For the other 300-plus NFL prospects, Lucas Oil Stadium represents the site where teams will evaluate their pre-draft workouts.
Stepping inside the facility Friday meant something much deeper for Andrew Luck. It marked the first chance to visit his future digs.
Barring a completely unexpected twist, Luck will become the new quarterbacking tenant when selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. Before then, the icon whose dazzling career helped the franchise generate the public funding necessary to build a new venue must be evicted.
Adding to the awkwardness — the landlord still can’t say goodbye to Peyton Manning.
Colts owner Jim Irsay has continued to spin the possibility that Manning will accept a restructured contract before March 8. That’s the date when Manning is set to collect a $28 million roster bonus Irsay already has said won’t be paid because of medical concerns about the quarterback’s surgically repaired neck.
The odds of Manning accepting a lesser deal – especially considering the interest in his services elsewhere and all the offseason change in Indianapolis — are about as good as the Colts returning to Baltimore.
All of this had Luck walking on eggshells Friday when meeting with the triple-digit number of media members who surrounded his interview podium. Luck didn’t want to say anything that can be construed as offensive to his quarterbacking idol or trumpet the fact that Irsay already has expressed the desire to draft him even if Manning returns.
“Peyton was my hero growing up,” said Luck, who attended the Manning family’s offseason quarterback camps the past two summers. “He’s who I modeled myself after in high school and middle school. You never truly replace a guy like that.”
But that’s what the expectation will be.
Just like the image of Manning making a pre-snap gesture captured in a giant poster that still hangs outside the stadium, every finger will be pointed at Luck to begin shining sooner rather than later. Luck is considered the most NFL-ready college quarterback since – you guessed it – Manning, when he entered the league in 1998.
“It’s obviously flattering when people have nice things to say about you,” a slightly sheepish Luck said when conveyed such praise. “But I realize at the end of the day it is an opinion. Not to discredit or discount any of those opinions but it has to flow off your back like water.”
Manning was engulfed as a rookie when the Colts finished 3-13. But at least he had another future Hall of Famer — wide receiver Marvin Harrison — as a lifeboat. Indianapolis provided more relief the following year by drafting standout running back Edgerrin James.
Luck runs the risk of drowning, considering the Colts’ messy salary-cap situation and the potential offseason departure of some key offensive players.
New head coach Chuck Pagano talked Thursday about how he wants Indianapolis to play a run-first brand of football like the Pittsburgh Steelers once did. Unfortunately for Pagano, Franco Harris at age 61 might generate a better ground game than the running backs currently on the Colts roster.
The finesse-style offensive line constructed to provide Manning with sound pass protection needs revamping. The same goes for a receiving corps that could lose both Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon in free agency. Pagano and first-time general manager Ryan Grigson also have no track record to indicate they can fix these problems.
Akin to the 1998 Colts not posting a better record from the previous season in Manning’s first year, Indianapolis probably won’t improve much on its 2-14 mark from 2011. Dealing with that frustration while trying to fill Manning’s shoes would add to the major challenge that Luck already will face.
John Elway can relate. He went through many of the same problems in Denver during his rookie season in 1983 before evolving into a Hall of Fame passer.
Luck said Elway, another former Stanford star, has offered him tips about remaining focused on his quarterbacking responsibilities rather than sweating big-picture scenarios. Some more advice may be forthcoming. Elway said Friday that being in Indianapolis caused him to think about all the pressure Luck would be facing here.
“Obviously, there’s going to be high expectations of Andrew, but he’s been dealing with that his whole life,” Elway told me and co-host Solomon Wilcots on Sirius XM NFL Radio. “I think any great quarterback’s expectations of themselves are always higher than the expectations of other people.”
Luck will have the chance to prove he can achieve that greatness soon enough, inside a stadium sometimes referred to by another name: