Analysis  

 

Andrew Luck vs. Jim Harbaugh takes center stage; 10 questions

INDIANAPOLIS -- It is tempting to think that the Andrew Luck who alighted on the NFL last season, who is now perhaps its best young quarterback, emerged fully formed from Jim Harbaugh's Palo Alto laboratory.

That, of course, is not wholly true.

Harbaugh and Luck first met when Luck attended a camp at Stanford while he was still in high school and Harbaugh invited Luck and his father up to his office. It was being remodeled at the time, and Harbaugh apologized for that, then launched into a 45-minute conversation with Oliver -- two former pro quarterbacks talking football, the younger Luck just sitting there and listening. Harbaugh eventually coached Luck at Stanford, mentored him not only on the field but in what role to take in the locker room as a quarterback. He created an "ethos" of competition at Stanford, Luck said, that Luck took to heart, first as a freshman and then as a professional.

Harbaugh injected an energy and exuberance into the game -- the coach demanded that his quarterbacks vote on the name of his soon-to-be-born daughter (their choice, Addison, did not prevail) -- and Luck considers the half-crazy public image of his former coach with a smile.

"You're never sure what's going to happen next," Luck said earlier this week.

True.

Luck and Harbaugh don't talk much now because of their busy schedules, though Luck considers their relationship good and says they could probably sit down and have an eight-hour conversation.

But Luck also has a father who was an NFL quarterback, allowing him the same sort of inside look at what life in the spotlight is like that Peyton Manning had before him. It was Oliver who advised Luck to remain low-key, to shun most endorsement opportunities in his first few years, the better to focus his attention on football. And last season, Luck leaned on Clyde Christensen, the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback coach, who instructed Luck on everything from when to nap to how to most effectively watch film to the least obtrusive way to check into the team hotel.

When Luck ponders facing Harbaugh for the first time Sunday, he dismisses any advantage or disadvantage either might have because of familiarity. The identity of the San Francisco 49ers is different than the one at Stanford, despite how many former Cardinal coaches are on Harbaugh's staff now.

"I don't think you want to get caught in that game, 'Remember in spring ball that day?' -- then you start chasing ghosts," Luck said. "I put much more credence in the film than anything I think I thought at Stanford."

As it turns out, when mentor meets mentee in Candlestick Park, Luck might be able to claim at least as much influence on Harbaugh's fate as the other way around.

The Wednesday acquisition of Trent Richardson by the Colts gave Harbaugh and his staff something new to worry about, and Richardson's integration into the Colts' offense will be the most immediate theme to emerge from this game. But if Colin Kaepernick shreds the Colts? Don't just blame their defense. Blame Luck.

Luck might have been the first person to alert Harbaugh to Kaepernick, after the two quarterbacks met at the Manning Passing Academy before Luck's redshirt sophomore year at Stanford in 2010. Luck was already a designated star of the future. Kaepernick, from Nevada, essentially had to talk his way into the quarterback camp (at which college players counsel high schoolers, while also getting the opportunity to show off their own skills in front of NFL types). Luck and Kaepernick became friends, and when Luck got back to Stanford, Harbaugh asked him if he saw anybody good.

"He lit up talking about Colin," Harbaugh recalled this week. "It was the first name out of his mouth. I thought that spoke volumes."

The next spring, after Harbaugh got the job with the 49ers, he headed to Reno to see Kaepernick. He talked to the young QB briefly, then headed to a football field, where a high-energy competition ensued. Who could throw the best spiral? Who would place the ball better between the goalposts? But all that time, Harbaugh also saw the similarities in his pupils.

"That was my first impression when I met Colin -- how much like Andrew he was from a personality standpoint," Harbaugh said.

Luck downplays his impact on the fortunes of both Kaepernick and the franchise he is now charged with beating.

"I don't think I would ever give a scouting report on a quarterback to a coach," Luck said. "My thoughts were, What a nice guy, a great personality and what a good-looking athlete with an incredible arm. It definitely was not, You've got to see this five-step."

There will be plenty to see on Sunday, though.

And now, here are 10 more things to watch in this week's games -- brought to you, this time around, in question form:

1) How does Peyton Manning adjust to the loss of his blind-side protector, Ryan Clady? Last season, Clady allowed just one sack -- one -- the fewest among 16-game starters at left tackle. Something to keep in mind: According to statistics compiled by Pro Football Focus, Manning handles pressure up the middle just fine -- his struggles come when he faces pressure from the edges. Another thing to keep in mind: The Oakland Raiders, Monday night's opponent, entered this week tied for the most sacks in the league with nine.

2) How will Geno Smith fare against his nemesis? In Week 2, the New York Jets' rookie quarterback threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in a tight loss to the rival New England Patriots. Now, Smith encounters an even bigger tormentor: Doug Marrone. When Marrone, now the Buffalo Bills' head coach, was at Syracuse, the Orange owned Smith and West Virginia. Syracuse beat WVU in all three games Smith started, outscoring the Mountaineers 106-51, sacking Smith 12 times and snagging five interceptions. You know Jets brass will be watching closely -- they extensively scouted Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and met with him before the draft.

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3) When the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, what wins? Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is averaging 406.5 passing yards per game this season, with seven touchdowns and one interception. He threw for 335 yards in the first half against the Washington Redskins last week. But the Cincinnati Bengals' defense has gone 16 consecutive games -- the equivalent of a full season -- without allowing a 300-yard passer, the longest such active stretch in the NFL.

4) Will the Jacksonville Jaguars score a point? They have scored just 11 so far, and now they visit the Seattle Seahawks, who boast the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense (10 total points yielded through two weeks). At least one person is sure to be busy Sunday: Jaguars punter Bryan Anger has 19 punts in two games. That's the third-most punts ever through a season's first two weeks -- and the most for a punter on a non-expansion team.

5) When will defenses catch up to quarterbacks? Quarterbacks threw 111 touchdown passes through the first two weeks, the most in that period in NFL history. Last week, three quarterbacks (Rodgers, Michael Vick and Philip Rivers) threw for at least 400 yards with no interceptions -- the most ever in a single week. And there have already been five games this season in which quarterbacks have equaled that feat -- just one short of the single-season record.

6) Can Eli Manning rebound against the Carolina Panthers? Both teams are hoping to get their first win, but Manning is in an even more unexpected spot, with five touchdown passes and seven interceptions. The two-time Super Bowl MVP is one of six quarterbacks with more interceptions than touchdowns, and the company he is keeping is not very impressive: Geno Smith, Christian Ponder, Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert and Terrelle Pryor.


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7) Will the New England Patriots snap out of their funk against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? The Pats have declined in every major offensive category so far this season, most glaringly in points scored, which is down from 34.8 per game in 2012 to 18. Tom Brady's completion percentage (52.7) is third-worst in the league. Brady said cornerback Darrelle Revis is the best he's ever faced. Revis has been targeted 10 times in two games and has allowed four completions.

8) Will the Baltimore Ravens be able to stay with their new offensive identity -- pass, and then pass again -- against the Houston Texans? Baltimore is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL. And now John Harbaugh says Ray Rice will be a game-time decision. In the meantime, the Ravens -- not the Eagles or Broncos or Patriots -- lead the league in plays run so far, with 158, and they rank first in pass attempts. The Texans rank third against the pass, and J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing each have two sacks.

9) Can Eddie Royal continue his throwback season against the Tennessee Titans? Royal has five receiving touchdowns in the first two games; the last person to do that was Marvin Harrison 14 years ago. And it equals the total receiving touchdowns from Royal's last four seasons combined.

10) Is Matt Ryan going to take a beating from the Miami Dolphins? The Dolphins have nine sacks in two games. Ryan has been sacked five times and has been knocked down 16 times, tied for third-most in the league. And remember, the Miami D doesn't have to worry about running back Steven Jackson.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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