developed a nice continuity with Luck. The playoffs aren't the time for them to have a setback by showing their inexperience. The Colts won't be able to run their no-huddle offense if Luck can't depend on them to get open and catch the ball.
There is a theory Colts owner Jim Irsay launched the "Peyton Manning’s tenure wasn’t as great as we’d hoped" offerings as Sunday's game approached to try to crank up the pressure and affect Manning’s performance.
There is enough there that even former Colts coach Tony Dungy offered it up as a reason for Irsay doing something so ill-advised and, on many levels, ungrateful. Given a chance to shoot that theory down later in the week, Colts coach Chuck Pagano -- a Boulder, Colo., native -- didn’t dispel it, saying only “time will tell."
So, Manning, who is the ultimate thinking quarterback, may have to allow himself the freedom to let it fly in the game, take some chances, perhaps even put the offense in the hands of the running backs for a time to simply settle in. It will be an emotionally charged game for him at a place where he once firmly believed he would finish out his career.
As far the Colts’ Andrew Luck, there will be a lure, the same lure every ultra-competitive person feels at some point, to prove that Irsay made the correct decision. That the Colts are in good hands -- something most everyone in the league already believes, anyway -- as they move ahead in the post-Manning era.
It could be enough to embolden both defenses, especially the Broncos with linebacker Von Miller in the lineup for the first time after his six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. But with emotions running high, the setting is right for both defenses to take some risks to force the issue early in the game.
And that’s something Manning hasn’t seen a lot of this season as the Broncos’ first six opponents have played three- or four-man rushes 70 percent of the time. Either way, the franchise quarterback who manages it all the best will likely be the one who walks away with the win.
As in once-in-a-career difficult and only if you’re lucky. To find the keystone to build a franchise around is no small thing in the NFL, as the constant search for The Guy who can lead the way to where the victories and trophies are found always seems to be underway.
But in the end, it still may not be as hard as life as The Next Guy, or if the search isn’t successful, The Next Guys.
Elway was The Guy for the Broncos, his standing in the Rocky Mountain region still unrivaled, as the two Super Bowl trophies won in the last two years of his playing career sit in the lobby of the building he still works in. And after he finished his career on the field, Elway didn’t retire to some far-off golf course.
He remained in Denver operating his businesses, including a restaurant that bears his name and an Arena Football League team, and generally is never very far out of sight, or out of mind, of the quarterbacks who had to follow him or the fans who kept hoping to see it happen once again. A list that included Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler before Elway the executive signed Peyton Manning in 2012.
"It was probably difficult at times," Elway said this week. "There are always expectations. When you have a quarterback play for a long time and there’s always hope. That’s what a quarterback does, he gives fans hope that they can win a world championship. To me that’s what most fans want -- they want to win a world championship. When you have a guy who's the quarterback who's giving them, year in, year out, hope to win football games, to be a good football team, then all of a sudden you go to the unknown, it can be hard for everybody."
It’s why Sunday’s game is the rarest of events. Not only did the Colts move from one franchise quarterback, in Manning, to a player they believe is another in Andrew Luck, the two will be on the same field. And they are not both 30-somethings as Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young were when they met as former teammates in the 1994 season as Montana’s Chiefs faced Young’s 49ers.
This is more Brett Favre facing Aaron Rodgers in 2009. For Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium is past and future, hope and history, all mashed together in one place, something the level-headed Luck has accepted as part of his job.
"When you have a guy that was so successful for so long at a team you come in and you see 'OK, what are some things I can learn from him in talking to Reggie Wayne about preparation or some of the coaches that were here?'" Luck said. "But I never viewed it as having to replace Peyton. I viewed it as a great opportunity to play football and get paid to do it and get to play quarterback. How cool is that?"
For his part Plummer sits in the team's record book with the all-time best winning percentage for quarterbacks who started at least 25 games for Denver. Plummer, who was signed in free agency by former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan in 2003, went 39-15 (.722) in regular-season games for the team. But even he, with that success and three playoff trips, including a trip to the AFC Championship Game in the 2005 season, lived in Elway’s shadow.
"[Brian] Griese, before me, probably had it a lot tougher than I did in some ways. I think Brian took the brunt of it," Plummer said. "But I think you have to kind of accept it, you can’t change history, you can’t change who did what. I never thought I had to be John Elway or duplicate what he did. … Of course you think about it in the big picture, it’s John Elway, you want to give him the credit he deserves, the respect he deserves and at the same time you have to really focus on doing the best you can do, as you, for your team."
Ironically, Plummer said, it was Elway who gave him a key piece of advice along the way.
"He said just play hard, just play with all your heart, and people will see that," Plummer said. "That’s how I always tried to play."
But it plays out in every NFL outpost, the most vivid when a quarterback who earns the gold jacket that comes with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is compared with those who follow him.
And there is the case of Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick in the 2012 draft, whose boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback, who sits with another future Hall of Famer in Manning each day in the team's meeting rooms. Osweiler has said, "I just try to soak it all up. There is no better place for a quarterback to learn how to be a quarterback in this league."
But there will be more big shoes to fill in more places, those who follow Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Rodgers, and yes, Manning a second time.
"It's just because everybody seems to want comparison all the time," Plummer said. "Comparisons, in anything, are not what it's about, I don't think whether we’re talking about football or not. But let a kid be like he is, let a kid be what he becomes. It would probably be easier for everybody."
And then there is this week. When the former face of a franchise, a future Hall of Famer, returns, not as a legend in the final days of his career, but as a 37-year-old vying for the league's MVP award, having the season of his life with a Super Bowl hopeful. Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis as the 6-0 Denver Broncos will meet the 4-2 Indianapolis Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium. ESPN.com Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Colts team reporter Mike Wells break down this week's game.
Legwold: Mike, let's get right to it. Manning. Colts. Indianapolis. There isn't much precedent in the league's history for a player of Manning's stature returning, playing as well as ever, to meet his former team. How has it played there? And just how many of the current Colts were even teammates with Manning?
Wells: As much as I hate to admit it, safety Antoine Bethea, a former Manning teammate, said it best inside the locker room in San Diego on Monday, “We see players come and go all the time,” and that the media will make a big deal about it. Bethea was the first Colt not named Jim Irsay to talk about Manning's return. Coach Chuck Pagano didn't even want to talk about it on Tuesday. There are only 11 players still on the roster from when Manning played here. The Colts respect Manning, but they also want to prove they've moved on and they can win without him.
You've been around Manning for more than a season now. Do you get a sense that he'll be more pumped than what he is every weekend?
Legwold: Manning has already been on the media merry-go-round earlier this season when he faced his brother Eli for the third and likely final time in his career. He didn't like it that much and said as much. I think he certainly will want to show, at least in some way, he appreciated his time with the Colts and that he enjoyed the successes there. In the end he will try to play it straight through the week. That said, when Manning arrived in Denver, those close to him said he was initially surprised the Colts actually released him, even though it made sense financially and for the overall direction of the franchise due to the uncertainty surrounding how he would recover from his neck surgeries. As one of the most competitive people in a league full of competitive people, there is likely a part of him that wants to show what he has left for a team that considers itself to be a Super Bowl contender.
To that end, Andrew Luck has consistently seemed comfortable in his role as the team's leader in the post-Manning era, how do you think he will handle all of this? And will he have some added adrenaline?
Wells: Luck hasn't given any indication that he'll prepare for or approach the game any different. It obviously wasn't the same magnitude as what Sunday will be, but the second-year quarterback was put under the spotlight earlier this season when he returned to the Bay Area, where he starred at Stanford, to take on his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, and the San Francisco 49ers. Luck played within himself -– 17-of-26 for 159 yards --and I expect him to do the same thing this weekend. Don't be surprised if offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton tries to get Luck going early in front of the sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. But don't expect to see Luck throwing the ball 45 times unless the Colts dig themselves into a big hole.
I was little surprised Broncos coach John Fox took exception to Colts owner Jim Irsay's comments to USA Today. Is that normal for Fox to respond the way he did?
Legwold: From the Broncos' perspective, some in the organization see it as Irsay gladly reaping the benefits of the Colts' success with Manning at quarterback, including a new stadium that allowed the city to host a Super Bowl, and now acting as if one Super Bowl win in Manning's tenure sticks in his craw. Fox simply came to the defense of his player, something he does when he sees it as necessary and something that only strengthens his standing in the Broncos' locker room. Manning almost always takes the high road publicly in such things, as he did this week, but there isn't much question he has one of the game's longest memories when it comes to what's been written or said.
Much of what is, or isn't said, this week won't matter much once the ball is snapped, but on the field what do you think the Colts' defensive plan will be against the Broncos' offense?
Wells: Don't expect the Colts to sit back in a Cover 2 the way Jacksonville did. That's not defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's style. The cornerbacks will press up on the receivers and they'll continue to gamble to try to make a play. That may not be the right approach to take because as you know, Manning makes teams pay for their mistakes. It'll be interesting to see if Robert Mathis, another one of Manning's former teammates, is able to get off the edge and get to Manning. Mathis is tied for the league lead in sacks with 9.5. The area of concern for the Colts is at linebacker. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman, the team's leading tackler, had to sit out the second half of last week's game at San Diego with a concussion.
Speaking of linebackers, the Broncos will have Von Miller for the first time this season this weekend. Do you expect him to be rusty after being suspended for the first six games?
Legwold: On the field that may be the biggest question of the week. Miller, under a provision added to the league's collective bargaining agreement in 2006, could attend team meetings during his suspension and work out at the team's strength and conditioning center. He could not practice or attend games. So, all of the on-field work he has done with the strength coaches has been a solo affair. The question will be if he stayed up to speed in the team's defensive playbook – he says he has. He is an impact rusher, a "game-wrecker" as Pagano likes to say (Pagano is a Boulder, Colo., native). Miller's adrenaline will be off the charts, especially early in the game. It wouldn't be a shock for the Colts to test him with a little misdirection early to see if he's up to the challenge. But Miller should have an impact in the pass rush, especially if his conditioning is as good as he says it is.
A lot of folks here are interested to know how Pagano has done healthwise this season following last year's cancer treatments. How important is he to the team's success?
Wells: The fact that Pagano was able to overcome cancer to be back on the sideline coaching at the end of last season is a remarkable story in itself. The players like how he motivates them and is constantly positive. I don't think there are many head coaches in the NFL who would think about heading over to Lowe's (he ended up having somebody else go for him) to purchase mousetraps as a reminder for his team not to overlook winless Jacksonville after beating San Francisco the week before.
So much is said about Denver's passing game, but what about its rushing game? Can it be effective the same way San Diego was last week?
With the Colts' run game, and with Luck 20th among the league's starters in pass attempts, is there an element of having a system in place that doesn't require Luck to have to do everything for the team to win?
Wells: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who held that same role at Stanford with Luck, is big into being a run-first team. The Colts have stuck to that mindset through the first six games. But it'll be interesting if Hamilton loosens things on the offense this season after the Colts ran for a season-low 74 yards last week at San Diego. Luck gives the Colts the best chance to win. They'll need Luck's arm to beat the Broncos because Manning & Co. are going to put points -- a lot of them -- on the board this week. It's hard to imagine the Colts will be able to run the ball well enough to keep Manning on the sidelines looking antsy to get back on the field.
Passing the ball is probably a good idea since the Broncos are last in the league in defending the pass (338 yards a game). Why have the Broncos defended the pass so poorly?
Legwold: Some of it, especially over the first four games of the season, was a good bit of stat padding late in blowouts by opposing offenses. But there is an element that is a personnel issue as well. Elvis Dumervil left in free agency after the fax fiasco in the offseason, Miller was suspended and Champ Bailey missed five games after injuring his left foot in the preseason. That's 17 Pro Bowl appearances from guys who were in the lineup last season when the Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks. And they have had some sacks -- 17 thus far -- but those plays have often been clustered near the end of games with the Broncos having built 20-point leads. They haven't consistently pressured opposing passers this season and as a result some of those quarterbacks are finding some openings against a steady diet of man coverage in the Broncos' secondary. They know they have to get to Luck this weekend or he will pick away at them.
That should do it, enjoy the game.
The question came with the disclosure his answer would be forwarded to Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, who like Luck was once a Stanford quarterback. But was he, Luck was asked, the best Stanford quarterback ever?
"No, probably [Jim] Plunkett is probably the best," Luck said with a laugh. "Go with that."
Ah, well played and just a sliver of a glimpse into why Luck already has made such a big impact in the league just 22 regular-season games into his NFL career and why so much more is expected. And while they were separated on The Farm by decades, there was more than one NFL personnel executive who had judged both before their respective drafts who believed Luck brought similar traits to the game as Elway did.
The size -- Luck is 6-foot-4, 239 pounds as compared to Elway’s 6-3, 215 in his playing days -- the late-game heroics, the willingness to run into harm’s way to go with the competitiveness and strength to get out of trouble, as well, were similar.
"I’m sure that's how I looked when I came out," Elway said with a smile. "I’m not sure how I would have looked to a personnel department or a GM who had to decide if I was going to make it or not. But I know this, you look at Andrew Luck, he had all the tools coming out. He had the tools you’re looking for when it comes down to a franchise quarterback, not only athletically, but mentally, the smarts and the competitiveness, so to me he was the complete package."
"He’s a heck of a quarterback," Manning said of Luck this week. "He played as a rookie, which is a challenge, but something I’ve always believed had a big impact on me and playing as a rookie I know Eli [Manning] said the same thing."
Elway has consistently said it isn’t the act of throwing the football that gets most young quarterbacks in trouble, or whether they run too much, or not enough, that separates those who succeed and those who do not. It’s a failure to grasp, especially in those first two or three seasons, what the job is in the NFL.
And the inability to deal with what comes with all of that, whether it's criticism from the outside, criticism from within his team or the expectations from everyone.
"That part right there takes more young quarterbacks down than the other part," Elway said. "It’s not the physical part, usually. The physical part, as far as athletically, throwing the ball, moving around, that doesn’t get most young quarterbacks. It’s the task of the job, having the job, the pressure that comes with the job, the responsibility that goes along with the job. To me that’s the hardest part to overcome when you start out. To me that’s the difference between the guys that become great and the guys that don’t."
Those who played with Elway and coached him will often say he was one of the most competitive people, in all things, they had ever encountered. Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan once put it: "John wants to win, at everything, at whatever he's doing. And he's willing to do what needs to be done to do that. Those are the guys you can win with because they won’t accept anything else."
Elway has said he wants to see it in any and all quarterback prospects. Not only the physical traits to do the job, but to look into the quarterback's eyes and see the desire to have the job, to grow in the job, to bounce back from the inevitable failures and growing pains of the job.
He said in his encounters with Luck he has seen all of that. And Elway believes that is always the first step on a quarterback's path to being the kind of franchise player every organization wants, the kind of guy who can make everyone in the huddle believe the best is yet to come.
"Because when you go and perform on the football field, to me that's when you gain the respect as a quarterback," Elway said. "It doesn’t matter when you're drafted, you gain the respect of your teammates when you play well in tough situations. They now realize when things get tough they can follow. That comes when you perform, the confidence grows in you.
"And you have to be the calming influence. On and off the field there's no question about that, it was like I never wanted anybody to know they hurt me," Elway said. "If they got a good shot on me and I couldn’t breathe, I made sure I got up to let them know they didn’t affect what I’m doing. It’s the same thing in that huddle, there’s a calming force you have to be, no matter the chaos, no matter if we’re all frustrated, no matter if we’re having a bad day, somehow you’ve got to be the guy to try to straighten things out, the one to figure out how to win a game. And if it’s not your day as a quarterback, figure out whose day it is and get them in a position to get everybody out of there with a win, some how, some way. Once you prove to yourself you can do it, then your teammates will trust you, rely on you and then you can make it something special."
Most of us should agree: There will never be another quarterback with Manning's combination of instincts, football intelligence, pocket presence and quick release. Let's not bother with that discussion. But can Luck provide the same essential service to the franchise? Will he guide the Colts at a high level through parts of two decades, as Manning did from 1998-2010?
Luck is off to a good start, having won 15 of his first 22 NFL games. Nine of those victories have come via game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, a topic we will inspect later this week, and he currently is the league's fourth-ranked quarterback via Total QBR. If he continues on that path, history tells us the Colts would have accomplished a rare feat in modern NFL history.
The chart illustrates the immediate transition from each of the nine Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose careers began after 1980. (We took the liberty of adding Brett Favre, eligible in 2016, as a 10th entry. Manning would be No. 11.) Usually, these transitions have failed and teams have taken decades to find a true franchise replacement. (Think: Terry Bradshaw to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Dan Fouts to Philip Rivers in San Diego and -- yes -- John Elway to Manning in Denver.)
In some cases, they're still looking. (We're looking at you, Miami and Buffalo.)
The Green Bay Packers have proved to be the exception. If Aaron Rodgers plays out his seven-year contract, the Packers would have achieved 28 consecutive years of elite quarterback play from him and Favre. Can Luck be the Colts' version of Rodgers? Will he add a two-decade career on top of Manning's tenure?
Here's what ESPN's NFL Nation found:
SAN DIEGO -- The Indianapolis Colts travel to the West Coast for the second time in four weeks after an impressive win at home against Seattle. The last time the Colts traveled to California, they thumped last year's NFC champions, the San Francisco 49ers, 27-7 on Sept. 22.
Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck is showing no signs of slowing down in his second season. But he'll face a veteran signal caller in San Diego's Philip Rivers, who is playing back at an elite level after a rough, two-year stretch.
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Colts reporter Mike Wells break down the matchup:
Williams: The national expectation heading into this season was that last year's 11-5 playoff team was a mirage, and the Colts would slide back to .500 this year. That, of course, has not happened, with Indianapolis beating up on NFC West powers San Francisco and Seattle on its way to a 4-1 record. Besides Andrew Luck's impressive play, what has been the key to the Colts' success this season?
Wells: You can't put it on one player. If you had to pick one organization that's truly a team, you have to look at Indianapolis. Luck is obviously the franchise player, but he's not carrying the offense. The Colts are fourth in the league in rushing and 24th in the league in passing. Nobody would have ever thought that would happen with Luck taking the snaps. You also can't forget about the defense. That unit is 11th in total defense and is only giving up 15.8 points a game. So, credit goes to all areas, including the coaching staff. The same can't be said about the Chargers, it seems. They're sitting at the bottom of the AFC West. What's been their biggest issue this season?
Williams: Inconsistency. The Chargers play impressively one game, but look sluggish the following week, which is the reason the team is 2-3. In his first season, San Diego coach Mike McCoy's squad has been competitive in all five games. However, the Chargers have had trouble finishing in the final quarter. The Chargers just came out flat against Oakland last week, falling behind 17-0 before rallying in the fourth quarter to make the game close. Good teams play at a high level each week, and San Diego is still working toward that goal. Mike, you mentioned the Colts' surprising ability to effectively run the ball this season. How has the trade for Trent Richardson helped in that effort?
Wells: I wrote earlier this week that general manager Ryan Grigson should be getting Executive of the Year votes already, despite it only being Week 6 of the season. It cost the Colts a first-round pick, but acquiring Richardson was an excellent move by Grigson, considering they've lost two starting running backs -- Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw -- already. Richardson's progress with the Colts has been slow. You can tell he's not completely comfortable yet. He had an impressive second half against the team you used to cover -- Seattle -- rushing for 54 yards on 12 carries. The hope within the organization is Richardson will be able to build off that game. Quarterback Philip Rivers has completed 72 percent of his pass attempts in three meetings against the Colts. He's fourth in the league in passing this season. Can the Chargers continue to build around him?
Williams: At present, that's the plan. A year ago, you could certainly argue that Rivers was on the downside of his career. He had 47 turnovers through the 2011 and 2012 seasons, second-most in the NFL. But Rivers experienced a rebirth in McCoy's up-tempo offense. As you mentioned, he's fourth in the NFL in passing yards (1,610), second in passing touchdowns (13) and second in completion percentage (73.8 percent) -- proving at 31 years old there's still some tread left on the tires. Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy and again playing at a high level. Danny Woodhead gives them a high-effort guy who can make plays in the passing game out of the backfield. Young receivers Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown are making plays and earning Rivers' trust. Other than consistently running the ball, San Diego is clicking on offense. But the defense is a different matter. Speaking of defense, you mention the Colts are 11th in total defense. Indianapolis also has forced 10 turnovers, including seven interceptions. The Colts forced just 15 turnovers all of last season. What's changed?
Wells: The players are finally comfortable with coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defensive scheme after spending most of last season getting used to it. Robert Mathis went from playing defensive lineman to being a rushing linebacker. Now he's leading the league in sacks with 9.5 to add to his two forced fumbles. The Colts also have seven interceptions. Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler are both players who enjoy being aggressive in going after the ball. It started in training camp and it's carried over to the regular season. They'll lose some battles by gambling to make a play, but they've won the majority of their battles this season. Barring a sudden collapse, the Colts are in a good position to win the AFC South and make the playoffs. How realistic is it for the Chargers to be a playoff team?
Williams: With two undefeated teams leading the AFC West in Denver and Kansas City at 5-0, you would think the Chargers are a long shot to make the playoffs at 2-3. However, if the playoffs were to start today, San Diego would be only a game off the pace for the final AFC wild-card spot. The Chargers still have two games remaining with both the Broncos and Chiefs, along with a home contest against the Raiders in the second half of the season. It's certainly an uphill climb for San Diego to get into postseason contention, but it's doable if they take care of business at home and sneak a couple of wins on the road. Hard to believe we've gone this far without talking specifically about Luck, but how has he improved from his rookie season to this year?
Wells: This might be a record for how many questions I've gone without talking about Luck in Double Coverage this season. He's improved in all areas, which was expected because he's his own worst critic. You talk to him after a game or during the week, and instead of talking about what he's doing well, he usually points out what areas he needs to improve. You like to hear that because that means he's not getting too full of himself. Luck likely won't pass for as many yards this season, but he's OK with that because the Colts are running the ball so well. One area Luck needs to improve in, though, is learning how to slide. Let's just say you won't see him pop up on any tutorials on how quarterbacks should slide. Speaking of waiting so long to talk about a familiar name, how's linebacker Manti Te'o coming along? I have to ask since he's a Notre Dame product.
Williams: Te'o has a total of eight tackles in two games, after sitting out the first three games of the season with a sprained foot suffered in August. Te'o admitted that he's been tentative and thinking too much on the field. Because of that, he's not made any of the game-changing type of plays that he became known for at Notre Dame. Also, the Chargers have worked him in slowly. Te'o played just 14 snaps his first game and 42 snaps last week against the Raiders. He's a hard worker and serious about his craft, so I expect his play to improve over time. Luck has one of the more underrated receiving units in the NFL with wide receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, along with fellow Stanford-product, tight end Coby Fleener. Wayne, 34, doesn't appear to be slowing down, while Hilton and Fleener are two emerging, young talents. How does that trio work with Luck to create explosive plays in the passing game?
Wells: Wayne is Mr. Reliable for Luck. He's always going to come through when his quarterback needs to come up with a play. Hilton is Luck's deep threat. The two connected for two touchdown passes, including a career long of 73 yards for both players, against Seattle last weekend. In fact, Hilton has outplayed Darrius Heyward-Bey, who is the team's No. 2 receiver, all season. You probably forgot Heyward-Bey is even on the roster. Fleener hit a rough stretch during training camp, but he's been solid for the most part. He's had to play an increased role because fellow tight end Dwayne Allen is out for the season with a hip injury. I see Gates is leading the Chargers in receiving. Are there any signs of him slowing down?
Williams: Gates has struggled with foot and rib injuries the past few seasons, but is finally healthy and back to playing at a high level. As you mentioned, he leads the team in receiving with 32 receptions for 438 yards and three touchdowns. Among tight ends, Gates is second in the league in receptions behind Jimmy Graham (37). At 33 years old, Gates still has enough juice to get deep, and the former Kent State college basketball player remains a matchup nightmare in the red zone.
Preseason: 29 | Last Week:: 31 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002
A feel-good defeat in Indianapolis was just that for the Raiders -- a loss. To a man, the players said there is no such thing as a moral victory. And as such, there was no movement in Oakland’s standing in these rankings.
Still, there is hope after the manner in which Terrelle Pryor moved the offense -- he is, after all, the NFL's No. 2-ranked rusher after Week 1 with 112 yards, and he passed for 217 more but had two costly red zone interceptions -- and the way the defense shut down Andrew Luck in the middle of the game.
However, there were lengthy TD drives of 89, 69 and 80 yards that the Raiders allowed the Colts. The key for the Raiders, then, is to learn and grow from the experience, especially with the No. 32 Jaguars coming to town next for Oakland’s home opener.
"I did awful, I thought," he said. "Two interceptions. Could have won the game. Had them on the ropes down there.
"I'm disappointed in myself, for one, taking a sack in the red zone. Coach talks to me about that all the time and it's unacceptable. This loss is on me and we'll get better next week."
Without his ability to extend plays and make things happen with his mobility, the Raiders would not have been in any position to pull the upset. He rushed for a game-high 112 yards, on 13 carries, and threw for 217 yards -- completing 19 of 29 passes including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Denarius Moore that gave Oakland a 17-14 lead with 11:09 to play.
Pryor's game was a microcosm of his skill set that can be maddening to both opposing defenses and his own offense.
"He played good football," fullback Marcel Reece said. "He played TP football and he gave us a chance to win. That's what we want and that's what we need. He gave us a chance to win."
Pryor became the 25th player since the 1970 NFL merger to hit triple digits in both rushing and passing yards and his running total was an Oakland franchise record for a quarterback.
Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis said he ran "about 5.3 miles" chasing Pryor.
"That's what we made adjustments for," Mathis said. "That guy is fast. He definitely showed up to play today. We just had to make one more play."
Said Colts quarterback Andrew Luck: "I'll tell you, Terrelle Pryor is a stud. He made some unbelievable plays."
Yes, Raiders coach Dennis Allen proclaimed Pryor the starter and praised his play.
"There’s still a lot of things that we've got to get cleaned up with him and that's what, anytime you have a young guy, you're going to have to make some corrections," Allen said, "and you're going to have to have some things get cleaned up."
Like the first-quarter interception he threw to Greg Toler in the end zone from 32 yards out trying to hit Rod Streater.
"It was under-thrown," Allen said.
And the deep ball he under threw to a wide open Reece down the right side in the third quarter.
"We practiced that play a few times," Reece said after a heavy sigh. "We just needed to execute it better; that's just what it comes down to. I've got to make a play."
But the plays that stuck in Pryor's craw?
The 16-yard sack on 1st-and-goal from the 8-yard line when Mathis finally caught him. And, two plays later, his game-sealing interception while trying to find Streater again for a touchdown on third-and-goal from the 24. Antoine Bethea picked him off.
"At the end of the day," Pryor said, "I learned a couple of things today, and I can put it in my bag of treats and bring it out for next week and keep learning."
Yeah, the Raiders have something to build on here.
Mike Wells: So much was made about who the Raiders would start at quarterback earlier this week. It looks like it’ll be Terrelle Pryor. Does he give Oakland the best chance to win, and if so, what makes him so dangerous as a quarterback?
Paul Gutierrez: It appears as though it will be TP2 Time for the Raiders in the opener. And really, it should be. Now, that’s not necessarily an endorsement, but with this team, at this moment, Pryor does at least represent some semblance of hope, what with his skill set. His ability to run should keep the Colts' front seven honest and they won’t be able to simply pin their ears back and rush, like they could Matt Flynn. I believe Flynn is probably a better NFL quarterback at this stage, but with the deficiencies around Oakland’s pocket -- leaky line, inconsistent receivers, injury-prone running back -- Pryor gives the Raiders a better chance. And being that this is a quarterback-driven league, how has Luck dealt with stepping into those huge shoes left by Peyton Manning, and how can Luck avoid the sophomore jinx?
Wells: I’m sure you probably watched Luck one or two times out there in the Bay Area while he was at Stanford, so you know his work ethic should never be questioned, and his demeanor doesn’t allow him to get caught up with the hype. The offensive weapons the Colts put around Luck will make it difficult for him to struggle. Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Oakland’s favorite former receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey at receiver; Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end to go with the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard at running back. So the words “sophomore slump” and “Andrew Luck” shouldn’t be on anybody’s mind. Of course that’s if the offensive line does its job and blocks. A lot is being made of Pryor’s ability to be creative with his feet, but what about Darren McFadden -- isn’t he the real threat with running the ball, especially with the Colts being near the bottom of the league in rush defense last season?
Gutierrez: No doubt, especially in a perfect world for the Raiders' offense. If all is working right, and opposing defenses have to at least respect the quarterback’s ability to take off, they can’t key on the quarterback. And that sets up the play-action pass. But for the Raiders to have any success offensively this season, it all starts and ends with a guy who has yet to play more than 13 games in a season.
Yeah, Run DMC had been more Limp DMC of late, but when he’s right, he’s nice. Two years ago, he was playing like a league MVP candidate. Then came the Lisfranc injury that ended his campaign after just six-plus games. And last year, in perhaps the greatest failing of the Raiders’ new regime’s plans, they changed the offense on McFadden from a power scheme to the zone-blocking philosophy. McFadden’s average yards per carry went from a career-high 5.4 yards to 3.3 yards. McFadden is also entering a contract year so yeah, he has something to prove as the Raiders return to the power running game. Speaking of something to prove, you mentioned him earlier: The artist formerly known as DHB around these parts left a lot to be desired after four nondescript seasons in Oakland. Hey, it wasn’t his fault he was drafted so high. How has he adapted to a change of scenery, and how strong is his desire to prove something to the Raiders after they cut him this spring?
Wells: I thought Heyward-Bey would come to Indy with a chip on his shoulder because, well, he did play for the Raiders, where more bad than good comes out of that organization. But Heyward-Bey has only good things to say about the Raiders. He blames himself for a lot of his struggles during his four years in Oakland. He also knows he needs to produce to get rid of that “bust” label. As you know, Heyward-Bey has an incredible work ethic.
The biggest difference here is that he now has a mentor. Wayne is the perfect veteran to guide him. The future Hall of Famer's professional demeanor is exactly what Heyward-Bey needs. The other thing is, Heyward-Bey doesn’t have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. Wayne isn’t slowing down any time soon, and the Colts have so many other offensive weapons, as I mentioned earlier, that Heyward-Bey can just let the game come to him. Fans will likely see a number of those weapons because the Raiders don’t have much of a defense. Will nine new starters help them from giving up almost 28 points a game again this season?
Gutierrez: That’s the plan. At least, that’s the hope for the Raiders. Yeah, they have nine new starters on defense, with the only two returning starters being defensive end Lamarr Houston, who is moving from the left side to the more pass rush-specific right side, and strong safety Tyvon Branch, who endured an injury-plagued season for the first time in his career. Of course, a million times of course, the Raiders kept their defense vanilla in the preseason ... and not just for what coach Dennis Allen would term "competitive reasons." In fact, Sunday will be only the first time the Raiders will field their entire starting defense at the same time. Injuries wreaked havoc in exhibition games.
There was a glimmer of hope, though, with the run-stuffing play of defensive tackle Pat Sims in the exhibition finale. And if Nick Roach, who will wear the green dot on his helmet, can rally the defense from his middle linebacker position, the Raiders' defense should be better this season. Emphasis on "could." Can the Raiders -- with virtually an entire new defense and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who schemed daily against Luck at Stanford -- be a detriment to the Colts? Or are they simply of the mindset that they have to worry only about themselves?
Wells: The only way the Raiders will be able to rattle Luck is if the offensive line doesn’t do its job and allows its quarterback to take a pounding all game long. And even then, that may not be enough to beat the Colts. Let’s not forget, Luck was sacked 41 times and hit more than 100 times last season. That didn’t stop him from setting a rookie record for passing yards, attempts and 300-yard games. So I don’t think the Raiders will be to do much against Luck & Co. on Sunday afternoon.
In the preseason opener last week, they got a look – albeit a short one – at Colin Kaepernick. And in his 12-play cameo the Broncos saw every bit of the mobility and upper-tier arm strength that helped power the 49ers into the Super Bowl last season.
In his only drive, Kaepernick was 4-of-4 passing for 38 yards to go with a 6-yard run as he led the 49ers on 13-play, 67-yard jaunt through the Broncos defensive starters. In all, the 49ers held the ball for 7 minutes, 7 seconds, closing out the possession with a field goal.
Saturday night the Broncos get a look at Russell Wilson, another mobile passer with the kind of arm that made him a Colorado Rockies draft pick. Wilson also carries himself with a wise-beyond-his-years composure when things get tight to go with almost unshakable confidence. The Broncos regulars are expected to play most, or all, of the first half Saturday night in Seattle.
And in the third preseason outing, likely the last gameday work the Broncos defensive starters will get in August, the Broncos will see the St. Louis Rams’ Sam Bradford, a largely pocket passer with quality accuracy.
“It’s probably a good thing for us,’’ Bailey said. “It kind of gets everybody in that routine of getting ready for one kind of quarterback, then turn around a week later and get another one. That’s how the season goes.
“The young guys need to see that. In college, it can look the same a lot of times: similar offenses, similar quarterbacks. I think in this league you learn every guy brings a lot to the table or they wouldn’t be here and every guy can hurt you in different ways. If you can't adjust, they'll score points and hurt you.’’
It does mirror -- at least some -- how the Broncos will open the regular season. In the first two weeks they’ll get the Ravens Joe Flacco and the Giants Eli Manning, pocket passers in the more traditional mode, each with at least one Super Bowl win on his resume.
In Week 4, they have the possibility of facing Michael Vick in Chip Kelly’s high-speed attack with the Eagles if Vick indeed wins the quarterback competition. And in Weeks 7 and 8, the Broncos get Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in back-to-back games, the two quarterbacks who top what could the be the remember-when draft class of 2012.
“I think that is true -- you don’t see that big a difference in college with the guys back there,’’ said Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. “It changes how you rush, what you play on the back end, all of those things. We all have to adjust every week, you know, but for the young guys that’s kind of the thing -- you have to be ready to go from one quarterback to a totally different guy in a few days. That’s the way this league goes. If you can’t get prepared every week, they don’t keep you around very long.’’
Breakdown: The Oakland Raiders are trying to improve their secondary. The group will be tested immediately. Oakland starts the 2013 season at Indianapolis and faces quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 1. In Week 3, the Raiders travel to Denver to face Peyton Manning in a Monday night game. In Week 4, Oakland faces Robert Griffin III and Washington. In Week 5, the Raiders play Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. So, we will learn a lot about this evolving defense early in the season. If the Raiders can hang on, they could control their own destiny late in the season. They play each AFC West foe in the final three weeks of the season, including a home date against defending AFC West champion Denver in Week 17.
Complaint department: The Raiders do a ton of traveling from Weeks 10-14. In that time span, the Raiders have one home game squeezed between four road games. The Raiders visit the New York Giants on Nov. 10 and go back to visit the Jets on Dec. 8. In that month span they travel more than 16,000 miles. Last season, 21 teams traveled fewer miles than that the entire season. But that’s kind of the way it goes for a team on the West Coast.
Turkey Day time: The Raiders will play at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. The Raiders lost at Dallas on Thanksgiving in 2009. The Dallas game and the Monday night game at Denver are Oakland’s only nationally televised games.
Raiders Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 8, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 15, Jacksonville, 4:25 PM
Week 3: Monday, Sep. 23, at Denver, 8:30 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sep. 29, Washington, 4:25 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, San Diego, 4:25 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, Pittsburgh, 4:05 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Philadelphia, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, at NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, Tennessee, 4:05 PM
Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 28, at Dallas, 4:30 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, Kansas City, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, at San Diego, 4:25 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, Denver, 4:25 PM
Clowney is not eligible for the draft until next year. I’m sure the Kansas City Chiefs would be all for the league bending the rules this year as Clowney would be the sure No. 1 pick in the draft.
It’s another reminder that this is such a bad year for the Chiefs to have the No.1 pick in the draft.
The Chiefs’ top need is a quarterback. A year after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III went 1-2 in the draft, there has yet to be a passer who has shown he is worthy of being the top pick this year.
Kansas City will get a good player with the top pick, just not one who has instant stardom stamped on him. For those questioning that Clowney isn’t a great position fit for the Chiefs because they have outstanding pass-rushers, it doesn’t matter. You take a player like Clowney regardless of need and gleefully watch him take over the league.
The Chiefs will only have that luxury if they have the top pick again next year.