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Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Updated: December 26, 11:28 AM ET
Andrew Luck

By Michael Brendan Dougherty
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Jan. 7 NEXT Issue. Subscribe today!

SOMEWHERE IN HIS psyche, Andrew Luck has to have contemplated all of the stomp marks he's made on the NFL record book this season. But when he speaks, Luck seems as if he has no idea he is any good at football. Ask him about his first practice with Indianapolis and he says, "I remember being incredibly confused." Ask about his accomplishments as a rookie and he replies, "The red zone is something I really need to improve on if this team is going to have a decent chance of winning."

Okay, so does Luck think he's competent at anything? What about those miniature building models he has in his apartment, the ones that so impress backup QB Drew Stanton, who lives across the hall? "They are my girlfriend's from her senior project," says Luck, who graduated from Stanford's architectural design program with a 3.48 GPA. "I didn't take mine home. I guess it wasn't good enough."

Such is the way all of his interviews go, like a satire of what a rookie quarterback would sound like after eight straight losses. But his teammates say it's not false modesty. "If he feels like he screwed up, he says that," says linebacker Dwight Freeney. "Even if it isn't his fault, he'll take the blame. It wins him respect."

Here's something else that wins him respect: Luck just might be the NFL's best rookie ever. Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick have complimented his savvy play. And his numbers are startling. Through 14 games, Luck already had a modern-day-record six fourth-quarter comeback wins. He was on pace to throw for 4,545 yards, which would be a rookie mark by five football fields and more than John Elway or Steve Young compiled in any season. According to ESPN Stats & Information's Points Above Replacement (PAR) metric, Luck was the NFL's fifth most valuable QB through Week 15, worth 91.7 more points than his backup. His PAR ranked ahead of those of Drew Brees, Jay Cutler and Tony Romo.

Andrew Luck
Luck averaged 10.3 air yards per attempt through Week 15, the most in the league.

So to truly understand Luck and his impact, you have to ignore his skewed self-assessments and speak to those around him. Ask veteran center Samson Satele about that first "confused" practice and he relates a different story. He says that in the first huddle, the rookie entered flexing his back and arching his shoulders. He lowered his voice to a growl and called the play fluently, with authority. "We looked at each other like, 'This kid's for real,'" Satele says. Which is not to say that Satele, Indy's class clown, was going to give the rook a pass. After one gruff huddle, he whispered under his breath, "Okay, Optimus Prime." A few seconds later, as the center leaned down, Luck was in his ear. "I heard that," he said. The two laugh about it now, but the message was clear: Luck owned the Colts huddle from day one.

Interim coach Bruce Arians shares his own revelatory story. At the Colts' third practice, he signaled for a defensive package that Indy coaches simply call "empty," a series of 20 different blitzes meant to overwhelm. Mission accomplished: After a practice full of mistaken reads and throws, Luck told Arians he felt like he had been facing a tsunami. Then he watched film of the practice to analyze what went wrong. The next time Arians dialed up the empty package, he was the one who was blown away. Luck carefully picked apart the defense as if he were a 10-year vet. "Andrew made it look easy," Arians says. "He just lit 'em up." Maybe the best man to summarize the Luck effect is Reggie Wayne, a Colts icon who could have left after last year's 2-14 debacle. But he bypassed free agency -- the Patriots reportedly had interest -- to return to rebuilding Indy. "As a receiver, I just want to help him out," Wayne says now. "I want to make sure I continue to build his legacy."

Think about that: The player who is 14th all time in NFL receiving yards is already talking about his rookie QB's legacy. And why not? Of all of Luck's eye-popping numbers, the most amazing one is the team's record. In a few short months, Optimus Prime has transformed the Colts.

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