Andrew Luck is worth the trouble

The high school coach, precisely and patiently, recounted his favorite plays from the then-prodigy. The college coach, similarly practiced, did the same for his current phenom.

But when Jim Harbaugh was asked to name the Andrew Luck play that made him gasp out loud, he paused. Harbaugh, the head coach who moved from Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers in January, did not reference any of Luck's victory vectors, his spinning arcs of triumph.

"There's tons," Harbaugh said last week. "But I'll give you the play he made against Southern Cal last year, one of the most physical plays you'll see. You see everything the kid's got: the speed, the strength, the courage, the will."

Luck, of course, is a quarterback -- perhaps the most heralded signal-caller since another Cardinal, a guy named Elway -- but this was a defensive play:

USC safety Shareece Wright had just scooped up a Stanford fumble on his 45-yard line and appeared headed for a touchdown. Luck -- all 6-foot-4, 238 pounds of him -- burst into the frame and, head down, delivered a brutal helmet blow to Wright's chin. Wright, a mere 185 pounds, stopped so violently you feared for his internal organs, and the commentators pretty much lost their minds. Touchdown saved, the Cardinal would win 37-35 on a game-ending field goal.

It feels like fiction from a Matt Christopher book, or a storyline from the Gil Thorpe cartoon strip. Seriously, the guy's name is … Luck. Except this is real; nearly 3 million, perhaps even you, have viewed the clip on YouTube.

"He did the same thing a week earlier against Oregon," Harbaugh said. "Outruns the blockers, goes 55 yards, and makes the tackle on the 3-yard line. He is as good a competitor as you will ever see."

Usually when something seems too good to be true, it isn't. Luck, by all accounts and virtually every measure, is. He has the physical tools, the mental makeup, all the intangibles.

How special is Andrew Luck? When was the last time we knew in September who the No. 1 NFL draft choice was going to be the following April? Even the late, great Peyton Manning wasn't a sure pick over Ryan Leaf in the 1998 draft.

"He would have been the No. 1 pick this year, too," said one NFL team's director of college scouting. "That's two years he's been the slam dunk. I can't think of anyone else in recent years you could say that about."

Because NFL rules discourage teams from talking about underclassmen -- Luck is technically a junior -- the lead scout, like others in the league approached for this story, asked to remain anonymous. He said Luck was rated an 8.0 in the team's grading system, out of a possible 8.0. As such, he is pegged as a perennial Pro Bowl player and a likely Super Bowl quarterback.

John Elway, whose Cardinal records are under siege by Luck, is the Denver Broncos' executive vice president of football operations. He respectfully declined to discuss Luck, but before he took the job in January, he said this about the 2011 draft on his radio show: "I think Andrew Luck is the best football player in the draft, without a doubt."

David Shaw was an NFL assistant for nine years, but as Stanford's newly elevated head coach, he can say anything he wants about Luck.

"Being in the NFL, you try to poke holes in a kid's game," Shaw said. "You have a checklist of negatives: Does he turn the ball over? Does he throw with accuracy? How about his decision-making? Well, there are no negatives on Andrew's list.

"Is being the face of the franchise too big for him? The face of all college football? No. He's ready to handle whatever comes his way."

Fanatical following

Only a catastrophic injury will prevent Luck from becoming the top overall pick in the NFL draft. Or perhaps a nuclear-grade mutation that confers super powers (think Spider-Man) on USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil or North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, thought to be among the draft's next best prospects.

This rare sense of certainty has created an awkward situation among fans around the league. Would the prospect of a franchise quarterback under center for a dozen years be incentive enough to do the unthinkable -- root against their favorite team? Could the potential long-term gain move them to embrace defeat in the short term?

Yes. Based on fan forums there are already tens of thousands leaning that way and, as the regular season winds down, that number could reach the millions. It's already happening in Seattle, Denver, Kansas City, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Miami and, of all places, Indianapolis. Fans of the 0-3 Miami Dolphins have been out front on this one; @SuckForLuck is a Twitter handle "imploring the Miami Dolphins or the terrible NFL team of your choice to tank for the #1 overall pick."

That's how special Luck is.

The early inside track will go to the winner of Sunday's tilt between the hapless Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs. The loser will be a horrific (but oddly heady) 0-4.

Daniel Banyas, a rabid Vikings fan for 38 of his 43 years, is the administrator of the PurplePride.org's Facebook page. He will drive to Kansas City on Sunday and root hard for Minnesota to win.

"That's three games in," Banyas said. "But if they find themselves, maybe, 1-7, I might say, 'Geez, we can win the Luck derby.' I would accept that position one step ahead of our rivals getting that. I'd rather they be 3-13 and competitive in those games than 9-7 and drafting in those mediocre spots."

Brandon Spano is experiencing the Luck phenomenon in two cities. He grew up in Kansas City and has been a Chiefs fan for 24 of his 28 years. He was previously a columnist for the ChiefsCrowd.com website and now has a radio show on KCKK, 93.7 FM in Denver.

"With Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry out for the season [with torn ACLs], it kind of helps sway people toward the idea that it might be worth it to get Andrew Luck," Spano said. "I actually see a lot more of it in Denver, where [Kyle] Orton is extremely uninspiring. Chiefs fans have always drunk the Kool-Aid; they won't jump off the ship until they're mathematically eliminated.

"But if they finish in the bottom three, you know they'll be pulling for [general manager Scott] Pioli to make a blockbuster deal."

Quiz time: Who was the last non-franchise quarterback to win the Super Bowl? You have to go back nine years to Brad Johnson, who took the Buccaneers to the XXXVII title. Or Trent Dilfer and the Baltimore Ravens, who were NFL champions two years earlier. Otherwise, since then it has been: Tom Brady, Brady, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Six of them were the game's MVP.

Mike Shockman, an administrator and forum moderator for PurplePride.org, a 10,000-fan site, fondly remembers Joe Kapp, Fran Tarkenton and Tommy Kramer. He'd like to see Donovan McNabb benched and first-round draft choice Christian Ponder thrown into the fray.

"There's a lot of talk like that on the site," Shockman said. "They say it's getting ridiculous and figure the season's lost anyway. Andrew Luck seems to have all the potential to be a superstar. It might almost be worth going through a season of crap for the chance to get him."

A different kind of cat

Luck threw for 7,139 yards and ran for an additional 2,085 at Stratford High School in Houston. But after scouts from the big schools watched him practice, they asked head coach Eliot Allen about his arm strength.

"The thing that made Andrew so great was that he adapted to every receiver," Allen said. "He knew who he could really drill it into and, at the same time, take a little off to guys whose hands weren't as good. He'd throw a catchable ball to everyone -- that's how advanced he was."

Luck is the son of Oliver Luck, who played quarterback for the Houston Oilers for five years. Andrew was the co-valedictorian at Stratford and recruited by an NFL quarterback of 14 seasons, Jim Harbaugh, who arrived at Stanford in 2007, inheriting a 1-11 program. After sitting out the 2008 season, Luck had modest success as a redshirt freshman. Last year he was spectacular, completing more than 70 percent of his passes and throwing 32 touchdowns, breaking the school record (27) set by Steve Stenstrom and Elway.

He's 23-5 as a starter for No. 6-ranked Stanford and has the Cardinal 3-0 heading into Saturday's game against UCLA. Luck, the 2010 Heisman Trophy runner-up, is the leading candidate for this year's honor.

Shaw, who was Stanford's offensive coordinator under Harbaugh, learned right away that Luck was a different kind of cat.

"The first game he started as a redshirt freshman was at Washington State," Shaw remembered. "He dropped back and no one was open. He took off scrambling up the sideline and, with the safety coming, I figured he'd go out of bounds. But he didn't. He ran the guy over and got four more yards.

"He's so competitive, he never even thought about stepping out. He was our second-leading rusher that year. He's an even better athlete than people give him credit for."

In athleticism and arm strength, the deep out is the toughest ball for a quarterback. Elway made a nice living throwing it in Denver.

"Andrew Luck throws the deep out," said the anonymous director of college scouting. "He makes every throw you could want. And he's great on touch passes and screens, where you want some finesse. Throw in the toughness, the poise and smarts, and you have the total package.

"Most guys, you hear all these ludicrous superlatives and they turn out to be media creations, the Brady Quinns of the world. Not this guy."

In his report on Luck written last year, the scout wrote, "Forget everything else. Here are three plays that say who he is."

He listed a scramble against California when a defensive back was obliterated trying to tackle him, a goal-line run against UCLA when a defender was similarly de-cleated -- and the time he wrecked USC's Wright. Not one was a passing play.

"You can stop the tape right there," the scout said. "That's all you need to see."

The conspiracy theories

Stanford's Shaw feels sorry for the struggling NFL teams who are confronted almost daily with questions about Luck.

"Two games into a 16-game season, and everybody goes crazy," he said last week. "You're the head coach of the Chiefs and the running back gets hurt. You can still go on a run, maybe 8-2, and make the playoffs. But everybody wants to talk about Andrew Luck."

More than a dozen websites regularly track the Suck for Luck sweepstakes. As the season progresses, scrutiny will be sharpened for those teams still in the race. When does "rebuilding" cross over into the gray area of tanking?

Conspiracy theorists want to know:

• Why did the Seattle Seahawks seem to downgrade at the quarterback position, installing Tarvaris Jackson as starter behind a young, inexperienced offensive line that includes two rookies and a second-year player?

• If the Indianapolis Colts truly were concerned about Manning's health -- and their ability to win games in 2011 -- why did they wait until 18 days before the opener to pull 38-year-old Kerry Collins out of retirement?

• Are the Vikings really surprised that 34-year-old Donovan McNabb -- who has thrown 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in his past 16 games -- is 0-3?

• How was it that the Cincinnati Bengals didn't get something for disgruntled Carson Palmer during the offseason? Why did the Jaguars hand the keys to Luke McCown, who has the league's worst passer rating at 30.6? What on earth is happening in Kansas City?

Harbaugh himself was on the radar before the season began. Folks wondered if he would somehow scheme to land his former protégé. But Alex Smith is holding his own, and the 49ers lead the anemic NFC West with a 2-1 record -- the same number of victories as the rest of the division.

"Are you asking me if people are going to play for the No. 1 position?" Harbaugh said, speaking deliberately. "It's a heinous accusation to accuse somebody of that, to say a team wouldn't try to win. I feel comfortable speaking for all coaches on this.

"They're going to play to win … at all times."

Said Stanford's Shaw, "Everybody knows it. That's why it becomes sexy. Here comes the NFL franchise quarterback. Now it's just a lot of talk. What's going to get interesting is when we get to Week 13, Week 17.

"If you're one of those last four teams, the questions will be coming. Are you throwing games to get [draft] position? Are you doing everything you can to win? Those are awful questions, but they're going to be asked."

You can toss out the 1-2 Carolina Panthers and the 0-3 St. Louis Rams, because they already have the past two No. 1 overall picks, quarterbacks Cam Newton and Sam Bradford. After this week's Vikings-Chiefs game, there is a Week 5 matchup that could feature two 0-4 teams: Chiefs at Colts.

Imagine if the Colts, in the absence of the injured Manning, contrived to secure the services of back-to-back franchise quarterbacks. And then we have Chad Henne and the Dolphins at 0-3. Would the No. 1 overall pick be enough to convince former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher to make his new home in South Florida?

As good as Andrew Luck is, his coaches think he can get better.

"Yes," Harbaugh said, "Andrew would tell you the same thing. You're either continuing to get better, or you're getting worse. He's the guy who understands that. He has the humility and the work ethic to make it happen."

Said Allen, his high school coach in Houston: "Actually, I think he'll get much better. He was never surrounded by truly talented players here. Stanford increased the level around him, but he's never been in a situation with big-time receivers to throw to. I'm biased, but I think he'll excel at the next level."

The only mystery that remains: Which NFL team will Luck take to the Super Bowl? That question should make a number of dodgy games in December a lot more interesting.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.