CHICAGO – Andrew Luck followed up three interceptions in his NFL debut with the perfect audible: He took the blame for all of them.
That's the most important thing to take out of Luck's regular-season debut with the Indianapolis Colts, a 41-21 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.
We knew this season had the potential for ugly moments. The great Peyton Manning, after all, led the Colts to a 3-13 record his first season. So Luck getting picked off three times (as was Manning in his rookie debut) isn't a deal breaker. On the contrary, the fact he stepped up and claimed all three as his own is a deal maker.
This is what you want in a team leader. The buck stops with No. 12, as it did – sorry, comparisons are unavoidable – with old No. 18. Luck even took the fall for a blind hit from behind that resulted in a fumble.
“I was solely responsible for four turnovers,” Luck said. “That puts not only the offense, but the whole team, in a tough situation. Three picks and a fumble. That'll be a point of emphasis of mine (this week.)”
There will be plenty of points of emphasis for the Colts as they head into Week 2 and a home game with the Minnesota Vikings.
After a great start, with an interception-return touchdown by linebacker Jerrell Freeman, the defense showed several areas of vulnerability. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw for 333 yards and two scores. Bears receivers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett had the secondary spinning in circles. Suffice it to say Vontae Davis hasn't shut down anyone yet. Dwight Freeney hurt his ankle so the defense is further undermanned.
But the decision to turn this team over to Luck shouldn't be any concern at all.
Luck directed 77- and 80-yard scoring drives and could have had two more (on the picked-off end zone pass to Reggie Wayne) and a missed field goal to end the first half. He showed poise and even a bit of necessary petulance in forcefully directing receivers to the right alignments.
He took some hits (three sacks, a half-dozen hurries) and bounced back every time.
“We would have liked to see him get hit a lot less,” left tackle Anthony Castonzo said, speaking for the entire franchise and fan base.
Wayne was Luck's favorite target, catching nine passes for 135 yards including several acrobatic receptions. He pointed to Luck's poise as a huge plus.
“He has a lot on his shoulders,” Wayne said. “That was expected. We knew that. We have to help him out. We have to be where we're supposed to be, catch the ball, protect (him), help him out.”
This is a very public training ground for Luck. Every move is scrutinized, every mistake heightened, every minutia analyzed and compared with A) Manning, his predecessor, and B) Robert Griffin III, the player drafted behind him. It's a wonder Luck doesn't lash out over his fishbowl existence.
Instead, he's approaching this as the on-the-job training it is. Let's face it. The Bears' defense would have been easier to deal with as a Week 5 test, but it would never be easy. Throw in the fact two key receivers were out (Austin Collie because of concussion and T.Y. Hilton with a shoulder injury), along with a left guard (Joe Reitz) and later the right tackle (Winston Justice, head injury) and the Colts' offense was far from full strength.
Yet Luck's debut numbers (23 of 45, 309 yards, one touchdown, three picks) were eerily similar to Manning's debut back in 1998 (21 of 37, 302 yards, one score, three picks). They weren't quite Griffin's debut numbers (19 of 26, 320 yards, two scores in a win over New Orleans).
Are we going to have to chart these comparisons all season? We don't have to, but we probably will. That's the curse of 24/7 sports coverage.
Luck won't get caught up worrying about anything but his own team and his own performance.
Luck thought he had a “free play” on his long but underthrown pass to Donnie Avery that was picked off by former Colts cornerback Tim Jennings (the first of two Jennings' picks). Luck assumed, incorrectly, the Bears were in the neutral zone and about to be penalized.
“I should never assume anything in this league,” Luck said. “It was a bad ball as well. It was underthrown and I think there's a chance for a touchdown if I make a good throw, which I didn't.”
Colts coach Chuck Pagano didn't give Luck a pass on his mistakes. Neither did he dwell on them. He said the Bears amped up the pressure on Luck as expected, seeking to force rookie mistakes. But expecting pressure and dealing with it are two different things. The Colts have a full load of offensive line and quarterback work ahead.
Still, Luck continued to show his resilience in bouncing back from bad plays and bad series to make something happen. He took blame and responsibility in equal parts.
“When they got behind, he kept showing up and making plays,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “He did a great job of being mobile in the pocket and finding different receivers. He's definitely going to win a lot of games.”
The question is when the winning will start? This much seems evident: When the good days come for Luck, he'll pass the credit as quickly as he takes the blame.