INDIANAPOLIS -- To the marvels of the NFL that include Adrian Peterson's adaptability and J.J. Watt's elasticity, we can go ahead and add Andrew Luck's maturity, which key witnesses keep spotting all over the place.
They have found it in the huddle: "Just in the huddle when it's at the critical time of the game, he comes in the huddle and just kind of commands everybody to give their all," running back Vick Ballard said. "You can just feel the seriousness from him, his want to win the game."
They have found it in the meetings: "His most redeeming quality is he doesn't pretend to have all the answers," backup quarterback Drew Stanton said. "That's a good sign of a mature human being," especially when the branding of "franchise quarterback" might lead "some people might view it as a weakness if they didn't have the answers, but I think he wants to find the answers -- by Sunday."
They have found it in the repercussions: "When something goes wrong, he'll be the first to take the blame even when it's not his fault," guard Joe Reitz said. "A leader like that, you're happy to play with."
They have found it even from the embryonic moments of July: "I think it was the first morning, the first huddle he stepped in here," interim head coach Bruce Arians said. "I said, 'Whew, this guy's got it,' the first meeting I had with him. You could tell he took it straight from the meeting onto the field, and we put in our empty package and Greg (Manusky, defensive coordinator) put in about 20 blitzes, and (Luck) said, 'I felt like I was in a tsunami but I didn't drown.'
"He came, he looked at the tape, he said, 'Damn, that's simple,' and it was simple from then on out. Every time we had that package in training camp, he whipped 'em pretty good. That's the type of thing that I can put my hand on."
Here at Colts practice headquarters, where the allegedly rebuilding team is 6-3, where they're playing for their leukemia-stricken head coach-on-hiatus, where the mood is uplifting and where the camaraderie might even upgrade your lousy day, the quarterback is a 23-year-old rookie who appears to be a 28-year-old veteran. "You don't view him as a rookie," Reitz said. "Sometimes you forget he's a rookie."
It seems worthy of a reminder that the 23-year-old rookie who appears to be a 28-year-old veteran became a Colt only seven months ago, when Indianapolis selected him first overall in the annual American holiday known as the NFL Draft. Of course, being a 23-year-old rookie who appears to be a 28-year-old veteran, he says this about his way-early days: "When I was drafted, I was worried about making it to the first OTA (organized team activity) minicamp, and then the next day making sure not to be late for the meeting."
That's spoken like a 23-year-old rookie who appears to be a 28-year-old veteran and, to boot, a high school valedictorian in Houston and an enthusiastic student at Stanford and a former kid spending a chunk of his upbringing abroad in Frankfurt, Germany, which still leaves him prudently prone to watch European soccer in free time. His father, Oliver Luck, notes the various studies done on kids growing up abroad, not the usual thing you hear from a quarterback, except that this was a West Virginia quarterback, a Phi Beta Kappa, a Rhodes Scholar finalist, an NFL quarterback, a law school graduate and an NFL Europe business quarterback.
Did the peripatetic past boost the precious present? "The short answer is I really don't know," said Oliver, the West Virginia athletic director, but noting the studies, he said, "They learn to be a little more outgoing. A little bit more tolerant because of the different customs they've been plugged into. Does that help when you get drafted, walk into the locker room? It probably does. You could see where you'd say, 'I've been through this so many times; here's my M.O.: Keep my mouth shut, prove it on the field, be nice to people.'"
Evidently he has kept his mouth shut except for making friends and asking questions about things he does not know, proved it on the field and been nice to people, who genuinely like him. The Colts have won four in a row. They have weathered taut games, rallied thrice from second-half deficits and charmed anyone who will bother to look. They take their great story to New England on Sunday for a showdown with Tom Brady's Patriots in what Arians calls their first road playoff atmosphere. That follows upon a home playoff atmosphere on Nov. 4 against Miami, a 23-20 win in which a 23-year-old quarterback who appears to be, you know, threw for 433 yards to set an NFL record for a rookie, a record that should stand for a while unless somebody in authority just goes ahead and decrees he's not really a rookie.
In nine games, the 23-year-old rookie who appears to be a 28-year-old veteran has dovetailed with the 33-year-old star receiver (Reggie Wayne) enough to surprise the coach. "I'm surprised how quickly" they have meshed, "because Reggie is in so many positions," Arians said. "He's not just lined up on the left side how he used to be." Arians estimated "50 or 60 formations," not that this stands much chance against Luck's maturity.
"What's he going to be like?" Luck wondered of Wayne at first. "Standoffish?"
And: "He's a great teammate. He's been awesome to be around."
A keen eye, in fact, can watch the NFL's freneticism fading before Luck's equanimity. "It's starting to slow down for him," Stanton said. "He's starting to make the checks, see and identify what the defense is doing. Make a defense show its hand, then make the adjustment and make them pay for it. It's been interesting to watch his command" gather.
For a good chunk of that, Oliver Luck stands in Morgantown and thinks of Indianapolis and points some credit toward Stanford: "Between Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw and Pep Hamilton, there's a lot of NFL coaching experience with those guys." You could factor into that a footballing father except that Oliver Luck purposely stopped talking football with the lad after coaching his Pop Warner team, deciding, "There was no need for me to stick my nose into it."
It's all so heady that he cautions, "He does make mistakes, and will continue to do so," but an equation seems to have congealed: Time abroad plus Texas prep football plus Stanford coaches plus natural curiosity plus fine intellect plus the excellent arm plus swiftness afoot plus humility equals one 6-foot-3 column of maturity, so that when Reitz gets to the humility part and a listener kind of shakes his head at the size of the list of the attributes, Reitz just gives a knowing nod and says:
"Yeah, he's a good one, man."