Luck grows up in emotional Colts win

Posted Oct. 08, 2012 @ 12:50 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

A bedridden Chuck Pagano had to have welled up when his young quarterback, Andrew Luck, got into the genuflect offense at the end of a tense, emotional afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.

He had just watched his too-young-to-know-better Colts pull off a stunner, one that was made possible by two incredible individual efforts.

If the other 43 guys on the Colts’ roster were the yoke, then Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne — two incredible talents on opposite ends of their careers — were the oxen.

Luck had calmly led the Colts down the field on a drive that started at their own 20-yard line. He made throw after pinpoint throw, perfectly weaving in the no-huddle attack along with a clock-milking clinic. Luck targeted Wayne on three of his first five throws of the drive and on three of his final five.

They knew the Packers had no answers for their connection. So they squeezed every ounce out of it. With the entire Packers secondary shadowing Wayne after an 18-yard catch put the Colts in scoring position, Luck found Donald Brown for a short gain and called his own number on a draw down to the Green Bay 4.

Then came the spine-tingling game-winner: Luck’s bullet pass to Wayne, which he reached over the goal line for the touchdown that gave the Colts the lead. Although Aaron Rodgers had the last shot, driving the Packers into field-goal range, fate seemed to intervene with bad play-clock management and a wide-left field-goal attempt. The Colts hung on to 30-27 win.

The kid looked like a pro. The vet turned back the clock. The coach, honored by “ChuckStrong” shirts everywhere — even worn by classy Packers players — earned what interim coach Bruce Arians called “the greatest win I have ever been a part of.” Everyone was moved by the effort.

After a slow start, Luck cranked it up mid-second quarter and kept his team in it. This is a game the Packers should have won. They held a 21-3 second-half lead before Luck and Wayne willed the Colts back.

This was not a case of strange forces or the fighting spirit of a coach having control of a game. This was the case of two terrific players eliminating distractions, harnessing their emotions and delivering two terrific performances.

Wayne made 13 catches — a few of them will make his greatest hits album — for a career-high 212 yards. Luck turned in the best numbers of his five NFL games: 31-of-55 passing for 362 yards and a pair of passing TDs, along with a score on the ground.

But beyond the numbers, they carried a team that came out of their long bye week as banged up — emotionally and physically — as any in recent memory. These are the performances that make a career.

For Wayne, it’s a trip to Canton one day. He’s 17th all-time in receiving yards and could finish his career, easily, in the top 10. For Luck, he’ll have more yards in a game sometime soon, and he’ll have a four- or five-TD game before it’s all said and done. But few will be sweeter than this one for a while.

“We tried to keep it out and just play football,” Arians said. “This game is emotional enough without adding more pressuring emotions, trying to do something that you’re not capable of doing or more than you need to do. Just do your job. The guys did it. I think the emotion built from the crowd; that’s what we need every week. Feed off the crowd, play good football, and your emotions are pretty good.

“I think everybody knows what this game meant to Reggie, and he brought his A-game. Wednesday, I challenged our five-star players and our five-star players showed up. He lead the way.”

Wayne could have signed anywhere. He probably could have followed Peyton Manning to Denver. He definitely could have gone to New England, where the Patriots wanted him (and offered him more money). But he embraced a leadership role to stay in the confines of the only NFL city he has known as home.

Colts fans were thrilled then and they have to be even more ecstatic now. Landing Luck required a bit of fortune and a tough, seismic call to release Manning. But their future is cemented now, and we’ve been given the first concrete signs that they did the right thing.

Pagano should know upon his return — and ask anyone with the Colts: he will return — that his team is in good shape with these guys. We suspect he knew that already.

Would 49ers have been better?

A fascinating debate has to do with something Jim Harbaugh somewhat denies, everyone else believes to be true and yet many don’t remember. Peyton Manning ended up in Denver, but don’t forget that he was courted by Harbaugh and the Niners. As we’ve seen Manning continue to get better and the Niners play, at times, like the best team in football, thoughts of what might have been tickle the imagination.

After all, the 49ers’ biggest weakness in the first quarter of the season had been the passing offense. But Alex Smith, following two poor games, responded with one of the more important games of his career. Quietly, the pressure around him had risen, even during the blowout win over the Jets when he played a sub-par game in spite of the score.

Smith delivered in Week Five with one of his best performances, at an even higher level than where he spent most of his breakthrough season of 2011. He hit strikes downfield, moved well in the pocket, scrambled and was confident in leading scoring drives of 79, 74, 28 (one play after a turnover), 66, 94 and 67 yards before giving way to Colin Kaepernick.

There had been some thought that Kaepernick’s role could expand after his strong supporting role against the Jets, and he was effective again this week, rushing four times for 39 yards and a 16-yard TD. But Smith put the brakes on that talk for now with a strong outing.

Of course, it must keep up. Smith won’t battle the Manning talk more than he will face pressure from his own performance or based on what Kaepernick might continue doing. But it will be a question worth readdressing once the playoffs are closer in sight: Would the 49ers have been significantly better with Manning under center, and not Smith?

Smith is hoping his strong play can put that talk to rest for now.

Eli’s motivational touch works

When Eli Manning suggests, hints even, that a player could stand to improve his performance, it can speak volumes. So when the politically correct Manning didn’t exactly sing the praises of WR Rueben Randle earlier in the week, it was taken as a slight for the rookie as he entered a big spot.

The Giants were down WRs Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden against the Browns, and this was Randle’s chance to step up after making only one catch in the first four games for a mere four yards.

But Manning needed to get on the same page as the second-round pick before this game, so he texted Randle and invited him to a midweek film session. Needless to say, Randle accepted.

“He’s the quarterback. He’s the leader of the offense,” Randle said after the game. “As a young receiver, you want to be on the same page as him, gain that confidence with him, and I feel like I was obligated for me to go in there.”

Smart kid. Randle stepped up with six important receptions for 82 yards, keying a Giants TD drive after the Browns had built a 14-0 lead in what would become a 41-27 Giants victory. Randle also drew two pass-interference calls that netted the Giants 37 yards and also made at least two nice blocks on Ahmad Bradshaw runs. Bradshaw finished with a career-high 200 rushing yards.

Randle is the latest example of a Giant stepping up when called upon. It was Andre Brown against the Buccaneers. It was Barden and Brown against the Panthers. And Manning has been a key in keeping his team afloat and keeping his teammates accountable in his own, quiet style.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has been the early-season MVP, but we should remember moments such as these when the award is handed out after the conclusion of the season.

Winston’s tirade shows rare emotion for K.C.

There are some interesting debates raging in Kansas City these days. To fire or not to fire Romeo Crennel (and/or Scott Pioli). Whether Matt Cassel deserves to start when healthy. And now another one is starting following the comments of ORT Eric Winston.

Cassel went down with an apparent head injury in the second half of Sunday’s game against the Ravens in which he was struggling mightily, committing three turnovers (and being involved in another) despite only 15 pass attempts, and he was replaced by backup Brady Quinn.

From this vantage point, watching the TV broadcast, it appeared that the Chiefs’ fans, most of whom have been unhappy with Cassel’s performance this season, were respectfully quiet while Cassel was down on the ground and that they offered support when he walked off the field under his own power. Now, the loud cheer for Quinn was more than just a case of the backup QB being the most popular guy on the team; it did feel like something of a sarcastic vibe as much against Cassel as it was for Quinn.

But at no point did I say to myself, “Wow, the Chiefs’ fans just booed Matt Cassel getting hurt.” I even wrote on Twitter that I was mildly impressed that the Chiefs fans were being as respectful as they were.

Clearly, Winston did not see it that way. Whether he was frustrated by losing and falling to 1-4, doing so on a questionable call or if he truly felt the fans were going after his QB isn’t entirely clear. But listen to Winston’s voice in this clip in which he’s nearly shaking with anger talking about the incident, and you get the idea he was more than just a little irked with the Arrowhead fans.

Among his biggest hits of the tirade:

Winston gets his wish in this space. But is he right? Did fans boo Cassel and his getting hurt? It’s debatable.

What is undisputable is that Winston is one of the few Chiefs to show some real emotion in what has been an incredibly trying season, one Jamaal Charles-fueled comeback in New Orleans notwithstanding. Maybe this display of support for Cassel will rally the locker room. The schedule is not brutal, and there is a bye week coming up after the Tampa game on Sunday, which could be much-needed.

We’ll see what effect, if any, Winston’s fiery speech has. Remember, the Chiefs lost three straight to start last season before finishing 7-9 and almost stealing the AFC West. Despite the disappointing start, the team is only two games back of the first-place Chargers.

Bye-week blues

The Colts lost to the Jaguars at home in Week Three. The Steelers fell at Oakland later that same day.

The Lions lost to the Vikings in Week Four. The Raiders were whipped by 31, the Bucs fell at home and the Cowboys were embarrassed on Monday night, all in Week Four, too.

The Panthers and Jaguars were both tripped up at home in Week Five, the Jags by a mere 38 points.

What do these games have in common? They were all in advance of the losing teams’ bye weeks. Or as Pro Football Talk’s Darin Gantt said of the Panthers’ weak Week Five effort, “With the bye week coming up, the Panthers picked a bad day to have a bad day.”

Overall this season, teams in advance of their bye have a record of 2-8, and one of those wins was guaranteed with the Bears and Jaguars (both with byes in Week Six) facing each other Sunday. The other came when the Saints came back from a 10-point, second-half deficit on an emotional night when Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas’ consecutive-games TD record with Sean Payton in the house.

Is it fatigue? A trend with some kind of connection? After all, teams were 19-13 in the games prior to their byes last season — perhaps teams were not as rest-needy coming out of a lockout?

We’ll wait to see if the bye trend keeps up this season. It’s too early to make any sweeping statements about it. But it is worth noting just how many listless performances teams have had this season prior to getting a league-mandated four consecutive days off at some point during the team’s bye week, which is new to this year’s CBA.

It’s a rule that player like but coaches hate. Do you think Jason Garrett was happy he couldn’t work out his team’s problems on the field after the Bears undressed them last Monday night on national TV? What about disciplinarian Mike Mularkey this week after his team’s 38-point home loss to the Bears?

Keep an eye on the Falcons, Broncos, Chiefs, Dolphins, Chargers and Eagles — the Week Seven bye teams — for this coming week’s games in Week Six. It wouldn’t be surprising if a few of them come out flat.