Andrew Luck, Young Professional

A great quarterback joins the workforce. Where's the fun in that?
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A dull-ish man among boys.

Image via Flickr.

On Monday night, Andrew Luck finished a three-season college football career that featured two Heisman runner-up finishes, 82 touchdown passes, 31 wins, and one of the most improbable program turnarounds in the history of the sport. He is, with the possible exception of John Elway, the best player ever at Stanford.

Somehow, though, those accomplishments have become far less notable than what Luck might do in the future. For all he’s done on The Farm, Luck has been discussed primarily in terms of his pro potential. In an era when quarterback prospects often vault up draft boards based on postseason workouts and little else (see: Gabbert, Blaine), he has been seen as a surefire top overall pick since late in his redshirt-freshman season. In the mainstream view, his college career is mere prelude to the fantastic pro career that will begin next fall. Despite being universally acclaimed as one of the best amateur players in the nation, he’s considered to be more like a pro without a contract than a young man on the start of a journey. He’s the rare 22-year-old quarterback who exists beyond hype. No one, except maybe Skip Bayless, argues about Andrew Luck. We just say his name and nod.

Quite frankly, Luck’s boring, and not just because the football cognoscenti decided long ago that he was way better—in the grand sense, not in terms of numbers or awards—than his closest competition. Near-flawless NFL quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees inspire awe if only because they’re really good at a job only 15 people in the world do competently.

Luck, though, has up until this week existed in a context where failure is expected. Last month, David Roth described a Kentucky/North Carolina basketball game as “exuberant and lumpy and immature and also for the most part pretty fucking great.” When NCAA football is at its best, the same description applies. If the NFL product rests on a foundation of planning and execution, then the college game is altogether more heterogeneous and confusing. Stanford can have one of the country’s best offenses without a legitimate threat at wide receiver, and a single incandescent talent like Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon can turn the momentum of a marquee game over the course of two plays. College football isn’t a war, but a wild variety show of successes, failures, and shifts in momentum. The draw, apart from the pull of the alma mater and geographically biased insanity, is in watching a bunch of kids do things that alternately display greatness and the folly of youth.

In such a world, Luck can’t help but look like the sort of kid who wears shirt and tie to class just because he likes to look nice. His best trait isn’t his arm strength, or even his much talked-about accuracy, but an abiding professionalism and comfort in what’s commonly called the toughest position in all of sports. Luck looks like what Marv Marinovich wanted Todd to be: a natural quarterback who seems to have prepared to play the position since he left the womb. He always seems to make the right decisions, whether they involve when to throw the ball away, when to tuck and run, or when to change the play at the line. As Mel Kiper noted in his most recent draft rankings, Luck’s brilliance is understated, the sort of genius that only becomes evident after prolonged viewing and study.

With the exception of his forearm shiver to Cal defensive back Sean Cattouse in the 2010 Big Game and a one-handed catch against UCLA this October, Luck’s collegiate career was relatively low on gasp-inducing highlights. Even his wins were relatively low-impact: with the exception of a 2009 win over eventual conference champion Oregon, a game Stanford dominated on the ground rather than in the air, Luck beat the teams he was supposed to beat and lost the games he was supposed to lose. He stood out as a steady hand, not an electric talent in need of seasoning. It’s telling that, when Stanford coach David Shaw elected to have Jordan Williamson kick a chip-shot field goal at the Fiesta Bowl’s fourth quarter instead of letting Luck try for 25 more yards and a touchdown with a minute left and three timeouts, the second-guessing stated that he had chosen the risky option. Luck’s dependability redefined acceptable coaching decisions in a way that few, if any amateur quarterbacks ever have.

What that style means is that, while Luck likely would have been every coach’s pick to quarterback his football team, he was less exciting than dozens of other players around the country. Stars like Blackmon, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Tyrann Mathieu, and LaMichael James came up with plays that exceeded Luck’s best highlights at least once per game. That they are arguably not as good as Luck is beside the point. On a weekly basis, they simply offered more joy and elicited more oh-shit reactions than the man who’ll be the first pick in the NFL Draft. None of them required a PowerPoint presentation to explain their greatness, because it was evident to anyone who watched them play.

I don’t mean to suggest that Luck is bound to disappoint in the NFL as a personality; again, if he succeeds to the degree everyone expects, he’ll rank with the Rodgerses and Breeses of the world as a compulsively watchable master of his impossibly difficult craft. What matters is the context of the NFL, where quarterbacks are typically judged in terms of how well they fit an established standard of positional quality. No matter your opinion on Tim Tebow, that standard is a practical one. Great NFL quarterbacks are exciting because they come as close to perfecting a Herculean task as any human could be expected to do.

In college, however, a quarterback—or any player, really—excites because, without warning, he does something that pushes the boundaries of human physical possibility. NFL players do the same, of course, but the level of play allows fewer opportunities. It’s a league in which the craftsmen dominate, because consistent execution becomes paramount where in-the-moment inspiration is less possible. It’s no surprise that Luck figures to be one of the best NFL quarterbacks of his generation. His strengths are a perfect fit for the league’s style.

The flipside of Luck’s coming aesthetic ascension, though, is that Blackmon will find himself less able to get open, Richardson will have smaller holes to run through, and Griffin III will have to go through a rookie’s usual adjustment to a pro-style offense. All three, along with many other college stars, will be less exciting as professionals. And while I don’t begrudge anyone for preferring the NFL to the NCAA—it makes sense to be more interested in football played at its highest level—it’s also worth questioning how we should feel about a sport that allows for less individuality and unforeseen excitement as players get older and better. While there are rare exceptions like Calvin Johnson who become more exciting when surrounded by brighter talent, the more common career trajectory is that of guys like J.J. Stokes and Vince Young, who go from genuinely inspirational talents to flawed players who might get lucky enough to scrape out careers as backups. The possibility of youth gives way to the rules and regulations of adulthood.

If you’re a pessimist, that makes the NFL a more realistic reflection of the world at large. But if we accept that sports are supposed to be fun, then it’s not clear why the league should lack the aspirational joy of college football. Andrew Luck is a great player, but assigning stylistic impressiveness on the basis of statistical production makes as much sense as deeming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 the best film of 2011 because it made the most money. Only lonely people in office fantasy leagues watch football to find out who’s the best at scoring more points or accruing more yards based on a set of arbitrary rules. There has to be more to fandom. The question, then, is why we’d ever look forward to seeing Trent Richardson do less.

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