INDIANAPOLIS -- Andrew Luck stood barefoot with his hands gently locked in front of him in the hallway outside the locker room at the team’s facility more than two months ago.
The Indianapolis Colts’ franchise quarterback, with some frustration in his voice, threw around the phrases “sick to my stomach” and “loss in a sense.”
Luck was about to step into unfamiliar territory for the first time in his young NFL career. He no longer would have his security blanket, the player who led in the locker room and on the field and the one who could make up for a bad throw by making an incredible catch.
Future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne was done for the season with a torn ACL. Enter a group of receivers in which doing a Google search to learn about their playing background wasn't considered embarrassing.
As much as it may hurt Colts fans to hear this, Luck had to follow New England quarterback Tom Brady's blueprint. There's no better quarterback in the league than Brady when it comes to getting the most out of his receivers.
It was Luck’s turn to do the same if the Colts expected to win the AFC South.
And just as he did at Stratford High School in Houston and during his All-American career at Stanford, Luck, the methodical perfectionist, put in the time, never showed any frustration and stayed committed to his young receivers. The result was a better second half of the season for Luck.
“It’s never easy to lose your go-to guy,” Colts veteran backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “I really think the setup we had here was healthy. Other guys had to step up and fill the void."
Luck’s passing yards are down from his rookie season because the Colts put more of an emphasis on the running game. But the decision-making skills he displayed during the season give validation on why he was a better quarterback this season. Luck improved his completion percentage from 54.1 to 60.2, and threw 23 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Peyton Manning has had only one season in his 16-year career where he had less than 10 interceptions.
“Regardless of who is out there, he’s going to find a way to get the job done,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s not going to walk in here because we lost this guy, that guy and whatever. He’s just one of those guys that has a great attitude and it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. He’s going to find a way to win the football game and he wills his team to win games. He’s a great competitor that way. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”
The transition wasn’t easy at first because Luck had completed only 23.8 percent of his pass attempts when Wayne wasn’t on the field before the injury, and the future Hall of Fame receiver had accounted for 101 of Luck's 288 first-down completions.
The Colts went from having Wayne as the No. 1 receiver to moving second-year player T.Y. Hilton into his spot. Darrius Heyward-Bey still lacked the mental focus to catch the ball. LaVon Brazill was suspended the first four games of the season, and Griff Whalen was on the practice squad for the three games before Wayne’s injury.
Quarterback coach Clyde Christensen spoke up after Wayne's injury and said Luck had to maintain a "steady temperature," according to Hasselbeck, and simply reminded him what the focus needed to be.
“Really didn’t have to [talk a lot about it] because we’ve been through so much adversity and injuries,” Pagano said. “I think Reggie was the last of the five starters on the offensive side of the ball that we lost. And so there was really no need for a discussion.”
The first two games without Wayne weren’t bad because Hilton had 14 catches for 251 yards. Wayne's absence became noticeable when teams found a way to slow Hilton down by giving help over the top, forcing Luck to go elsewhere with the ball.
That didn’t turn out too well.
He completed only 50.5 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions in the first five games without Wayne.
Luck, who would rather compliment than ridicule a teammate, didn’t get discouraged. Drop a pass and he had no problem going back to that receiver the next time the opportunity presented itself.
The continuity started to show against Cincinnati on Dec. 8, when Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers, who was brought up from the practice squad, combined for 160 yards and four touchdowns.
The sudden maturity at receiver allowed the Colts to use a no-huddle offense with Luck in the shotgun. He completed 67 percent of his attempts for six touchdowns and only one interception in the final four games of the regular season.
It's a perfect time, too, because the Colts will need Luck's arm and mental toughness in order to win their first playoff game since 2009 when they host the Chiefs on Saturday.
“I think there’s a bit of a rhythm that we’ve found,” Luck said. “And it’s good. I’m glad we’re playing decent football going into the postseason. We know the postseason’s a whole different ballgame and one-and-done, and we’re excited about that.”