|Andrew Luck, if possible, has outplayed expectations. (US Presswire)|
They have a rookie quarterback, a rookie general manager, an interim head coach and a supporting cast consisting largely of nobodies, yet somehow, some way, the Indianapolis Colts are winning football games. In fact, they're winning so many that people already are beginning to mention them as -- dare we say it? -- playoff candidates.
"That's crazy talk, it's madness talk," said Colts' owner Jim Irsay, "and you wonder who would think up such a thing? But it would be great, and you know something? If we're healthy enough I think we can make a run at it."
So do I, and there are a couple of reasons. First, let's start with the schedule. At 5-3, the Colts are tied for the third-best record in the AFC, and of their last eight games only three are against teams with winning records. Two are vs. defending division champion Houston, but one of those contests is the last game of the season -- and you know what that means.
Yep, the Texans could be resting starters for the playoffs. Plus, the game's in Indianapolis, where the Colts are 4-1.
But it's not the schedule that makes Indianapolis so appealing. It's Andrew Luck. The rookie quarterback already has more victories (five) than Peyton Manning (three) had his entire rookie season, and I know the comparison's unfair -- only it's not. Not when you consider Manning was the first pick of the 1998 draft, and he was taken by the Colts, and Luck was the first pick of the draft 14 years later -- taken by the same Indianapolis Colts.
The two forever will be linked because Luck couldn't take over the Colts until or unless Manning left. And Manning exited because the Colts couldn't invest the money or the cap room required to keep two starting quarterbacks, which meant one had to go.
That choice was left to Irsay, and it was a difficult and emotional decision. But it was a necessary one -- and now you see why. Because the Colts had to turn to the future, and Andrew Luck was it. Now, they have a quarterback who is so poised, so talented and so successful he just might be the next Peyton Manning.
"If we could make the playoffs in his first season it would be incredible," Irsay said, "because I think 98 percent of our fans understood the circumstances we had to go through. As much as Peyton wanted to be here, and as much as I wanted him here it just couldn't work out. And that's what made it painful.
"It ripped at my heartstrings (to release him), but you do what you have to do. You know what's right and what's the only move on the board, but at the same time that doesn't mean it's not difficult.
"It was. Peyton and I are friends, and we text each other all the time. He's forever a Colt and an icon here (in Indianapolis) and a statue waiting to be built. And it would be great if we could play each other in the playoffs, wouldn't it? I mean, that would be crazy. But that's a long way away. We're just trying to take this one game at a time."
Good idea. Because there are no guarantees with rookie quarterbacks or interim head coaches. Yet there is something about these Colts playing without and for coach Chuck Pagano that makes you think the improbable is possible, and that's another reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, these guys are playing by different rules.
Pagano, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia, watched his team beat Miami a week ago, then addressed players in the locker room afterward, and if you watched the video you know what I'm talking about when I say there is something almost magical about these Colts.
They win when they shouldn't. They make plays they're not supposed to make. And they carry on when their head coach can't. I don't know that there's a better story out there today -- especially when you add Luck's name to it.
"With Andrew, I don't know what to say," Irsay said. "He's just very, very special -- so special it's hard to describe. I just know that if you were sitting in a press box and didn't know the details about what you were witnessing on the football field, and then someone told you that was a rookie quarterback you'd probably admit yourself to a padded room -- because you usually don't see that kind of play from rookies."
Well, we did in 1998 when Manning was in his first year. Granted, the Colts won only three games, but you could see the possibilities. And those possibilities were realized one year later when the Colts reversed their record and won their division.
"There's no question there are some similarities," Irsay said. "They both are the products of football fathers. They both come from great families. And they both are so intensely cerebral quarterbacks who are connected to their teams and determined to make themselves and their teams better and to win.
"With Peyton, the No. 1 thing about him is his ability to be great for a long, long period of time and to be consistent over those years. There's no question that (interim coach) Bruce Arians is in a great position to make the comparison, but Andrew Luck is not trying to compare himself to Peyton or to be Peyton. He's just trying to be Andrew Luck and the best Andrew Luck he can be.
"In the end, of course, it's a blessing to have both of them. To go from Peyton to Andrew -- that's something that's so special. In a quarterback-driven league just to have one of these guys gives you a chance to win and be successful."
That's happening in Denver where Manning looks like the Manning of three or four years ago, and the Broncos are on the fast track to defend their AFC West championship. But it wasn't supposed to happen in Indianapolis. Not now. The Colts were 2-14 a year ago, and, with a new general manager, new head coach, new quarterback, new offense and a raft of salary-cap concerns, they were supposed to be one notch above an expansion franchise.
Only they're not. Halfway through the season they're in the middle of the playoff picture.
"Yeah, I know, when Andrew was drafted it was like 'Poor Andrew Luck,' " Irsay said. "'He's going to the Colts, and you have to feel sorry for the guy. It's too bad he's going to end up in a situation that's so horrendous. It's sad because they're bad.' But what people don't realize is that I always look at things as a five-to-seven year program. I fully expected it to take time until we got the cap room, and to build -- but nobody likes to hear you talk about rebuilding.
"Peyton was going to a team where he could be successful and where a team not only made the playoffs but won a playoff game. So he'd have a chance at another ring. And RG3 (Robert Griffin III), with all his skill and ability, was going to the Redskins where they didn't have a new coach or a new system, and where there was veteran talent around him, so that situation looked better, too.
"But we live in a world where every 30 minutes there's a new judgment out there, and now people look at us differently. But me? I didn't look at this and think there was any question about what we were doing. In fact, the funny thing is when I first looked at our team I saw potential for (winning) there, but what I wasn't so sure about was the health part of it -- and, of course, the fact that what you see on paper sometimes doesn't always carry over to what happens on the field.
"But we're in unchartered territory. At least with the Saints' situation (losing head coach Sean Payton because of Bountygate), they had time to plan. This (Pagano's situation) came out of nowhere, and it was something that was so overwhelming.
"But look what's happening. It's the stuff of Hollywood scripts and books. It's been something I'm blessed to be a part of, and the great news is that he (Pagano) couldn't be doing better. There are some things I've witnessed this year that are among the most special times in franchise history, and I really believe there's going to be a great ending to it."
For his sake, for the sake of Luck and Arians and Pagano, I hope so. I think we all do.