INDIANAPOLIS — The thought crossed Andrew Luck’s mind this week.
For almost every football game he’s played over the past six years, Coby Fleener’s been there to line up with him.
There were the 38 games together at Stanford.
In the Orange Bowl Jan. 3, 2011, the Cardinal steamrolled Virginia Tech, 40-12, behind 287 yards and four touchdowns from Luck. He and Fleener couldn’t have been more simpatico. They hooked up six times for 173 of those yards and three of the scores.
There was the regular-season finale the next season against Notre Dame, when Luck found Fleener four times for 97 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-14 win that sent Stanford to the Fiesta Bowl.
They’ve been attached at the hip for most of their football lives, from their college days to draft day three years ago to their first AFC Championship game coming Sunday against the Patriots.
They’ve spent years building a kind of connection that’s rare in the NFL.
“I was thinking about that,” Luck said. “It’s pretty neat that I’ve got to play with Flee for seven years now. I do think all of those reps all of those years through school and then now, they help us understand each other — how he runs routes, how he gets out of routes, what he’s going to do in this type of situation. I think he has picked up information along the years and experience along the years, but I certainly think it’s helped.”
Fleener had a breakout season with 51 catches for 774 yards and eight touchdowns and all but two of the passes he caught were delivered by from Luck.
Those are the only two catches of his NFL career that didn’t come from Luck.
Their chemistry has peaked this season. As the weeks went on, Luck started looking more and more for Fleener. In the first eight games of the season, 34 passes came Fleener’s way. In the last eight, Luck targeted him 58 times and Fleener turned those looks into 33 catches for 556 yards and five touchdowns.
“Ideally, you know what the other person is thinking before they even think it,’’ Luck said. “Hopefully, you build that over the years. Hopefully, we get better at that.”
Being perpetually in sync with a 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pounder as a safety valve has its benefits, Luck said.
“Coby can do a lot of great things,” Luck said. “He’s a heck of a footballer. He’s certainly been on fire it seems like the second half of the season.
“He did a great job really all season and maybe he’s just now getting noticed for things he’s been doing all along. But I think he’s a matchup nightmare. It’s been fun to play with him and he’s rolling right now.”
Going into the 2012 NFL Draft, it was almost a formality that the Colts would take Luck with the No. 1 overall pick.
The chances that Luck and Fleener would land in the same place seemed slim to Fleener.
The projections had Fleener as a first-rounder, too. His mother, Michelle Nagel Fleener, only brought one dress for the trip to New York, thinking they wouldn’t be in the big city for more than a day. From the NFL Combine to Stanford’s pro day, Giants tight ends coach Mike Pope kept an eye on Fleener, and Fleener figured there was a chance the Giants would take him with the last pick in the first round.
But the Day 1 picks rolled by and Fleener’s phone never rang.
When the second round came the next day, the Colts were the second team on the clock with the 34th pick and Fleener was still on the board.
“I definitely thought about it and I’m sure I mentioned it to Andrew,” Fleener said on draft day. “As the draft progressed, each pick on one hand is more agonizing because you’re further away from that first round, but at the same time, there’s sort of that gleam of hope that it would be with Andrew.”
One day, Fleener was expecting to start all over again. Not knowing the offense. Not knowing the quarterback.
The next he was starting his pro career in his comfort zone.
“I think it helps in the sense that we’ve talked enough to where what he sees is what I see and what I see is what he sees,” Fleener said. “We’re on the same page when we look across the line and see a defense. Ideally, you know what the other person is thinking before they even think it. Hopefully, you build that over the years. Hopefully, we get better at that.”
Pep Hamilton’s arrival as the Colts offensive coordinator in 2013 all but guaranteed Luck and Fleener would be on the same page, because Hamilton was an author of the book.
Hamilton was the offensive coordinator at Stanford in 2011 and he watched both Luck and Fleener grow into impact players under his system.
“It’s been fun for me personally to watch these guys grow and evolve as football players,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself. I remember when Coby was 19 years old. His hair wasn’t quite as long and he didn’t have as many muscles but he’s come a long way. They’re both good young football players that do it the right way. They work hard.”
Much of that work has been done side by side, and Hamilton said there’s a cumulative effect of constantly lining up together.
“You’ve got to consider that they’ve had a lot of time on tasks together,” Hamilton said. “You go back to Stanford and the offseason workouts and practices and playing in games together, I think that trust between Andrew and Coby allows Andrew as a quarterback to be able to anticipate where he’s going to break and when he’s going to break. That’s evolved over time. They’ve spent a ton of time out on the practice field together working on the things that you’re seeing on game day now from Andrew and Coby.”