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Jacoby Brissett set up to succeed after Andrew Luck's retirement

"I'm excited for the future of the Colts in large part because of Jacoby," retiring Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said Saturday night, a jarring statement in a press conference that disproved the cliché that it had to be seen to be believed.

This will take time for the Colts to process. Coach Frank Reich and owner Jim Irsay looked like they'd seen a ghost, that they didn't quite believe that this new era was already underway. They have no other choice. Whether it was Luck at the podium pouring out his love and insecurities or general manager Chris Ballard showing resolve regarding the team he built, the topic kept coming back to Jacoby Brissett.

Brissett is the fourth-year quarterback acquired from the New England Patriots just before Week 1 of the 2017 season, after the last injury-related Luck shockwave hit the team. Brissett is now the player who is most responsible for bringing the Colts back to the playoffs without Luck and he's inspired no shortage of faith in those around him.

The Colts' Super Bowl ceiling is undeniably lower than it was last week, but one takeaway from Saturday evening was that the Colts believe they can still win with Brissett. I believe them.

"We've got a good football team," Ballard insisted. "Young, good on both fronts. Some good, young skill players. And a good young quarterback in Jacoby Brissett. We're not going to ask him to be Andrew Luck. ... But Jacoby Brissett is a winning football player in this league."

Brissett had been with the team for a week when he took over the Colts' starting quarterback job late in the 2017 opener. He was learning then-coordinator Rob Chudzinski's offense on the fly, playing behind a porous offensive line for a defensive-minded coach who coached one of football's worst defenses. It predictably didn't go well for the 4-12 Colts, but Brissett displayed professionalism, toughness and promise in a campaign that included 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 6.6 yards per attempt.

The team Brissett inherits for the 2019 season is superior in every way. The offensive line returns all five starters from one of the league's best units. T.Y. Hilton, who Luck called the best player and teammate he's ever played with, looked absolutely primed for a career year after a scorching camp catching passes from Brissett. Ballard's excellent 2018 draft included Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard, while he overhauled the defensive line with veteran finds like Denico Autry and Margus Hunt. Most importantly, Ballard wound up with Reich as his coach when Brissett's old buddy Josh McDaniels left the Colts at the alter.

Between Peyton Manning's retirement, McDaniels' abrupt turnabout and Luck's retirement, no franchise has had more seismic press conferences this decade.

Reich will put Brissett in a position to succeed. The Colts coach was integral in elevating Nick Foles to a Super Bowl legend, then shepherding Luck into a different playing style, ultimately the best season of Luck's career. Reich helped make one of football's smartest players play much smarter.

The season that Brissett enjoyed as Luck's backup in Reich's system should be invaluable now. His arm may not be as strong as Luck's, but it's plenty strong. He's not as athletic as Luck (few are), but he can move well in the pocket. The bigger challenge will be for Brissett to get rid of the ball quicker after taking unnecessary sacks in 2017. Reich's offense values quick, shorter throws, not known as Brissett's strengths. While Reich said Saturday night he told Brissett to take a "few days" to emotionally process his close friend retiring, the Colts believe they have the right man to handle such a unique situation.

"Jacoby is a rare, rare leader," Ballard said with emphasis. "He is. He's a rare human being, man. That locker room loves Jacoby Brissett. They love him. ... He's a special guy, man. I'm excited to watch him play."

This looks like coachspeak when written on the page. But Brissett's backstory and Luck's words Saturday night help reveal how Brissett is a different type of dude.

"Coming back into the building last year, I was very jealous and resentful of this fun, happy dude that was in my spot as a quarterback on this team," Luck said. "I obviously didn't have a lot of confidence in myself at that time either. But I could not have been more wrong, and he helped me grow in so many ways. He's a lifelong friend. He means so, so much to me. He's been a big part of me having one of the more rewarding years of my football life last year."

It says a lot about Luck that he was willing to be that open about his weaker moments, and it says a lot about Brissett that he became someone Luck leaned on, who helped Luck grow despite being three years younger. Brissett inspired similar devotion from Bill Parcells, who mentored Brissett when he was a Florida teen.

The connection to Parcells is partly why the Patriots drafted Brissett in the third round of the 2016 draft despite already having Jimmy Garoppolo backing up Tom Brady. No one was sure if Brissett had the accuracy to succeed as a pro, but Parcells calling Brissett a "Curtis Martin, Willie McGinest, Troy Brown type player" carried weight. Now four years removed from those statements, Brissett has a chance to fulfill that promise.

Luck's retirement and the stunning hours that followed will be remembered in Indianapolis for as long as football is played, and it will be difficult for the 2019 Colts to accomplish anything that overshadows its import. But Ballard and Luck were quick to note that Brissett, supported by a deep roster and a creative coach, has a chance to make his own legend this season. This remains a squad with the talent -- and the quarterback -- to finish ahead of the Texans, Titans and Jaguars.

"I'm excited. Teams win," Ballard said. "Don't write the end of the story yet. The story is just starting. Everyone is going to write the end of the story, but I'm telling you, the story's not over yet.

*Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal. *

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