The center of a kinder, gentler universe shifted this weekend. Neighbors were still helping neighbors in the wake of the ravaged streets of Hurricane Sandy in the tri-state area, but America's beating Hallmark heart moved to Indianapolis. Two feel-good stories collided. Exciting football was played. New history was written.
Horatio Alger stories and other human interest angles come and go in the NFL, swept out the news cycle as soon as someone else who used to sleep in their car or got cut from a roster somewhere turns up on the scene. (Do you know where Brian Banks is?) Andrew Luck, Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis Colts are more than just another front page story to fill the August doldrums.
Come back story
Every week, Luck leads a game-winning drive or makes some monster play to add another check in the win column for the Colts. It seems like that, anyway. The first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft now has four game-winning drives, the most in the league so far this season. The Colts are 5-3. You are free to draw your conclusions as to what's happening here.
Miami booted a field goal on the opening drive of the fourth quarter to make it a 20-20 game. Indianapolis got the ball on 6-yard line with 13 minutes left on the clock. The first two plays went nowhere; the Colts actually lost a yard to wind up at third-and-11. Luck hit Dwayne Allen for a 20-yard gain, with a little help from a missed tackle by Sean Smith, to keep the drive alive.
And here, we must digress from our human interest story to talk a little football.
Indianapolis converted 13-of-19 third downs, which is 68 percent of them. For the season, the Colts are turning 45 percent of third downs into three more opportunities. Talk about Horatio Alger. That's good enough for the fifth-best mark in the NFL right now, and rarefied air when you stop to consider the teams around the Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers are tops in the league at 51 percent, followed by the Patriots, Falcons and Broncos. It's pure correlation, but nevertheless hard to ignore who those teams have at quarterback.
Converting third downs doesn't tell the whole story. The Colts constantly found themselves in third-and-long on Sunday afternoon. Luck's first pass to Allen, on the first possession of the game, flipped a third-and-12. On the next possession, the Colts' first fruitful drive of the game, Luck connected with T.Y. Hilton for a 25-yard play that converted a third-and-14. Luck and Hilton connected again to salvage a third-and-20 at the end of the second quarter to put the Colts in field goal range.
Every single Indianapolis scoring drive featured Luck and one of his receivers converting a third-and-long.
Now converting on third downs is only going to get a team so far. An offense has to be able to do something with those first and second downs as well. For instance, the Kansas City Chiefs are converting 44 percent of third down opportunities. Live by the third down, die by the third down ... it does catch up to a team eventually, but let's not allow that to tarnish another impressive win by Andrew Luck and the Colts.
Photo via Thomas J. Russo-US PRESSWIRE
By his own standards, this week's fourth quarter drive was pedestrian for Andrew Luck. His date with history was most certainly not. Luck finished the game 30-of-48 with 433 yards and two touchdowns. Those 433 passing yards are a new record, eclipsing Cam Newton's 432-yard single-game rookie passing record from Week 2 of last season.
Luck now has four games with at least 300 passing yards. He is only the second rookie quarterback in history with four games of 300 yards or more. The other? Peyton Manning.
By now, you've probably also seen this strange twist of the numbers:
It might or might not be a strange conspiracy. Without a doubt, the two are inextricably linked through the quirks of business in the NFL's parity-driven system. However, there should be no question that Andrew Luck is the new king of Colts football. Anyone still wearing No. 18 jerseys to Lucas Oil Stadium is either being frugal with their team gear purchases or stubborn.
The Chuck Factor
The Colts won, the team is in the playoff chase and Andrew Luck made the case for some awards. All of the Xs and Os and scouting reports cannot explain another factor that may or may not have played a decisive role for Indianapolis on Sunday: the return of Chuck Pagano.
Done with the early part of his leukemia treatment and waiting for the next round of chemotherapy to start, Pagano made his way to the stadium to take in the game, his first since taking a medical hiatus six weeks ago.
Things like "clutch play" and intrinsic motivation divide the community of analysis. Let the bleeding hearts and hero mongers debate those things on television, a medium best suited to dumbing us all down. It's pure coincidence that the Colts are 4-1 since Pagano left for cancer treatment. There is no way to prove that Pagano's presence made things any different for the Colts on Sunday.
Luck, who knows how to play along with the league's narratives, made the connection for yesterday's game. This is what he told Peter King:
"Coach Pagano's an inspiration. When I found out this morning he'd be here, I was giddy. Excited. Jacked to see him in the flesh. We all were. I love him. We all do."
I'm not really sure what to make of these types of inspirational stories. It shouldn't really matter, and it probably doesn't. However, there was something awfully powerful about watching a man power through the heavy toll that chemo exacts rallying his team, promising a return.
If you believe in that sort of thing, then you should probably expect to see a recovered coach and prodigal rookie paired up for a run into the playoffs.
Rookie QB Power Rankings
Andrew Luck isn't the only feel-good story from this weekend. Rookie quarterbacks continued to roll up impressive performances at low, low prices that make NFL owners happy and willing to place a heaping helping of expectations on their youngsters.
1. Andrew Luck, Colts
2. Russell Wilson, Seahawks - Luck isn't the only rookie quarterback that has helped his team scratch out five wins through the first half of the season. Pete Carroll's pocket-sized quarterback went 16-for-24 with 173 yards and three touchdowns.
3. Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins - So much for the Texas A&M product needing to spend a year as Matt Moore's understudy. This week he played through a deep thigh bruise to complete 22-of-38 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the Colts.
4. RGIII, Redskins - For the histrionics about Andrew Luck's sensational rookie year, Reggie Wayne probably isn't getting the credit he deserves. RGIII has no Reggie Wayne. Dan Synder bought him Pierre Garcon in the offseason, but the free agent addition is out indefinitely with a foot injury. He did top 500 rushing yards this week, and got Cam Newton's phone number in this awkward Michael-Fredo style exchange after the game.
5. Brandon Weeden, Browns - RGIII is limited by the talent around him. The Browns rookie quarterback has similar limitations with head coach Pat Shurmur either thwarting his development or concealing his inadequacies. Actually, it looked like the Browns opened it up for the rookie a little, and he rewarded them by making bad decisions down the field and getting picked off twice.