ST. LOUIS – There are lessons in a split. Peyton Manning’s strong start with the Denver Broncos and Andrew Luck’s rise in his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts have proven this: A breakup can produce benefits for all involved sooner than expected.
Week 9 offered further signs that Manning and Luck have evolved in their new roles. Manning, dumped in Indianapolis after 14 seasons, led the Broncos to their third consecutive victory by throwing for three touchdowns in beating the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, Luck, the Colts’ heartthrob of their post-Manning world, led Indianapolis to a third consecutive victory of its own by throwing for a rookie-record 433 yards in topping the Miami Dolphins.
This seems too eerie to be true. Consider how similar Manning and Luck are midway through the season: Both teams are 5-3 with postseason potential. Both quarterbacks have passed for 2,404 yards. Both leave others searching for ways to capture their impact in words, as if those who share a locker room with them are giddy admirers with a crush.
On Manning: “He’s a great competitor,” Denver wide receiver Brandon Stokley told reporters Sunday. “He is who he is, and it’s what I’ve seen from him for 14 years.”
On Luck: “The kid, he continues to amaze,” Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne told reporters Sunday. “Hopefully I can help … add on to his legacy that he’s about to build.”
Much remains to be seen what Manning and Luck will build, but the body of work is impressive so far. Both have shown that life doesn’t end at a tearful goodbye news conference. Both have shown that moving beyond an era that produced 11 playoff berths, seven AFC South titles in eight years, four MVP awards, two AFC championships and one Super Bowl title was the right choice once emotion gave way to reason.
Among the proof: The Colts have positioned themselves as AFC contenders for the foreseeable future. Look, they lost something significant when owner Jim Irsay let Manning walk. The Colts lost a future Hall of Famer. They lost a player who made them relevant after many hollow seasons following their move from Baltimore in 1984. They lost a piece of their history.
But with the Stanford product, they have secured an insurance policy for the future. Luck, with 10 touchdowns and a passer rating of 79.0, has proven he’s too skilled to have wasted this season as a clipboard gofer. It would have been unwise – and unfair to Manning – to draft Luck and let the rookie roam the sideline as a distraction. In that case, the Colts would have rivaled the New York Jets as the NFL’s chief drama queen.
Sometimes, a clean break is necessary. The Colts’ long-term vision never included Manning, so moving on was appropriate.
Still, the start of Luck’s learning curve has created opportunity for the 36-year-old. Manning is earning revenge the best way a jilted lover can: He’s thriving without his former flame.
His numbers are surprising, considering he sat out last season with a severe neck injury. He has thrown for at least 300 yards five times. He has 20 touchdowns with six interceptions. He leads the NFL with a passer rating of 108.6. He makes Tim Tebow’s legacy in the Rocky Mountains look laughable in comparison.
Manning brings to mind Brett Favre in 2009. That season, the 40-year-old carried the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game, while the Green Bay Packers slouched at home after the Arizona Cardinals whipped them in the wild card round. Like Favre then, Manning has proven that the Great Ones are relentless in trying to outrun Father Time.
It doesn’t always happen this way though. In 1973, Johnny Unitas only threw for 471 yards in five games with the San Diego Chargers after 17 seasons with the Baltimore Colts. In 1977, Joe Namath only threw for 606 yards in four games with the Los Angeles Rams after 12 seasons with the Jets.
We’re witnessing something uncommon. We’re witnessing one future Hall of Famer remake himself as his former franchise does the same.
Still, it’s too early to declare a winner in the Manning-Colts split. Both received fresh starts, both are energized, both have no reason to look back and regret a parting of ways. That’s business, after all. That’s life.
The Colts made a calculated choice, a decision that delivered the franchise one of the best young quarterbacks in recent memory. The result: They have moved into the future and will be stronger for it.
Meanwhile, Manning has reinvented himself under the watch of John Elway, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations. He remains driven without Luck’s presence serving as a psychological ball and chain. The result: He has moved into the future and will be stronger for it.
Two quarterbacks. One breakup.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.