INDIANAPOLIS -- Mature beyond his years, unfailingly professional, and almost too smart for football, that is Andrew Luck. He started 38 games at Stanford, and twice was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. In his first two NFL seasons, he took the Colts to the playoffs and was invited to the Pro Bowl. Even his beard and thinning hair seem to suggest wisdom.
What he really is, though, is a 24-year-old with wide eyes and a healthy appreciation of what he does not know. And that is why the Colts are so excited about him as they prepare to start year three of the Luck era with a game against Peyton Manning's Broncos Sunday night. "Reggie Wayne, in year 14, is not going to make a 25 percent gain," said Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen. "Andrew Luck can."
This year is the first time since Luck was a college sophomore that he has had the same offensive coordinator in back to back seasons. Working in Pep Hamilton's scheme for a second straight year should help him establish offensive roots. Luck and Hamilton worked together before. Hamilton also coordinated the Stanford offense for Luck's final college season, but that was not the Colts offense. "Go back and look at the Stanford tape," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "There were no skill guys on the field 80 percent of the time. It was all extra linemen tight ends and monsters who were mashing everybody."
Last season, Luck and Hamilton were getting reacquainted while Pep was reimagining his offense. The effort became somewhat disjointed when tight end Dwayne Allen went on injured reserve with a hip injury after the first game of the season, and even more so when Wayne joined him after tearing his ACL in October. Things are different with Allen and Wayne back, with T.Y. Hilton fully established, and with the addition of Hakeem Nicks. These days Hamilton is directing an offense full of bottle rockets and Roman candles, and during training camp Luck has filled the Indiana skies with long, arcing passes.
"Last year with some new guys around him, he had to adapt and adjust," Hamilton said. "Now, things are coming together as far as having an entire arsenal of weapons and having a good understanding of what we are doing offensively. We have a feel for what he is most comfortable with as it pertains to what we use in our system. So the next step is continuing to study and understand opponents and staying one step ahead from a recognition standpoint. It's his mastery of NFL defenses. He did an amazing job of it this offseason, deciphering types of coverages he may see based on defenders' alignments, stance and body position pre-snap."
Pagano believes Luck has progressed to where even a new look from a defense will not fluster him. By now Luck has some level of familiarity with every variance known to man, and zone.
Luck spent time this offseason with Christensen and backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck studying defensive coordinators and their histories. He has a new filing system that helps catalog defenses by coordinator. "For instance, you find similarities with the way the Ryan brothers do things, and you understand their lineages led them to do it this way," Luck said. "That helps you categorize things in your head. It makes the recognition a little quicker. You know if the safeties are doing this, they probably will be doing that underneath." Luck put in overtime on NFC East defensive coordinators Bill Davis, Perry Fewell and Jim Haslett because he is scheduled to face each for the first time this season.
Another offseason point of emphasis for Luck has been trying to improve his judgment on when to give up on a play. Like many young quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks with creative abilities, Luck at times has been too confident to concede that he needs to live for another down. Pagano thinks back to a play in December of 2012 against the Chiefs. On second and 10 in the third quarter, Luck drifted toward the sideline. He kept looking, waiting for a receiver to come open, for something to happen. Waiting, waiting, waiting. "He got his ass sacked," Pagano said. "It's not the sack that bothers you as much as the hit. Playing that position, you have to know when the down is over. Move on to the next play, make sure you can move on to the next play."
In the Colts' third preseason game, Luck went down to avoid a hit. But his "slide" looked more like a tumbling, rolling cut block attempt. Pagano has joked with his offensive coaches that they must not be working on sliding with Luck. "Get a slip and slide out here, wet it down and teach the sucker how to frickin' slide!," he said.
Where to draw the line might be more confusing for Luck than it is for most quarterbacks. Luck, remember, ran a 4.59 40-yard dash before the Colts made him the first pick in the draft. And he weighs 240 pounds. So he is nimble enough to avoid, fleet enough to escape, and big enough to trample. At Stanford, early in games he used to target a defender and seek out a collision just to get the cobwebs out. In his mind he is a linebacker playing quarterback, except when he is a wide receiver. "There isn't a hard line drawn," Luck said. "It's an ever changing line. You have to understand the flow of a game and that every situation is different. There are times I have taken a hit and then looked back and thought, 'That was so unnecessary to take that hit.' At other times, I didn't try to force it in there or tucked it and ran it, and I say, 'Man I should have waited instead of throwing it away.'"
Part of it for Luck is being acutely aware of every game situation. Christensen put together a video package of plays for Luck to watch in the offseason to help him understand that in one situation, it might make sense to keep a play alive, but in another, it might not. "It's a hard teach with him," Christensen said. "It's kind of like with Michael Vick. Plays really are never dead with him."
Another part of it is being calm and poised without being detached. It is a subtle skill the great ones all master. "When you get in the swing of games you can get a little emotional," Luck said. "That's why it's good to come off to the sideline and have that debriefing by someone like Matt, a recalibration, a resetting … Sometimes during a game, your perspective can get a little skewed. To have a sort of calming influence, with a little different perspective is very beneficial. He can look at it from the same side and say if this happens, think about doing this."
Hasselbeck once was the backup quarterback for another young passer like Luck who was reluctant to ever give up on a play. That passer ended up being sacked more than any player in history, throwing more interceptions than any player in history, and throwing more touchdown passes than any player in history. "I remember with Brett Favre," Hasselbeck said. "We'd watch his interception reel. It would be like, no, no. Then we'd watch his touchdown reel. It would be yeah, yeah. But there wouldn't be much difference. It's hard to coach because it's a great part of Andrew's game, something he has that other people don't. But at the same time you want him to be healthy enough to last through a full season and then the playoffs. He can't be taking a beating on the sidelines."
In the hallway outside of the coaches offices at the Colts' facility, a large photograph hangs of Luck stretching out to score a fourth quarter touchdown against the Chiefs in the playoffs last season. It is a reminder that taking risks can be a good thing. Before scoring, Luck recovered Donald Brown's fumble at the Kansas City 5. Instead of diving on the ball as quarterbacks usually are instructed to do, Luck scooped it. And if he didn't, the Colts might not have advanced in the playoffs.
Another photograph of Luck also tells a story. A banner was put up last May on the southwest side of Lucas Oil Field that shows Luck running and looking to throw. The stadium also features banners of Adam Vinatieri, Robert Mathis and Wayne, who average 14 years of NFL experience. No one argues that Luck, with two years of experience, does not belong.
Experience is leading to confidence, which is leading to outspokenness with Luck. In practice this year, Wayne has observed Luck correcting teammates and positioning players more than he did in the past. He even coaches up Wayne. "As a receiver, that's what you want your quarterback to do, to tell you what he likes," Wayne said. "And if you do what he likes, you'll have a good chance of getting a pass. There are times when we may have a lapse here and there because the playbook is so big. He's there to recover, to tell you, wait a minute, you are supposed to do this. It's not like he's busting your balls."
Tight end Coby Fleener has noticed Luck taking more ownership of the Colts offense, not only with players but also with coaches. He said Luck has been more comfortable giving his opinion to coaches on what plays he likes and doesn't like. He is having more input on the playbook, game plans and tweaks within plans. "You get older, you get more comfortable with certain things," Luck said. "You have stronger opinions on things. You feel more comfortable making yourself heard."
Luck is feeling more comfortable in many aspects. That's what happens when quarterbacks grow.