Few NFL stories are big enough to take multiple days to unpack, shoving all other headlines to the side and dominating the news cycle. Andrew Luck retiring from the NFL at the age of 29 just weeks before the 2019 season begins absolutely qualifies.
There are many questions that need asking of the Colts' current state -- can they win with Jacoby Brissett, did the fans have the right to boo him, what does the bettor market look like -- but I'm more interested in diving into the past and asking some questions about the year 2012.
When Luck came out of Stanford, he was one of the three best NFL Draft prospects of the last 35 years, along with Peyton Manning and John Elway. Boy, the Colts really can choose them. He was a no brainer choice with the top overall pick, provided you didn't have a quarterback.
Which is what makes the Colts draft-day decision so interesting: they DID have a quarterback. Peyton spent the 2011 season not playing football after undergoing what we would eventually learn was four different surgeries on his neck. The Colts made a tough decision, knowing Luck would leave Stanford (he was out of eligibility) and gambled on the young player instead of hoping the single greatest player in the history of their franchise could overcome his medical issues.
Manning did overcome those issues, by the way. He would sign with Elway (hello history, nice to see you all intertwined and inextricably linked) in Denver and have just a little bit of success in his four years with the Broncos.
So here is my question: knowing how things played out with Luck and knowing how things played out with Peyton, would the Colts have walked the same path they took in 2012 over again?
It's an incredible "What if" scenario to look back on and something we covered on Tuesday's Pick Six Podcast (listen in the player below and make sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts for your daily dose of NFL banter).
We're talking two Hall of Fame talents, one on the precipice of a career, the other winding down a masterful run with Canton on lockdown and an owner desperate for a second Super Bowl willing to sacrifice the veteran at the crossroads.
But here is my hypothesis: I do not believe Jim Irsay would have drafted Andrew Luck with the first overall pick if he'd known the outcome for Luck and Manning. We're talking hindsight here, of course, and I don't begrudge him for making the move that he did. But if he could do it over? I believe Irsay would have kept Manning.
For starters, there is a very simple argument that taking a quarterback No. 1 overall, with as much hype as Luck had, and watching him play just 86 games without bringing a team a championship, while missing an entire season with a shoulder injury, would qualify him as a bust.
Yes, that's right. You can argue Andrew Luck was a bust where he was drafted. Not in the sense of JaMarcus Russell or Joey Harrington or, if you want to wrap another strand in the historical weave we've built here, Ryan Leaf. Luck was one of the five best quarterbacks in football for various stretches of his career. That 2012 season, in which first-year coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia and was replaced by Bruce Arians, was magical. (Also, without drafting Luck in Indy and hiring Pagano, Arians might never get a job in Arizona -- we'll get to the historical ramifications of this hypothetical move in a minute.) Luck led seven (!) game-winning drives that year and engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks en route to the Colts going 11-5.
Oddly, he didn't even win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year; that would go to Robert Griffin III of the Redskins. But Luck was more than deserving -- he won those games out of sheer will. The defense for the Colts was terrible (31st in DVOA) and Indy had no run game. The Colts would just kind of flop around for three quarters, hope the game was close and then hand the ball to Luck and ask him to go full Houdini. Somehow it worked. Luck would get a little more help over the next two years and manage a pair of division titles thanks to 11-5 seasons, but the Colts would never advance further than the AFC Championship Game.
Perhaps the karma of kickstarting the Deflategate saga in their beatdown at the hands of the Patriots derailed a budding AFC South dynasty, or maybe Luck having no help just caught up with the team. 100 sacks over three seasons beget a 2015 shoulder injury that was poorly managed by the Colts (and Luck himself if we're being honest), leading to the 2017 season being missed. The old "playing with a lacerated kidney" move in 2015 didn't help matters either. Luck actually turned in an impressive 2016 season, despite often returning too quickly from injury, but it was obvious he wasn't right and the injuries were starting to pile up. The whole thing was a disaster from start to finish. This headline was more accurate than I ever thought it would be.
Whatever the case, Luck retired after playing just six seasons. Manning got four in Denver. And when you compare the start of Luck's career in Indy to the start of Manning's career in Denver, well, the Broncos were just better and Manning was a more impressive player.
|Record||Passing Yards Per Year Avg.||TD-INT||Approx. Value|
Approximate value is Pro-Football-Reference's metric to determine what a player's individual season is worth. Luck's total over three years is great, but Manning's is stratospheric. He also won a Super Bowl in his fourth year with Denver, even though he was clearly a shell of himself at that point. Irsay wouldn't admit it, but he would happily lop off both of Luck's arms this instant for Peyton to have raised a second trophy in Indy, regardless of the circumstances.
Bottom line: the Colts drafted a player who was not as good as the franchise icon they let walk was over the next three years. Does that make Luck a bust? Not on its own. But he only played 86 games after being a top pick and the reason Peyton departed. Six seasons out of a No. 1 pick and a highly heralded quarterback? That's a disappointment. And if the Colts could redo history? That probably puts Luck somewhere on the sliding scale of being a bust.
It gets worse when you factor in the value of the 2012 No. 1 overall pick in terms of trade value. Let's say that Irsay finds Biff Tannen's Sports Almanac and realizes how well Manning would recover and decides to keep Peyton on the Colts roster. At that point he is unlikely to draft Luck (knowing he will get four seasons of Manning and, in this scenario, just six from the Stanford quarterback).
The Colts would, instead, trade down. And boy would they get a haul. We already know what the price of the second quarterback was in this class, because the Redskins surrendered three first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Rams to trade up for Robert Griffin III in the very same draft class. RG3 was highly thought of and some people argued he could be better than Luck, but ultimately this was a Manning-Leaf situation. Luck's true value to teams was substantially higher throughout the entire draft process.
Former Browns GM Mike Holmgren said as much after the fact, admitting in 2013 that he called the Colts and offered HIS ENTIRE DRAFT CLASS to Indy for the No. 1 overall pick.
"I talked to [then Colts GM Ryan Grigson] last year [at the owner's meetings] before we made the trade [up in the draft to get Trent Richardson]," Holmgren said. "I said, 'I'll give you all of our draft picks for the No. 1 pick and I'll take Luck. I'll give the whole draft to you."
That's called "The Full Ditka" if you aren't aware, and even then it wasn't even close to enough for the Colts to consider it. Holmgren also said that Grigson didn't take his offer seriously -- they were apparently by the pool and Holmgren was sipping a lemonade! -- but he was ready to pull the trigger that afternoon.
If the Redskins were giving up three first-round picks for RG3 and the Browns were willing to surrender an entire draft class ... I don't know if anyone was giving up FOUR first-round picks, but the actual haul the Colts could have gotten from teams to move up to No. 1 for Luck would have been completely unprecedented. (Obviously no one else has seen Irsay's Almanac in this scenario.)
The point being if you gave the Colts the choice today of holding onto Manning and getting his 2012-2015 seasons along with a huge pile of draft picks with which to rebuild the roster around their future Hall of Fame quarterback while ensuring Manning never donned another uniform and instead broke all the NFL's passing records while wearing "the shoe" OR six years of Andrew Luck with a few magical runs sprinkled in but ultimately a situation that ends in heartbreak?
Come on. Who is arguing for door No. 2? I can't know what Irsay is thinking -- no one but Irsay can -- and I don't think he would ever admit he'd prefer keeping Manning and not drafting Luck, mostly because it would nuke bomb the bridge between he and his recently retired quarterback, something the Colts don't want to do as long as the specter of Luck's return lingers.
But if you got Irsay in a room alone and promised him no one would know what he said? He'd tell you he'd go the Manning route.
The tentacles of this move can send you down a wormhole. Where does Luck go? The Browns make sense, and clearly Holmgren was willing to pony up for the pick. But maybe the Redskins go over the top and figure out how to get to No. 1. Does Washington manage to also ruin Luck's health? History says yes given what they did with RG3, although Luck in a Mike Shanahan scheme while being coached by Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay? That would work!
If Manning stays, Bill Polian probably isn't fired. Grigson is hired by someone else. Who does Polian draft with his top 2012 selection? Trent Richardson? If it's a top-five pick, probably, given that he called Richardson a "sure thing" before the draft. If there was a demand to improve the defense, though, we could have seen Luke Kuechly or Fletcher Cox land in Indy. If you prefer to be a little more pessimistic (realistic?) Mark Barron or Morris Claiborne could have been the pick.
Who becomes the quarterback in Denver without Manning landing there? Does John Elway just give the reins to Brock Osweiler out of the gate following the draft?? How long does Tim Tebow last with the Broncos??? Does Ryan Wilson ever even get to write his award-winning Sanchbow column if the Broncos don't send Tebow to the Jets?
More importantly, does Peyton actually win a second Super Bowl with the Colts? Luck had Indy positioned to pull it off at various points but usually fell short against the Patriots. Manning didn't own the Pats or anything, but he got past them a few times for a look at a title. The AFC playoff bracket would have been dramatically altered.
You can go a little more indirect with the alternate universe stuff and wonder how it frames the outcomes hundreds of parties. Joe Flacco and the Ravens actually beat both the Colts and Broncos in the playoffs after the 2012 season: do they beat Indy with Manning? The Mile High Miracle probably never happens without Manning going to Denver. Without that Super Bowl victory, Flacco never gets paid.
In 2013, the Broncos toppled the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and the Chargers before that. I wouldn't DARE suggest this is a really long and winding way of suggesting that Philip Rivers would have won a Super Bowl if the Colts hadn't drafted Andrew Luck, but maybe either the Patriots or Chargers are able to beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and prevent the Legion of Boom securing its first title. Unlikely, but you get the point here. It would have completely altered history.
From a coaching perspective, Pagano is probably never hired. Which means, as we noted above, he never hires Arians, who had "retired" from the Steelers recently. Without Pagano taking over and then having to leave the Colts, Arians might never get the job with the Cardinals. Without Arians in tow, does Arizona ever trade for Carson Palmer? And if they do, does he flourish under a different coaching staff? The power structure of the NFC West would be altered.
Maybe Aaron Rodgers already has a second Super Bowl (he lost to Arizona in 2015). Maybe the Carolina Panthers beat whoever comes out of the AFC in 2015 and Cam Newton is a Super Bowl champion.
There are a billion different permutations and alternate realities if you flip Manning back to the Colts and send Luck somewhere else. In the end, it a) is just a fun exercise for speculation and b) probably ends up in a Thanosian inevitably and the Patriots destructive monolith that is the Patriots winning two or three more Super Bowls. Time is a flat circle after all.
Indy made the right choice at the right time not knowing what the future would hold. Luck wasn't bad, just bittersweet. It doesn't mean the choice won't haunt Irsay when he starts sifting through what could have been.