CHICAGO to INDIANAPOLIS -- First, it was Peyton Manning taking the first step in attempting to prove his future is just as promising as his past. Three days later, it was a rookie charged with the daunting task of being the next Peyton Manning.Andrew Luck in his NFL preseason debut for the Indianapolis Colts vs. the St. Louis Rams at Lucas Oil Stadium.
I was there for both games, watching the cerebral quarterbacks take their first snaps with their new teams in blowout wins. The similarities between the Ghost of Manning Present and the Ghost of Manning Future were evident.
Along the course of my escapade, I uncovered six truths:
Truth No. 1: Comparisons between Manning and Luck will live forever.
No way around it. Manning was the linchpin of the Colts franchise since 1998, earning four MVP awards, nine playoff wins and a Super Bowl title for Indianapolis. He was its commercial face and its competitive face, and as soon as he exited, Luck stepped in. Of course, Luck will always be measured against Manning. Who else would he be compared to? How often does a possible legend replace an established one in this manner? Same city, same team, same position, same draft status, same style of play, same pedigree. That was obvious when Luck's first preseason pass, a short throw, went for a long touchdown. It was just like Manning's first strike to Marvin Harrison in 1998 -- and of course, it was a topic of postgame conversation. "Guess it's a coincidence," Luck said. "Funny." More like fitting.
Truth No. 2: Concerns about arm strength are overrated.
As Manning battles to return to the form he showed before his neck surgeries, all eyes are on his arm. In my view, his arm strength would be described as mediocre at best, even though team executive John Elway believes Manning is flashing the same arm as he did in 2009 and 2010. In fact, both are true. As Manning aged, his arm strength waned. We just didn't notice because all he did in 2010 was set his career high with 4,700 passing yards. His mind hasn't gone anywhere, so Manning will still check into the right play and find the open guy, even if the action's not 70 yards downfield. Same with Luck. When scouts are forced to nitpick the 2012 NFL Draft's top pick, they mention that he doesn't have the "laser, rocket arm" that Manning cleverly referred to in a Sprint commercial. Didn't look like it bothered Luck in college or last Sunday, even if he rarely made difficult throws in his Colts debut. Both quarterbacks ease arm concerns with their mind, finding the right matchups to exploit. Makes one wonder how valuable a cannon arm really is to a quarterback.
Truth No. 3: Being the son of a famous father has helped immensely.
Manning and Luck share the same reasoned thinking and ability to shrug off the types of questions that typically engender controversial answers. Both sound like players well-schooled in living a life that is open for public scrutiny. I left both players struck by how their fathers trained them for life in the media, mostly because they understand how to be accessible and still say the right thing. Manning grew up in Archie's shadow, witnessing the demands of a public person and how media firestorms transpire. No one works the media better than Manning. As for Luck, his father Oliver was a mostly unknown NFL quarterback, but he's one of the most well-known men in his current state of residence, West Virginia. Oliver was a record-setting, three-year starter for the Mountaineers three decades ago and now serves as the school's savvy athletic director. Perhaps thanks to watching his father deftly handle reporters, Andrew is never caught off guard by a question and fully understands the expectations that surround him. It's like both Manning and Luck got the answers before the test.
Truth No. 4: Luck really is starting his career in the same place as Manning did.
With a heap of hype as the No. 1 overall pick out of Tennessee back in 1998, Manning started all 16 games in his rookie season. With the Colts woefully undermanned, Manning immediately became the team's leader and he took Indy to a 3-13 record. Over the course of that debut season, Manning threw more passes than he'd throw in 10 of his next 11 seasons, racking up what's still his career high in interceptions (28) along the way. But by the time 1999 came around, Manning had completely turned around his team. Don't be shocked if Luck's career has the same trajectory. While rebuilding, the Colts have little experienced talent. Their offensive line will leak, receiver Reggie Wayne is the only proven, consistent threat in the passing game, and the transitioning defense will struggle mightily to stop the run. It will be ugly, bank on that. Just remember Manning's experience -- one that hardened and benefited him -- when the Colts are 1-7 at the midway point this season. The future will remain bright.
Truth No. 5: Excitement abounds in Indianapolis and Denver.
The fan feeding frenzy was obvious at both locations. In Indy, the sheer volume of No. 12 jerseys in the stands was eye-popping. Meanwhile, the attendance figures from Broncos camp roughly doubled last year's. Both teams dealt with the departure of a star who galvanized the surrounding areas, yet those who cheer for both seem to have moved on. Manning still draws media coverage in Indianapolis, but not nearly as much as Luck. Tim Tebow is still a topic of conversation in Denver, but Manning-mania has knocked him off the front page. It's like having a difficult breakup with your girlfriend, then having Mila Kunis walk up and ask, "Is this seat taken?" All of which triggers one outcome: Crippling pressure on both quarterbacks. Now, Colts fans seem to understand, after last year, that success will take time. Broncos fans do not. Nor should they.
Truth No. 6: Luck has a chance to be nearly as marketable as Manning.
It's unfair to Manning, one of the world's most convincing pitch men, to begin comparing Luck in a marketability sense. As evidenced by Manning's latest masterpiece -- his Buick commercial -- the rest of the athletic world has a long way to go to catch him. But Luck is already exhibiting qualities that make one think he can be the next Manning, commercially. Early in camp, Luck was booed off the stage by his teammates for a full-throated and reportedly terrible rendition of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Of course it was bad. But to be truly comedic, one must be willing to really sell it at his own expense. That's what Manning did so fantastically on "Saturday Night Live," and Luck has followed suit. Luck answers questions in that familiar, self-effacing manner. Last week, he corrected reporters who noted how he "ran over defenders in college all the time" by saying, "I don't know about all the time." Close your eyes, and his flat tone even sounds like Manning. It's uncanny.
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