For more than a year, it has seemed almost a given that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck would be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
As the Colts struggled through their first Peyton Manning-less season in more than a decade last fall, it became clear that they once again would get the top pick, as they had in 1998, and they once again would get the chance to select a special quarterback for their team, someone who had been prepared for the pressures and expectations of being the face of a franchise for years as the son of a former NFL QB.
Yet as the college football season progressed, it became clear that Luck wasn’t alone as a likely can’t-miss QB - there was also Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. The son of Army sergeants, Griffin is every bit as polished as Luck off the field, and just as talented on it.
A few months after taking over as Indianapolis general manager in ’98, Bill Polian chose Manning over Ryan Leaf, another highly-touted quarterback, and the player some believed would be the better NFL player.
Polian’s decision made the Colts perennial playoff contenders for years. Leaf, whom Polian believed wasn’t as mature as Manning and wasn’t ready to be a starter from Day 1, was taken No. 2 by San Diego and didn’t pan out, to put it mildly.
So Polian is uniquely qualified when it comes to evaluating potential top picks, and he believes Luck and Griffin are far more similar than Manning and Leaf were heading into their respective draft.
“It’s close,’’ Polian told Sports Illustrated. “Very close. If Manning and Leaf were apples and oranges, I’d say Luck and Griffin are McIntosh and Red Delicious.’’
Polian had done plenty of homework on Luck and Griffin before being fired by Colts owner Jim Irsay in January, but on Tuesday, new team GM Ryan Grigson announced that Indy will indeed make Luck the No. 1 pick.
“In fairness to [Luck], in the whole process and the media gauntlet he’s going to be enduring over the next couple days, I thought it was the right thing to do to announce we’re going to take him,’’ Grigson said. “I didn’t see the point in prolonging what the world already knew.’’
The Redskins made a blockbuster trade with St. Louis last month to move from the sixth spot to the second pick and guarantee that they will be able to draft Griffin. So sure is Washington that Griffin is its man that the Redskins not only swapped their sixth for St. Louis’s second, they also surrendered their second-round pick this year and first-round picks in 2013 and ’14.
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was practically glowing through his perma-tan as he talked about Griffin at the NFL meetings last month.
“He’s over the top,’’ Shanahan said. “A great guy, great parents. I had a chance to spend a couple of hours with his parents; you know where he gets it.
“He’s everything you look for in a person, and obviously you look at film, you like what you see on film. I think we all know what it takes to [succeed] at the pro level, every quarterback goes through it, but he’s got such a big upside.’’
While Polian said he would give the slight edge to Luck if he were choosing between the two, NFL Films producer Greg Cosell wrote this week that based solely on what he’s seen on film, he has Griffin as the higher-rated quarterback.
Because Griffin is fast - he was a record-setting hurdler in high school - and able to move well on the field, there’s a tendency to compare Griffin to quarterbacks such as Michael Vick or Cam Newton. But former Ravens coach and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick says that’s bunk.
“We tend to clump players together, so any time you talk about an athletic quarterback - ‘Oh he’s this, he’s counter to that.’ . . . This is the best-throwing athlete I’ve seen come out in a while,’’ Billick said. “Far better than Michael Vick in my opinion, far better than Cam Newton. This guy has as pure a throwing motion [as you’ll see] for an athletic quarterback. Clearly has the intelligence to transition. Very intrigued with him. [He’ll] translate into the NFL very well.’’
It seems that the Colts and the Redskins will be good at the position for years to come.
Even Grigson and new coach Chuck Pagano admitted that it wasn’t always a sure thing that they’d choose Luck over Griffin.
“We did our due diligence and studied them like heck. Everybody thought this was the foregone conclusion,’’ Pagano said.
“The intangibles are off the charts [for Luck]; the skill set, you’ve seen his body of work. He’s a gym rat, he’s a football junkie. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical. He can make every throw out there. And he’s a great leader in his own way.
“We’ve got a great one. We’ve got a great one for years to come. And it’s another piece of the puzzle that we feel really good about.’’
Former coach Jon Gruden, now with ESPN, said Luck’s football intelligence sets him apart.
“As much as people talk about his football IQ, I think it’s still underestimated,’’ Gruden said. “I’ve never met a guy like Andrew Luck at this stage of the game. We had some guys [when he coached the Raiders and Buccaneers] in Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson, Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks, that had tremendous football IQ that could really apply it on game day.
“But for a senior - not even a true senior in college - to have this type of football pedigree, I wish I could describe it. His recognition of coverages, his retention, the way he studies the game, his audible mechanics and what he’s been asked to do and done, with an incredible success rate, it’s unparalleled with anybody I can remember in the college level.’’
In ’98, the Colts chose correctly when it came to Manning vs. Leaf. They are betting that they have chosen right again in going for Luck over Griffin.