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December 28, 2013

Has Luck's growth been accelerated by Colts' adversity? Probably

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts second-year quarterback Andrew Luck is quickly becoming known as a guy who can quickly adjust to any situation.  

When Bruce Arians, his offensive coordinator, left following the 2012 season to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Luck had to learn a new system under current coordinator Pep Hamilton this past spring.  

Of course, the fact that Hamilton and Luck were familiar with each other from their days together at Stanford helped in the transition. The new coordinator brought in a variation of the same offense that was successful for the pair in college.

Throwing a monkey wrench into the situation, though, was the season-ending injury to veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who had become Luck’s insurance policy in the passing game. Whenever there had to be a key play made to keep a drive alive, the Colts signal caller had a pretty good idea where to throw the football.

And, more often than not, Wayne would make the play. The two worked well together, so much so that there were comparisons being made to the on-field relationship that was enjoyed by a pair of former Indianapolis stars — quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.

The injury to Wayne, a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn meniscus in his right knee, could have put a major damper on the Colts season as well as Luck’s progress as a National Football League quarterback.

Instead, just the opposite has occurred. Over the eight games since Wayne went down, the Indianapolis signal caller has completed 181-of-309 passes (59 percent) for 1,966 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Over his last three games, in particular, Luck has completed 74-of-115 passes (64 percent) for 747 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.

What makes those numbers even more eye-popping is that the Colts former No. 1 draft pick has faced two of the NFL’s top six pass defenses (Cincinnati and Kansas City) over that three-game span. Also, of those 74 completions, only 32 of them went to players who have been on Indianapolis’ active roster for the entire 2013 season.

Working with a group of young and relatively inexperienced receivers — T.Y. Hilton, Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill, Da’Rick Rogers — along with tight end Coby Fleener, another member of the youth corps, Luck has found a way to make the offense work.

“I guess it just speaks to, we know all the intangibles. We know the tangibles. We know the skill set, all those things. He’s one of those guys that is able to stay in the moment, if you will. Regardless of who is out there, he’s going to find a way to get the job done. Losing the players that we’ve lost, especially on offense. You lose [second-year tight end] Dwayne [Allen]. You lose two runners in Vick [Ballard] and Ahmad [Bradshaw] and of course the number one target, Reggie goes down,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano reviewed late last week.

“[Luck has] got a lot of faith and a lot of trust in his teammates. Those guys are all accountable. They’re accountable to each other. And they stepped up. He’s not going to walk in here [and complain] because we lost this guy, that guy and whatever. He’s just one of those guys that’s got a great attitude and it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. He’s going to find a way to win the football game and he wills his team to win games. He’s a great competitor that way. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”

Luck doesn’t let things get him down. At least he tries not to show his emotions even when things aren’t working well at the moment.

“Injuries are never an excuse for anything football-wise. I think guys just come in and do their jobs. I think we have good depth on this football team, good coaches and guys step up. ‘Next Man Up’ has been a constant theme,” he said recently, adding that his on-field rapport with the team’s young receivers has improved as the season has progressed this season.

 “I’d like to think I’ve improved. I think it’s sort of hard to step back and say, ‘I’ve done better,’ until the season’s over when you really assess. Hopefully, I’ve improved.”

With Wayne out of the Colts’ offensive lineup, Hilton initially became the go-to guy. But as teams began showing him more and more attention, Luck has been forced to spread the ball out among guys like Brazill, Whalen, Rogers and Fleener.

“I think things have settled down a bit. We’re more comfortable with each other. Da’Rick Rogers gets more reps. He knows where he’s going to be. I know where I need to put the ball for him. They all do a great job in practice, so it’s starting to show up in games,” he explained.

Not having that safety blanket — namely Wayne — may have become a bit of positive in terms of the growth of the entire passing offense.

“It probably has forced a little faster growth. I still think though with Reggie around, he’s still a great guy to have around. I know I grew a lot with him last year in terms of a football player. You can learn so much from playing with him and watching him,” Luck voiced.

“Maybe it forced a little faster growth. It’s great he’s still around in meetings to help guys out. Growth for receivers is much faster.”

Luck’s stats have gotten better from last season to this year, although his total pass yardage (4,374 in 2012 and 3,540 in 2013) is down due to the Colts’ increased emphasis on the running game.

He has, however, pushed his completion percentage up from 54 percent to almost 60 percent (59.5) and has seen his interceptions cut in half from 18 to nine. Through 16 games last year, Luck has 23 touchdown passes. He has 22 entering today’s regular-season home finale with Jacksonville.

From a team standpoint, the Colts have committed a league-low 14 turnovers this year.

“Andrew  is doing a great job of managing the game and making great decisions. Guys are taking care of the football. I think anything you emphasize, you’re going to get,” Pagano explained.

“We emphasize that, along with penalties, in training camp all the way back to training camp. We talk about penalties, not beating yourself, not shooting yourself in the foot, those types of things, taking care of the football, win the turnover battle.”

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