Colts at Houston
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. Sunday
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The locker stall to the left of Andrew Luck in the Indianapolis Colts' practice complex has sat unused for two weeks now. Nothing is more symbolic that the offense is fully Luck's now.
Reggie Wayne has been mentor, friend, adviser and, his words, vice president, for Luck during Lucks first year-and-a-half as an NFL quarterback.
Wayne is gone for the time being, recovering from knee surgery, grinding in private for the long road back.
Luck stands alone.
How he handles that will determine where the Colts' season goes from here.
My guess: Luck is going to miss Wayne's sublime wide-receiver skills and presence more than anyone can imagine. There's simply no one else on the offense like him. But, in light of that, the young quarterback will take charge in ways we haven't seen before.
“I don't think anybody feels like they need to force leadership, myself included,” Luck said. “Whatever happens happens, and it'll have to be natural, in a sense.”
Luck and the Wayne-less Colts (5-2) travel to Houston to play the Texans (2-5) at 8:30 p.m. Sunday in Reliant Stadium. The last late-night game the Colts played was a watershed moment, beating former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. The time before that, the Colts fell flat at San Diego.
This Sunday night game looms large because of its AFC South Division implications. The preseason favorite Texans are reeling and have switched quarterbacks from Matt Schaub to Case Keenum. Any time the Colts can win a division road game is huge, but this one could all but knock the Texans out of a chance to come back in the season's second half.
The quarterback always gets more credit for wins and blame for losses than fits reality. Colts players such as rush end Robert Mathis, safety LaRon Landry and linebacker Jerrell Freeman will factor heavily in this game.
But this is Luck's first time flying solo without security-blanket Wayne. He not only has to run the offense, he has to make his teammates believe the loss of Wayne isn't so devastating it derails the Colts' drive for a division title and playoff berth.
“Reggie was the leader of that offense and Andrew plays the position that requires, obviously, great leadership,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “He's always been a leader and he's going to be the same guy he's always been. He's got great command. He's got great respect, not only in the offense but in this entire building and that locker room. He's just going to continue to do what he's done.”
Pagano argues that Luck won't have to change that much of his approach.
“He won't get outside of himself or go above and beyond and start changing his personality or the way he leads in any dramatic fashion,” Pagano said.
Pagano has a point, to a degree. Luck has cemented his approach and direction of the offense over the first 24 games of his career. But this is still uncharted territory.
Luck won't have Wayne to turn to on Sunday, to discuss the last drive, to analyze what might work next. The other voices remain in Luck's ear (offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, offensive linemen, backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck), but the weight of leadership has undeniably been amped up.
There's every reason to believe Luck will handle things. He'll figure out ways to make the offense work, if not as smoothly, with Wayne out. Maybe that means more touches for Darrius Heyward-Bey and T.Y. Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener. Maybe there will be a coming-out party for LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen or David Reed. Maybe we see even more Trent Richardson and Donald Brown.
One Luck quote stood out this week in responding to Wayne's absence: “I don't think we'll miss a beat when it comes to Sunday in terms of receiver production and production from our end.”
Some interpreted that as a surprisingly confident response, as if Luck shouldn't veer from lamenting Wayne's loss.
I'd say it's a sign from the quarterback that he's not going to take his foot off the pedal, and he's investing confidence in the other receivers to take up some slack. The Colts want and need Luck to be bold and confident in his and his teammates' ability.
Life is tough in the NFL, and losing Wayne is something that won't be easily covered by the Colts. But almost every team has lost someone important. It's the reaction to that loss that shows a team's character.
Since this is an offensive loss, the responsibility to find a way to lead and excel rests with Luck.
How many times did we see Manning turn some average to above-average receivers into viable weapons? That's what Luck has to do next. Yes, he has talent in Heyward-Bey and Hilton. Can he find ways to push one of the others into the mix? Can he draw his offense closer and find new ways to attack?
Luck was drafted for the Colts to be his team, at least on offense.
With Wayne out, the next big step in Luck's career has arrived sooner than expected. Chances are, he'll embrace it with eyes wide open, like he's done everything else so far.