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Luck earning rave reviews at camp
Anderson, IN - For the past decade, the Colts have been to fantasy football what Clint Eastwood is to equanimity. Emboldened by a meticulous and imposing air assault piloted by Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis offense facilitated rotisserie glory for owners lucky enough to employ a player with a horseshoe on his helmet. One could even make the case that, because of the parallels between his career and the intensification of the ancillary football game, Manning is the patron saint of the pseudo-pigskin competition.
Unfortunately for Colts fans and fantasy aficionados, this era came to an end in 2011, as neck issues relegated Manning to the sidelines for the season. Manning’s absence relinquished the ignition keys of the offensive engine to the trio of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. This axis of inadequacy promptly crashed the high-octane locomotive, averaging just 15.2 points per game (28th in the NFL) and correlating to a 2-14 record. Armed with the No. 1 overall selection in a draft featuring Stanford signal caller Andrew Luck, dubbed by many college observes as the most NFL-ready arm since, well, Manning, and confronted by a $28 million roster bonus deadline for a (then) 35-year-old injured entity, Indianapolis was forced to release their face of the organization in early March. The four-time MVP was soon signed to the Denver Broncos, paving the way for Luck to assume the onus as franchise savior.
Ascending such a throne is no easy endeavor, though the narrative will undoubtedly hover over the former Cardinal quarterback’s rookie campaign, and ostensibly his entire career. Not that Luck is exerting much meditation to the matter.
“You know, I try not to think too much about predecessors, what I have to live up to,” Luck said after the first day of training camp. “I think I’ve got fairly high expectations for myself…I know its cliché, but if I woke every morning – I’ve said this before – trying to compare myself to Peyton, I think I’d go crazy.”
Fortunately for Luck, the Colts faithful won’t hold their neophyte field general to the same standard as his All-Pro precursor this season. Indiana is known as a hoops hotbed, but Hoosiers are as knowledgeable as any gridiron fan base in the NFL, and they identify and empathize with the upcoming growing pains as vital to the development of a gunslinger. After all, the venerable Manning tossed 28 interceptions in his first fall in blue and white.
Alas, fantasy proprietors may not exhibit the same type of patience. Certain anticipations accompany a No. 1 draft pick, especially after the amazing exploits of Cam Newton just a year ago. However, managers will need to pump their breaks on the statistical presumption of Luck, as the Indianapolis offensive attack, directed by former Pittsburgh coordinator Bruce Arians, will feature plenty of two-tight end sets and a focus on the ground game. Though Arians promises it will include vertical dimensions, it’s a scheme that shouldn’t facilitate an excess of fireworks on the scoreboard. In a sense, it’s a philosophy that’s foreign to Luck, as he operated under a West Coast system in Palo Alto.
This structure isn’t condemnation on the Colts’ fantasy forecast. In truth, it could function as a stage for players to shine in 2012. Count Donald Brown as one of these individuals looking to capitalize on this transformation, as the former first-round pick has underwhelmed in his first three seasons in the league, amassing just over 1,400 yards in 40 games. With a new emphasis on rushing, combined with the exodus of halfback Joseph Addai, Brown is a candidate for a breakout campaign, a proposition the runner supports.
“I love the system. Just some downhill, smashmouth running,” Brown said. “That’s what I’m comfortable with, that’s what I’m excited about.” Assisting Brown in the backfield will be Delone Carter, and rookie Vick Ballard out of Mississippi earned rave reviews during offseason workouts, leading some to believe he will seize the running back reins by midseason.
Brown, Carter and Ballard aren’t the only performers who will benefit from this pattern. Rookie tight end Coby Fleener, a second-round selection and college teammate of Luck, is envisioned to see a multitude of targets in 2012. Owning a 6’6” frame, Fleener will serve as a security blanket on check-downs and over-the-middle routes for Luck. It’s this rapport that Indianapolis hopes ease their quarterback’s assimilation into the professional ranks.
“We got a head start, hit the ground running with the OTAs, and it’s going well,” Fleener said after the second day of camp. “Stanford utilized their tight ends more than any school in the nation, so I’m excited to be part of an offense that does the same.”
Luck is also blessed with an endowed receiving corps, led by five-time Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie. Rookies T.Y. Hilton out of Florida International and LaVon Brazill from Ohio have garnered attention with their blazing speed, and former Ram Donnie Avery has built a bond with Luck in offseason training, but Wayne and Collie remain the two wideouts most likely to make a difference in fantasy this season. Viewed as merely a slot receiver in the past, Collie is getting a shot from the outside position this August, a prospect the 26-year-old is not taking lightly.
“I’m ready. I feel really good,” Collie said. “I’m confident and just ready to get after it.”
However, all attention will be under center, as Luck embarks on bringing this past powerhouse back to the Promised Land. On the day I observed camp, the wind was upsetting some of Luck’s throws, but that did little to deter the command and control the quarterback had on the offense and, most importantly, his teammates. Though he still has leagues to go in grasping defensive fronts, he seems to exude the presence of a 10-year veteran, a sentiment not lost on his colleagues.
“He’s on it. He’s on it pretty good,” said Collie. “You know, he’s far beyond most of us and that’s just attributes to his intelligence and how hard of a worker he is.”
The Colts don’t take a regular-season snap until September 9, which will be the first test of this team’s, and Luck’s, merit. Nonetheless, if the early appraisals are any indication, the franchise has already scored a victory with their acquisition of Luck. For a squad that notched just two Ws in all of 2011, they’ll take any conquest they can get.
While at Colts camp, we couldn’t help but inquire if the players themselves comprehend the impact that fantasy football has on the gridiron world. Viewed as a secondary product in the recent past, the game has evolved into a billion-dollar industry, with millions of fans participating in competitions with their friends, co-workers, even strangers. Not only does the NFL run commercials and advertisements for the recreation during sports-related broadcasts, but the league has sanctioned teams to display fantasy-centric statistics in stadiums.
Yet some critics believe fantasy football is a trivial affair, that it degrades the NFL presentation. So what’s the word from the Indianapolis locker room?
“It’s big, no doubt,” said Fleener. “People will hit me up on Twitter, let me know they’re going with me this season. It’s a great way for fans to get involved.”
Despite the game’s arrangement as predominately offensive, guys on the defensive side appreciate the effect fantasy has on the league as well.
“I’ve never played, but I’m going to try and get involved more,” said Pro-Bowler Robert Mathis. “Seems like more and more people bring it up.”
However, while he’s a proponent of the game, All-Pro Dwight Freeney preached caution on the subject.
“I know it’s a big deal, I know it’s big,” said Freeney. “But I worry that some guys don’t watch games as much as they watch the box scores or scoring plays.” Freeney is not alone in this perspective, as many detractors use this argument as evidence that fantasy football is a detriment to the sport.
Still, Freeney understands that it’s a medium for pigskin addicts to get involved, and the more interaction, the better.
“At the end of the day, if it makes the fans happy, I’m for it,” said Freeney.
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