Published October 29, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS – Andrew Luck prefers designing projects to rebuilding them.
Perhaps that's why the No. 1 draft pick with the architectural degree threw out Indy's long-term blueprint and devised his own creation.
By ignoring the traditional learning curve for rookie quarterbacks, he's flipped the discussion in Indianapolis from hopeful futures to immediate playoff possibilities faster than anyone could have anticipated.
"I think a big thing for us is realizing you are a rookie, that doesn't mean you have to play as a rookie," Luck said after rallying the Colts to yet another win. "You don't have that excuse. This team needs us, the rookies to perform well and perform well now, and I think guys have taken that to heart."
The Colts have passed that test easily.
In seven weeks, Indy (4-3) has doubled its victory total from last season, ended a 10-game road losing streak and has local fans talking about playoffs in the city that made that single word famous thanks to Jim Mora.
Yes, it's early, and, yes, these are still the Colts who have 13 rookies and first-year players on their active roster, but success wasn't supposed to come this quickly.
When the Colts released Peyton Manning in March, allowed three other players to leave in free agency, watched longtime right tackle Ryan Diem retire and then made a series of cost-cutting moves — leaving Indy looking nothing like the team that won a record 115 regular-season games in the past decade — team owner Jim Irsay urged fans to be patient as the Colts rebuilt.
To the delight of everyone, including Irsay, veterans, rookies and coaches all refused to heed the advice. Instead, they've grown up.
"To have this many (rookies) in major roles I think is incredible," said interim coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, a 20-year assistant in the NFL. "It's a testament to (general manager) Ryan (Grigson) and the scouting staff for getting the right guys, and the coaches for picking the right guys. It's a credit to those guys for being in tune. The veterans have taken those young guys and have shown them how to do it in the locker room, on the field and off the field."
Luck, of course, generates the most attention because he was billed as the NFL's next big thing since 2010 and was the No. 1 overall draft pick in April. He's on pace for a record-setting season and has already won one more game — and one more road game — than Manning did as a rookie in 1998.
But he's certainly gotten plenty of help from his rookie class.
Second-round pick Coby Fleener has 21 receptions for 222 yards and is becoming a better blocker. Third-round pick Dwayne Allen caught four passes for 56 yards in Sunday's latest victory at Tennessee, and has emerged as a key outlet for Luck over the middle. The Colts' other third-round pick, T.Y. Hilton, had 113 yards receiving in a Week 2 win over Minnesota and hauled in five passes Sunday against the Titans.
And then there is Sunday's rock star, fifth-round pick Vick Ballard, who caught a screen pass from Luck, turned up the left sideline and made a twisting, 4½-yard Olympic dive into the end zone to give the Colts their first road win since Dec. 26, 2010 — 19-13 in overtime.
It's not the first time the Mississippi State alum tried the move.
He fumbled at the goal line against Arkansas during his junior season and failed to get across the goal line last year against Auburn. This time, without actually knowing it, he made the play of the day.
"I wasn't sure, so I just hopped up and threw my hands up," he said, drawing laughter over his veteran move.
Things haven't gone perfectly for the Colts' newcomers.
Luck has thrown the same number of touchdowns as interceptions (eight), and Allen nearly lost a fumble at the Indy 28 with 18 seconds left in regulation Sunday — a play that might have cost them the Colts had it not been blown dead. On Monday, Arians called on Allen to be more careful protecting the ball in that kind of situation.
But overall, the early reviews show this has been Indy's most productive rookie crop in years.
It was all part of the design to surround Luck with some young teammates who could get in sync with him quickly, plus a few cagey veterans such as receiver Reggie Wayne and center Samson Satele. The Colts have a roster full of players eager to win.
"They've been thrown into the fire early and they've responded tremendously," seven-time Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney said. "Their performance has been continuous from college to the workouts to here, and they can only get better."
That's what the Colts expect now.
"There's so many guys that have a ceiling that's way up there," Arians said. "As long as they keep striving to get better, there's no telling how good this class could be."
NOTES: On Monday, head coach Chuck Pagano made his first trip to the team facility since being diagnosed with a form of leukemia on Sept. 26. Arians said Pagano listened to the assistants during a staff meeting and was sent home when he became fatigued. Pagano was not expected to be back at team headquarters this soon. ... Arians said the team was still awaiting results of tests on Fleener's injured left shoulder, which kept him out of the game for most of the third quarter. ... Cornerback Vontae Davis had an MRI on his left knee, but Arians didn't have those results, either. Davis left 3 minutes into the game and did not return. ... The Colts are hoping to get outside linebacker Robert Mathis and defensive end Fili Moala back this week. Both have missed three straight games with knee injuries.
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