Believe the hype on Andrew Luck
Colts rookie on path to Brady-like future, which is bad news for AFC South
In the first Friday 10 Spot of the season, before a game was even played, one Colts executive proclaimed Andrew Luck as "one of the top of five quarterbacks in football."
To which ESPN analyst and former Colts president Bill Polian said, "Let's see him win a game or two first."
Now that Luck has, the conversation grows more compelling each week. There's Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning. But there aren't many quarterbacks in the NFL that any team would rather have than Luck. He might not lead the conversation -- not yet, anyway -- but he's certainly in it.
As the head of the next generation of great quarterbacks leads his team into Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday to take on the co-head of the current generation of great quarterbacks, Luck already ranks in the top five in Total QBR, ESPN's quarterback rating system. Luck ranks fourth in the NFL in Total QBR with a 77.6, behind only Peyton Manning's 84.8, Brady's 80.1 and Matt Ryan's 79.2.
But most important, he has taken a team that finished with the NFL's worst record last season and catapulted it to one of the best records in the league. Indianapolis is perfectly positioned to reach the postseason. If the Colts miss the playoffs, it would be a bigger upset than the Lakers picking Mike D'Antoni.
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And it's an issue for the rest of the AFC South teams, who must face this elite quarterback for the next dozen or so years. Ask anybody who has done it what it's like to compete in the same division as John Elway, Dan Marino, Brady or Peyton Manning. Other teams had little hope. Great quarterbacks ruin the hopes and seasons of divisional opponents for years. Is it too late for new Jaguars owner Shad Khan to ask for his money back?
Luck faces a tough challenge Sunday in New England. Since 1995, the three rookie quarterbacks who have started against the Patriots in Foxborough -- Mark Sanchez, Byron Leftwich and Peyton Manning -- have gone 0-3 while throwing three touchdown passes and nine interceptions. But Luck already has accomplished things in his rookie season that few other quarterbacks have.
In the weeks leading up to the 2012 draft, one team called Indianapolis and actually told it to name its price, to come up with a package it wanted in return for the No. 1 pick. That team was willing to ship off all its picks, plus players, for the chance to draft Luck. It would surrender one of the richest, if not the richest, packages in NFL history. But Indianapolis never even responded with a proposal. It wanted Luck.
And as many have heard before, it's tough to beat a combination of Luck and talent.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. Tale of two picks: Sometimes single picks help define franchises. It happened in the 2011 draft when Jacksonville traded up from No. 16 to No. 10, one spot ahead of division rival Houston, to take Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. With the next pick, at No. 11, the Texans drafted Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt. Since then, Gabbert has struggled to entrench himself as a quarterback the Jaguars can build around. Watt is having a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season. And now, Gabbert leads his Jaguars into Houston to take on Watt's Texans. At the same time, speculation is swirling about whether the Jaguars' front office will survive, while the Texans have established themselves as one of the best-run organizations in football. It's hardly all over one pick, but it's a part of the current dynamics between the two franchises.
2. Pats made risk-free trade: Former Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib is expected to make his Patriots debut Sunday when New England hosts the Colts. The trade for Talib was a virtual no-lose proposition for the Patriots. New England traded its 2013 fourth-round pick for Talib and Tampa Bay's seventh-round pick. But Talib's contract is up after this season. Should Talib move on to another team, the Patriots would get back a compensatory draft pick. So for trading for Talib for the second half of this season, the Patriots could get back more picks than they gave up. Not to mention that in an AFC lacking a dominant team, Talib could be the difference in a division, conference or even Super Bowl title.
3. QB injuries strike again: So here we are again, right back to where we were last season, when playoff-contending teams suffered injuries to starting quarterbacks, and some recovered and some didn't. Last weekend, four teams -- Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Francisco -- lost starting quarterbacks to injury. Philadelphia will start Nick Foles versus Washington, and Pittsburgh will start Leftwich against Baltimore. Alex Smith is likely to make it back to his starting spot for San Francisco against the Bears.
This usually happens right around Thanksgiving: Teams' depth and backup quarterbacks are tested, and it often makes the difference in whether a team advances to or in the playoffs. Last season, Houston withstood the loss of Matt Schaub, though the Texans might have reached the Super Bowl had he not suffered a Lisfranc injury. Chicago could not overcome the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler, something it will have to do starting Monday night in San Francisco.
Other teams now face quarterback challenges that will, in large part, help define their seasons. And please keep in mind that sometimes, based on what head coaches say, it's difficult to discern the truth. On Tuesday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin conducted a news conference in which he discussed Roethlisberger's sprained shoulder and how his quarterback was questionable for Sunday's game against Baltimore. Tomlin never mentioned that Roethlisberger had a dislocated rib that threatened to press against his aorta and will sideline him indefinitely. Small detail, I guess.
4. College reunion of sorts: A five-day span in January 2009 helped shape the college and pro football landscapes for years to come. On Jan. 11, 2009, quarterback Tim Tebow announced he was returning to Florida for his senior season, positioning the school to achieve many of the great things it did the next season. On Jan. 15, 2009, quarterback Sam Bradford announced he was returning to Oklahoma, reshaping the order of the upcoming NFL draft. And the very next day, Sanchez announced he was leaving USC for the NFL, where he would go on to become the fifth overall pick by the New York Jets. Each of those three quarterbacks will be on the same field Sunday when the Jets travel to St. Louis to play the resurgent Rams. And maybe the only storyline more intriguing is former Jets and current Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer getting the chance to face the team that let him go this past offseason.
5. Philly's had eye on QBs: It's not as if the Eagles have wavered on Vick just this season. They did it throughout the offseason as well, just much more quietly. Last March, Philadelphia inquired about the possibility of Peyton Manning, though the talks never went anywhere substantial. The Eagles also explored the idea of trading up to the No. 2 overall pick so they could draft Griffin, even though they knew it would be difficult to pull off. They arranged a private workout with Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill before using the 88th overall pick in the third round on Arizona's Foles, who shined last summer. All along, the Eagles said they were doing their due diligence. But they were doing it knowing that Vick could struggle with his play or health and they had to be as prepared as possible. The Eagles spent last offseason trying to upgrade at quarterback. And they are expected to do the same thing this offseason as well.
6. Routt cashes in: Cornerbacks Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Johnathan Joseph are having good years. But no cornerback has had a better year than former Raider and Chief Stanford Routt. Let's explain why: In the past six months, Routt has made $11 million despite being cut by two teams. The Raiders paid Routt $5 million before releasing him last winter. Then the Chiefs paid Routt another $6 million before releasing him last week. If and when Routt signs with another team, he will make more money. He does have blemishes on his résumé from his time in Kansas City -- coaches there did not like him, he missed curfew, and he wanted to use the technique he learned with the Raiders rather than the Chiefs' technique. But still, thanks to some impressive work from agent Van McElroy, Routt has been this season's most overpaid player.
7. Amazing Peterson: By this time, it's not overstating to say that there never has been a player who has come back more quickly or successfully from a devastating knee injury than Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. For him to play at all this season after blowing out his knee last Christmas Eve in Washington would have been impressive enough. But heading into his bye week, Peterson is leading the NFL in rushing. He and Marshawn Lynch are the only players who have gone over 1,000 rushing yards. Peterson is on pace for more than 1,800 rushing yards and could even make a push for 2,000. He is averaging a career-high 5.8 yards per carry, more than a yard better than in any of his previous four seasons. Peterson is doing things on an offense in which he is the focal point, with defenses knowing they must shut him down. And they still can't. What Peterson's doctors and trainers did is beyond impressive. What the running back himself has done is beyond words.
8. Half empty for Chargers: San Diego's second-half collapse in Week 6 against Denver, the team it faces again Sunday, was emblematic of its entire season. The Chargers' second-half play has been their undoing. This season, the Chargers have thrown for 1,322 yards in the first half and only 739 in the second half. They have thrown for 12 touchdowns in the first half, only three in the second half. They have seven turnovers in the first half and 12 in the second half. And their point differential is plus-53 in the first half, minus-34 in the second half. San Diego will have to do a lot better in the second half of this season than it has in the second half of games, otherwise change will be coming to the Chargers.
9. Special-teams gem: In another season of bleak Browns football, rookie Johnson Bademosi has been a bright spot. Bademosi has become a special-teams demon, making play after play, like the Reggie Hodges punt he pinned at the 2-yard line against the Chargers. Bademosi was an undrafted free agent from Stanford. Personnel people around the league have been remarking about the frequency with which he makes special-teams plays and uses his rugby background to punish returners. Bademosi still is raw at cornerback, but not on special teams. When Cleveland plays at Dallas on Sunday, the Cowboys will have to account for Bademosi. He has become another Browns special-teams standout, like Raymond Ventrone last year and Josh Cribbs in previous years.
10. How Payton equals Peyton: Sean Payton is this offseason's Peyton Manning, minus the commercials, plus the controversy. He is this offseason's biggest wild card, a man who will reveal how certain teams think about their head coaches. Just as Manning inadvertently revealed last offseason how certain teams felt about their quarterbacks -- see San Francisco, Arizona, Denver, Tennessee, Miami, even Philadelphia, which made an early push to sign the former Colts quarterback -- Payton will do the same for teams and their coaches if New Orleans doesn't re-sign him first. Knowing Payton's contract is set to expire after this season, each team will be forced to evaluate its current head coach for next season.
Some teams content with their coaches will dip their toes into the Payton pool, only prepared to take the plunge if interest is reciprocal. Dallas could do this with Jason Garrett under contract through 2014. Washington could do this with Mike Shanahan under contract through 2014. Teams no one suspect at this point, with half the season still to play out, could do this, just as nobody expected certain teams to pursue Manning.
Due to the delay of game with Payton, who is not eligible to be reinstated until the day after the Feb. 3 Super Bowl, teams will have to wait to speak with him. It gives the Saints a running start to sign him, but if they can't, others will be waiting. The waiting game also could offer certain coaches protection they might not otherwise get. There will be teams that could hold off firing their head coach in January, only to see if they can pursue and land Payton in February. Payton's presence could keep head coaches employed longer than they ordinarily would be. It would be another sign of how different this offseason's dynamics are.
From the day the regular season ends, coaching searches usually are all-out sprints until each team finds its man. But this offseason's coaching search could be different due to the unusual circumstances surrounding Payton, just as last offseason's quarterback search was different due to the unusual circumstances surrounding the availability of Manning.
The Schef's specialties
" Game of the week: Baltimore at Pittsburgh -- This week there's Baltimore at Pittsburgh, Indianapolis at New England, San Diego at Denver, Chicago at San Francisco. Sit back and enjoy.
" Player of the week: Redskins running back Alfred Morris -- The other heralded rookie in Washington's offensive backfield has the chance to rack up some impressive numbers Sunday.
" Upset of the week: Oakland over New Orleans -- Raiders coming off an embarrassing loss, Saints coming off an emotional win, and it equals an upset in Oakland.
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