I remember back in 2011, there was a pretty strong pre-draft debate: "Would Andrew Luck go first overall?" That debate changed quickly to, "Would Andrew Luck go first overall if he had entered this class?", as Luck opted to instead return to Stanford for his Junior season.. Initially, this seemed like the best thing for him, because instead of heading to an outdoor team with little history of breeding top-tier passing talent in Carolina, he was instead going to a dome in the Midwest, becoming the successor to Peyton Manning, just one year later.
Of course, the only reason the marriage of the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck was some of the dumbest luck the NFL has ever seen. In a season with some truly terrible teams (the Browns, Rams, and Jaguars in particular), the Colts fell into an unintentional tanking to claim Andrew Luck as Peyton Manning headed to Denver. This was not through careful planning or long-term vision, by any means, mind you; owner Jim Irsay, after a season in which nearly the entire team was banged up and the starting QB was Curtis "Remember Curtis Painter?" Painter, he lobbied the blame on Bill and Chris Polian and Jim Caldwell, sacking the whole bunch before the 2012 draft process began. If not for Andrew Luck being the obvious franchise-changing QB by the time the draft rolled around, lord only knows what the Colts might have done.
Regardless of how it happened, Andrew Luck was the realization of NFL draft ideology. In an NFL dominated by QB play over all else, where former first overall pick Peyton Manning reigned supreme, the prevailing thought process was that if you had the first overall pick, you had to select a franchise QB. It was obvious, it was proven, and it of course carried the very serious caveat of being not true, at all, in any fashion.
Since the Colts selected Peyton Manning (impressively refusing the urge to select Ryan Leaf), the first overall QB's have included:
- Tim Couch (rushed to the field, ill prepared)
- Michael Vick (was great for a time but sabotaged his own career off the field)
- David Carr (submarined by the expansion draft team he was placed on)
- Carson Palmer (who fell out with his drafted team and was an untimely injury magnet)
- Alex Smith (aka "Not Aaron Rodgers")
- Jamarcus Russell (I don't need to say anything, do I?)
- Sam Bradford (who gets injuries like a piano black surface gets fingerprint markings)
This isn't to say it's not possible to find a franchise QB first overall: Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, and Cam Newton all contest this. For the time, however, it was a matter of philosophical pride; the Colts did what they were supposed to do in obtaining "The Guy" first overall.
Andrew Luck had been properly evaluated as an actual pro-ready QB, with ideal size (6'4", 230+ lbs) and an ideal skill set for the NFL. It was unlike any of the prior mentioned picks; fans and pundits were in agreement that he would be one of the next great NFL signal callers. And, right from the drop, we started to see that potential that oozed from Andrew Luck. Indianapolis went from a basement team at 2-14 in 2011, to 11-5 in 2012 behind Luck's arm, as he would throw for over 4,000 yards in spite of poor protection and a spotty, incomplete defense.
In essence, all Indianapolis had to do, behind new head coach Chuck Pagano and new GM Ryan Grigson, was to ensure that they built up the team around their stud, franchise QB appropriately, and they could be set for the rest of the 2010's, with a possible Super Bowl to boot, as no other teams in the AFC, save perhaps Cincinnati, had young QB's ready to be unleashed on the league.
Somehow, they've completely mucked that up.
Although Luck's Colts went 11-5 all 3 of his first seasons in the league, he was actively getting better; he led the league in touchdowns in 2014, and his completion percentage was peaking. These Colts were a mere win away from a Super Bowl appearance before falling to the eventual champion New England Patriots. But another stat was creeping up - his sack totals, eating 100 sacks in his first 3 years and facing constant pressure off the offensive line. Grigson's staff didn't seem to see this problem as serious, instead subscribing to the thought that all Luck needed to succeed was more and more weapons to highlight his skill set.
Those weapons in 2013 and 2014 that were added were the likes of Darrius Heyward-Bey, who amassed just 309 yards in 2013. Or Ahmad Bradshaw, who gained 658 yards in 17 games over 3 seasons. Or Hakeem Nicks, who became a 1 year rental worth a little over 400 yards through the air. Certainly we can't forget the highlight of this group: Trent Richardson, who the Colts traded away their 2014 first rounder for, and who averaged a staggering 2.9 yards per carry.
It is true that this grab for "talent" was due to the departures and aging of some of Peyton Manning's most prolific targets, not the least of which being Reggie Wayne. In spite of this, the Colts dropped two high draft picks, including a first rounder in 2015, to add Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett to the WR corps, both of whom have become little more than complimentary receivers so far. In fact, the lack of foresight has even robbed the Colts of their two top-line TE's (Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener) and has left their running back room led by 34 year old Frank Gore.
This rush to add weapons for Luck undermined the bigger issue - the offensive line was garbage. Even when they did attempt to add pieces to the puzzle, such as Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes in 2013, or the PFF-friendly-but-not-much-else Jack Mewhort in 2014, they did little to fix the problems. In 2015, they opted to just completely ignore the offensive line flaws, drafting no linemen and signing only two mediocre depth pieces in free agency for protection, the result of which ended in Andrew Luck being injured for half of the season. Although adding Ryan Kelly as the anchor in 2016 has certainly helped, the O-line is in no way complete yet, and it's a big problem. This doesn't even begin to touch the issues with defense, which only now in 2017, with some smart free agent signings such as Jonathan Hankins and a solid draft class featuring Malik Hooker, have begun to be addressed.
It's as though Ryan Grigson saw Peyton Manning's 1998 campaign, where the future Hall-of-Famer was shoved onto the field with a mediocre defense and a spotty offensive line, and believed he needed to replicate that to get the most out of Andrew Luck.
The result of all this? The Tennessee Titans were given a window to obtain their own franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota, and the Houston Texans have found a way to take over the division despite not even having anything remotely resembling a franchise signal caller. The Colts window to an easy path through the AFC South has slammed shut, despite having arguably the best young and controllable asset under center in the AFC, and they have no one to blame but themselves. That, simply, is completely unacceptable.
Getting a franchise QB doesn't happen to everyone. Teams have spent decades trying to desperately obtain their franchise-changer with such fervor and excitement that they sabotage themselves. You know what almost certainly doesn't happen to everyone? Going from franchise QB to franchise QB with minimal gaps. To go from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck is the kind of thing people would have envisioned for the Madden dynasty modes, not something you get in real life. And the Colts are on the verge of wasting that once-in-a-lifetime scenario.
Thankfully, the Colts did move on from Ryan Grigson, but now the responsibility of putting the team back together lies with Chris Ballard. Although Ballard did assist in the rebuild of the Kansas City Chiefs around a strong defense and the trade for Alex Smith, the battle is far uphill. He'll have to undo 5 years of flawed ideology and bassackwards team building to dig out of the hole the Colts have placed themselves in, the potential to waste the prime of a QB that should have been building his own legacy.
The fans, the sports media, all of the NFL is built around the idea that you can't win if you don't have a QB. The Colts have their QB, but they not only aren't winning, they're moving backwards. Indianapolis in 2017 should have been talking about a potential run towards a Super Bowl; instead, they're trying to catch up with the rest of the AFC. For Andrew Luck's sake alone, they had better.