The 2015 NFL season begins with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on the verge of pure greatness.
Luck has taken a squad that was 2-14 the year before he arrived to the playoffs in each of his first three pro campaigns, advancing a step further with each successive season. In doing so, he's established himself as the best young quarterback in the league, and by the end of the 2015 season -- with the possible exception of only Aaron Rodgers -- the modifying adjective won't be necessary.
I've talked to dozens of coaches and personnel people about Luck, and each of them has referred to the QB as a future Hall of Famer. You have to understand: Football people don't talk this way about young players. Then again, it's rare for a player so young -- Luck is turning 26 on Saturday -- to be so composed and adept, especially at such an important position. That he's done it in an era with so much media scrutiny and so many potential pitfalls speaks to his character and maturity.
There have been 30 quarterbacks drafted first overall in the NFL since 1944. Three (Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Troy Aikman) are currently in the Hall of Fame, and a fourth (Peyton Manning) is certainly on his way. Among the others, most were good-but-not-great players who never quite lived up to their billing, some notable busts -- like JaMarcus Russell, David Carr and Tim Couch -- aside. (The jury is still out on some of the more recent draftees, such as Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and, of course, Jameis Winston.)
All obviously had attributes that led them to be selected at such a lofty position. And all had the basic physical skills to warrant their ranking. Beyond that, the circumstances vary greatly. Bradshaw and Carr came from relatively small schools (Louisiana Tech and Fresno State, respectively). Jeff George bounced from Purdue to Illinois (after flirting with Miami) while Newton was drafted No. 1 based on a single year at Auburn (after transferring from Florida, where he completed all of six passes). Newton, Sam Bradford and Alex Smith all came out of spread systems, making it difficult to know how well their skills would translate to the NFL.
An explanation for Luck's proficiency is that he has virtually all of the attributes of the previous quarterbacks taken No. 1. At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Luck is as big as any quarterback on the list, save for Russell. He is as good an athlete as perhaps any other top-drafted quarterback, save for Michael Vick. Like Newton, Luck ran a fast 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.67 seconds). Like Elway, Luck was a multi-sport athlete. (In Luck's case, his other favorite sport was soccer, which he took to while growing up in Europe.) Like Peyton and Eli Manning, Luck had a father (Oliver Luck) who played in the NFL, so he always had a good idea what the pro lifestyle is like -- and, perhaps as importantly, a sense of which pitfalls to avoid. Like fellow Stanford product Elway and former graduate student Smith, Luck has a superior intellect -- he traveled abroad, was valedictorian of his high school and majored in architecture.
I think the thing that most impressed me was Luck's self-possession and true leadership abilities. A lot of quarterbacks drafted high feel like they have to project something -- confidence, calmness, authority -- but you can tell when people are acting. When Luck was drafted first overall in 2012, he came into a thankless situation, having to succeed the legendary Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Luck made no bold claims. He simply showed up on Day 1, worked harder than anyone else and earned the respect of his teammates the only way you can: by performing on the field.
Luck has proven he's for real, and in so doing, he's raised the stakes. The questions he'll face from here on out will center on whether he can lead a team to a Super Bowl title. That's a lot to put on one player, even one of Luck's caliber. Remember, Peyton Manning didn't win his first playoff game until his sixth season, and he didn't win the Super Bowl until his ninth. Elway was a 15-year veteran before he got his first ring.
These expectations also carry a price for the Colts' organization, and, more specifically, their coach. The good news for Chuck Pagano is that Luck was available to take with the first overall pick in Pagano's first year on the job. But Luck's rapid rise only serves to make Colts fans and executives more impatient. There are murmurs that Pagano is on the hot seat this year. It's worth remembering that it was not Tony Dungy who drafted Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, but Jim Mora. Mora was fired after having Manning as his starter for four years, because he couldn't win a playoff game.
Of course, virtually all coaches are on the hot seat in the NFL. But if your future and that of your coaching staff is going to rest on one person -- as it often does -- Andrew Luck is exactly the person you want carrying that weight.
I'm extremely comfortable saying Luck will both be in the Hall of Fame and a Super Bowl champion -- but it's up to Pagano as to whether Luck will accomplish the latter during Pagano's tenure.