Not long ago I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Mike Wells in ESPN's cafeteria. I read every word Mike writes about the Indianapolis Colts for ESPN.com. And right away I thought, "He's as good a guy as he is a reporter."
But then he turned his investigative skills on me. "I have to ask you something I get asked so often by Colts fans," he said. "Why do you hate Andrew Luck?"
Ouch. But fair question, Mike. I'm sure it sometimes seems that way to Colts fans who watch "First Take." Allow me to explain.
I DO NOT HATE ANDREW LUCK.
It's true I love the previous Colts quarterback, guy named Peyton, far more than I do Luck so far. And it's true I like (or liked) Robert Griffin III slightly more than I do Luck.
But that's as a quarterback, not as a guy.
From all I read and hear, Andrew Luck just might be the finest young man ever to be a star NFL quarterback. Not an ounce of RG-Me in him. No Johnny Manziel "money" signs or bad signs after hours. None of Colin Kaepernick's chip-on-shoulder-pads.
No Twitter or Instagram blunders -- Luck doesn't even have an account. No starlets or models in his life. No relentless national-TV ads for Nationwide-is-on-your-side or Papa John's or Buick, like that former Colts quarterback.
Obviously nothing to hate there.
But what I do not like -- and cannot fathom -- is the premature enshrinement of Andrew Luck. Seriously, it's as if he already has been inducted into Canton's Hall of Fame. Again and again I hear analysts refer to him as a cinch first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's "already a top five quarterback" and some experts make the reverential case he just might already be the NFL's best QB.
Call him Andrew Lock, as in Hall of Fame Lock. Fans everywhere -- not just Indy fans -- have been conditioned to believe Luck is well on his way to becoming The Greatest Ever. That's all they hear on TV.
Conditioned? Or brainwashed?
No doubt the young man, in his third NFL season, is almost as good on the field as he is off it. But -- and it's quite possible I dreamed this -- didn't Andrew Luck throw SEVEN INTERCEPTIONS in two playoff games last January? Did anyone but me notice this? Or have most NFL fans been programmed to see only the great in Luck?
Most fans, if their QB threw seven picks in two playoff games, would be more inclined to believe that QB belonged in Canton, China, instead of Canton, Ohio.
Yet, when I bring up those seven interceptions on air, Stephen A. Smith and other ESPN analysts mostly roll their eyes, as if that's a cheap shot or low blow. It's now out of bounds, even un-American, to exercise the slightest objectivity when it comes to Andrew Lock, who just might be the most media-protected third-year QB in NFL history.
CAN WE PLEASE WAIT UNTIL THIS JANUARY TO CORONATE THIS KID, JUST TO MAKE SURE HE CAN WIN ONE PLAYOFF GAME WITHOUT TURNING THE BALL OVER?
He's now all of 1-2 in the postseason -- six touchdown passes to eight interceptions. I certainly don't hold his first playoff game against him -- that was Luck's rookie year and that was The Return of Ray Lewis, in Baltimore, and the Ravens were about to go on a Super Bowl roll. Luck was only 28-of-54 for 288 yards, no TD passes and one interception.
For that matter, I'm willing to disregard a rookie season in which Luck completed a surprisingly low 54 percent of his passes and finished second in the NFL (to Mark Sanchez) in total turnovers. After all, Colts owner Jim Irsay had thrust Luck into a first-pick pressure cooker that would have broken some young QBs. Irsay basically told the NFL world that Luck would be better than an aging Peyton Manning with a surgically repaired neck, maybe even in the short term.
Still, during his second season last year, Luck continued to play surprisingly subpar games that nobody (but me) seemed to notice. His QBR (scale of 0-100) was only 42.5 in Week 6, a 19-9 Monday night loss at San Diego ... only 13.6 in Week 10, a 38-8 home loss to St. Louis ... 21.9 in Week 12, a 40-11 loss at Arizona ... and 37.1 in Week 13, a 22-14 home win over Tennessee.
Then came the home playoff game against Kansas City last Jan. 4. Luck threw his second interception on the first play of the second half. Moments later, the Chiefs led 38-10. He threw his third interception later in the third quarter, setting up a Chiefs field goal that kept the Colts in a 41-24 hole.
From then on Andrew was very good ... but very Lucky. The Chiefs lost their top two running backs, Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis. They lost their fastest receiver, Donnie Avery. On defense, they lost two of their best players, sack artist Justin Houston and cornerback Brandon Flowers, and bookend pass-rusher Tamba Hali was also hurt. Luck was pressured on only two of 25 second-half dropbacks. A goal-line fumble bounced right back to Luck, who dived home for a touchdown.
Indy won 45-44.
But at New England the following Saturday night, Luck went from three to FOUR interceptions and somehow the Patriots stayed healthy enough to hang on to a 43-22 win. That made seven interceptions Luck has thrown only against the Patriots (counting a game his rookie season). But who's counting? Bill Belichick checkmates lots of QBs, even Manning.
I know, focus on the great: Luck now leads the NFL in passing yards. Forget he's only sixth in QBR because he's tied for sixth in interceptions.
And please feel free to focus on my personal biases when it comes to Luck. Full disclosure ...
I watched a lot of Luck at Stanford, and before his draft, I could not forget the awful second half at Oregon his junior year, the late pick-six he threw at USC his senior year and that he got outplayed by Brandon Weeden (three TD passes, one interception to two TD passes, one interception) while losing his final college game in the Fiesta Bowl.
I predicted Robert Griffin III would prove to be the slightly better pro -- and for a season I was right. RG III won offensive rookie of the year (20 TD passes to only five interceptions) while leading Washington to the NFC East title and a 14-0 lead over Seattle in a home playoff game before reinjuring his knee. For now, RG III has lost confidence in his injured legs, has lost some of his teammates and has been in danger of losing his job. But RG III vs. Luck isn't over. Not yet.
On air, I also took this stand the day Irsay parted ways with Peyton: big mistake. Peyton, I said, would give the Colts a better shot at winning the Super Bowl in each of the next three seasons. I believe I've been right about that, too.
But remember, I'm now forced to evaluate Luck by "top five" standards. That's the context in which Luck is often reverently ranked on "First Take." Remember, too, our show is two hours of live, unscripted debate five days a week. We defend our positions with often stubborn pride and passion -- sometimes twice a show on an issue such as Luck vs. Peyton or Luck vs. RG III. "Hating" Luck is more about hating losing a debate.
But I'm starting to wonder who has lost more objectivity about Luck -- me or his universe of supporters. Just about every analyst I know (as well as Stephen A.) dug in on Luck's future greatness before he was drafted. They all want to be proved right.
Heck, many fans surely root for Luck just because he comes across as such a humble, normal guy who happens to be star quarterback. Everything is prototypical about Luck -- big, strong, fast, tough, smart with a cannon -- except for his appearance and demeanor. Almost no style, all substance. He as easily could be a scraggly bearded Google intern as The Soon-To-Be Greatest.
But, at the risk of committing heresy, is it fair to ask if Luck has a weird propensity for almost inexplicably losing focus for a quarter, or a half, or even a game and throwing what-was-he-thinking interceptions?
Even after the Colts' recent 40-24 Monday night win at the Giants, Mike Wells wrote: "You wondered, 'What's wrong with Andrew Luck?' after he continued to miss his intended targets for more than a quarter."
I (for one) need to see Andrew Lock win a few more playoff games.
And this could (even should) be his turn and time. He now has a running game (thanks to Ahmad Bradshaw) and more weapons than ever. He has his college coordinator (Pep Hamilton) and a favorite college target (Coby Fleener) and a fairly easy closing schedule after New England visits Sunday night (thanks to a fairly easy division). Yes, very Lucky.
Who knows? Luck's team could wind up with home-field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl. If he pulls off what Russell Wilson did last playoffs, I'll be the first to stand and applaud.
Until then, alone, I will wait and see.