I am one of the 50 voters for The Associated Press' NFL awards. It is a responsibility that I take a lot of pride in -- and one I take very seriously. I start taking notes and compiling names for the various awards in late October. I watch the games. I talk to people. I don't want to be reactionary. I always come to my own conclusions.
With one quarter left in this season, Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck is the leading candidate for the 2012 NFL MVP Award.
In an adversity-filled season, on a team filled with holes, Luck is the reason that the Colts are enjoying this amazing turnaround.
In making my pick for this prestigious award, I always stress the word "valuable." Indianapolis was the worst team in the NFL last year. This year's installment is 8-4. The Colts aren't sneaking into the tournament; they have more wins than the Pittsburgh Steelers, one less than the Baltimore Ravens. It's noteworthy. If the season ended today, Indianapolis would be the No. 5 seed in the AFC.
Luck had another heart-stopping MVP moment this past Sunday in a thrilling comeback win over the Detroit Lions. With no time left, the neophyte flipped his fourth touchdown pass of the game, connecting with Donnie Avery to give the Colts a 35-33 road victory. It was Luck's fifth game-winning drive of the season. That's an incredible stat. It feels more magical watching the games, especially the contests against Detroit, the Green Bay Packers (Indy was down 21-3 at half) and the Tennessee Titans (an overtime win).
The Colts aren't blessed with a ton of talent. Vick Ballard runs the ball. Donald Brown can't stay healthy. The offensive line won't be confused with "The Hogs" who played for Joe Gibbs. Receiver T.Y Hilton is young. So are the tight ends. Luck has played much of the season without his former Stanford teammate and fellow rookie Coby Fleener. Luck maximizes the personnel around him. He provides incredible leadership and poise, mirroring that of a 10-year All-Pro.
Now, Reggie Wayne is a dominant rock at receiver. He's enjoyed a fantastic 2012 season, even changing positions and where he lines up. Wayne immediately established a fine rapport with his rookie quarterback, despite having caught passes from the iconic Peyton Manning over the first 10 seasons of his career. It is a credit to Luck that Wayne hasn't missed a beat.
The Colts have the third-best offense in the NFL. Luck is fourth in passing yards. This is stunning. This is value. This is carrying a team.
The Colts' defense will not be confused with the '85 Bears. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has done a nice job implementing head coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 scheme, fitting players who were drafted by the prior regime to play in the 4-3 -- most notably ends-turned-linebackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Both have missed time this year due to injury. The linebackers and corners are relatively unremarkable. The Colts have the 21st-ranked defense in the NFL.
I firmly believe that great quarterbacks -- clutch quarterbacks -- add to the overall confidence level of a team, boost accountability and generally raise the level of play. We've seen it with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning over the last decade. We are seeing it with the 2012 Indianapolis Colts because of Andrew Luck. It's even more impressive that Luck is doing this in his first year as a pro.
The skeptic will compare Luck's relatively small number of touchdown passes (17) to the figures from Manning (29) and Brady (25) this season. Heck, Luck's total is even lower than Carson Palmer's (20). I truly don't care about fantasy numbers when I consider the MVP. I'm more interested in the wins, fourth-quarter play and overachievement. The hater will rightly point to Luck's awful performance against Brady and the New England Patriots (in a 59-24 Colts loss). That's valid. But look at how Luck bounced back after that game. Luck also laid an egg earlier in the season against the New York Jets. He then rallied the troops and propelled his team on a winning streak to take control of their destiny down the stretch.
Luck's case reminds me of Miguel Tejada's 2002 season with the Oakland Athletics. The A's were the biggest overachievers. Tejada carried them on offense. Other candidates had inflated (and better) statistics. Tejada rightly won the American League MVP Award.
Did I mention that Luck's coach is away from the team, battling leukemia?
The Colts are most certainly "Chuckstrong," playing hard for Pagano as he fights this disease. Not every team would be this organized sans the head man. Look at the New Orleans Saints. Credit interim head coach Bruce Arians for his guidance. This is a lot for any team, any quarterback to have on their plate. For Luck to handle it all with such aplomb is impressive. He's wise beyond his years. Normally, I would get queasy intertwining real life (an illness) with the toy department of football. But we shouldn't overlook what Luck and the Colts have done. It's part of the case for Andrew Luck.
Then we get into the rest of the candidates.
Manning has been absolutely majestic coming off of multiple major surgeries. After the Denver Broncos' unbelievable comeback win over the San Diego Chargers in mid-October, I predicted Manning and Co. wouldn't lose again. They haven't. Denver has more talent around Manning and a vastly superior defense, led by Von Miller. Manning is currently No. 2 on my MVP list.
Adrian Peterson has been a one-man band, leading the Minnesota Vikings to a 6-6 mark thus far. It would have to be a special circumstance for me to endorse a player from a non-playoff team for league MVP. Peterson is my current choice for Offensive Player of the Year, even though I am philosophically opposed to that award.
I'm not against voting for a defensive player, but there isn't one I'd rank ahead of the aforementioned stars on offense.
Actually, I think the best case against Luck is the majestic nature of two of his fellow neophyte quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. RG3 is the reason why the banged-up and flawed Washington Redskins are 6-6, competing for a playoff spot with his savvy and sizzle. It's a true shame that Wilson is the third-best rookie quarterback. In any other year, he'd be the Rookie of the Year. The Seattle Seahawks are 7-5, in line for the sixth seed in the NFC. Wilson led the Seahawks to an overtime win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday, debunking the myth that Seattle can't win on the road at an ultra-important time. In his last four games, Wilson has a passer rating of 120.4.
But that would be overthinking it.
I'm opinionated, but I'm not stubborn. If Luck slips on the proverbial banana peel down the stretch, we can have a different conversation.
But right now, I feel strongly. The functioning word is "valuable."