Sports Journal Columnist

You’ve had four weeks to adjust to cheering for #12 as your starting quarterback instead of #18. In that same time, you’ve had to learn that the new quarterback isn’t taking the snap from #63, but from some guy with a pony tail, whose number is one digit higher. The guy wearing #44 isn’t open in the flat any more. And in the strangest twist for me, the guy that was the defensive captain, #58, wasn’t on the field in the final pre-season tune up, but was hanging out with me in the press box, awaiting the post-game show last Thursday.

It is certainly a new era, and a new day for Indianapolis Colts football. We’ve had an off-season to prepare for life without Peyton, Jeff, Dallas, Gary, Ryan, Joseph, and others. We’ve seen the next generation of stars, or at least the guys that will try to bridge the gap until those new stars arrive, over the last few weeks. But now, it begins for real this coming Sunday.

So what will you see? That’s a great question, and not one that I have the answer to. Here’s what I think I know: Andrew Luck hasn’t given any Colts fan, or any NFL expert any reason to doubt his status as the number one pick in April. He has handled every snap, blitz, read, throw, press conference, autograph request like a pro. I think all of us in the Indianapolis media who cover this team on a daily basis are trying to avoid the Manning comparisons as much as we can, knowing the average fan and the national media types will be doing enough of that this season and beyond. However, there are times you can’t avoid it. When both guys throw touchdown passes on their first pre-season pass, when they have eerily similar stats in week two of the pre-season, or when both can make the slightest adjustment with a few short steps in the pocket to lay a ball 30 yards down field just out of the reach of a defender, and into the hands of a receiver for a touchdown.

There’s also one thing that Luck does BETTER than Peyton Manning does. (That’s right, I said it.) That’s his demeanor around his teammates. I think back to phone calls on my radio shows in the days where the Colts were making playoff runs but not yet reaching the promised land. Callers, and myself, would all grasp for straws as to what could change, what small detail would finally push the Colts past the Patriots and others to a Super Bowl. I’d get a call or two per month complaining about Peyton’s reactions after a play, actions on the sideline, and the sometimes dour expression you’d see from Manning. I never thought that made a difference. Results were all that mattered, and certainly the bottom line bore that out over the years. And please don’t take the previous few lines as any indication that Peyton was a bad teammate. He was as good of a leader in the locker room as he was player on the field. He had everyone’s respect in the organization.

On the flip side, it’s one of the things that I notice most about Luck. You can’t seem to wipe the smile off his face. The grin from ear to ear was ever-present in the opening win against the Rams. The look of quiet resolve after a pick-six against the Steelers showed me even more. And when you have a younger team, while having to earn the respect of the vets that are still here, I think the outlook and perspective of this kid is exactly what this team needs. I hope that personality profile is infectious.

It certainly appears to be. You’ll see that personality defensively from this team as well. The Colts D will have their struggles, especially if the injury bug continues to bite as it has during training camp. For years, the back seven were in constant retreat mode. Not any more. You could see more blitzes in the first two games from this defense than maybe you’ve seen in the last ten years from this squad. Players will be in attack mode. They may not always make the right play, but they’ll be exciting.

And, you’ll get to know a couple of characters that will also be character guys in the locker room. Tom Zbikowski and Cory Redding have made the jump from Baltimore to provide knowledge and experience in this new hybrid scheme under head coach Chuck Pagano. Not only is “Zibby” a former member of the Fighting Irish, he’s also a professional boxer during the offseason. Plus, he could be one of the most thoughtful quotes in the locker room. Redding will be a guy you can’t miss if you’re around the team. You can usually hear him from 30 yards away. He breathes an energy that this youthful group will need.

Speaking of the new head coach, you’ll like him as well. He’s a stand-up guy. Players have drawn to him already. He’s a guy that’s put in his time at both the college and professional level, waiting for the chance to be a head coach. I think he’ll make the most of it.

Will this be a playoff team this season? I still think there are too many holes to fill in 2012. I’d love to be wrong. What I can tell you is that this team is without question heading in the right direction. Give this team another year of experience with Andrew Luck, more of an emphasis on defense and running the ball, plus about $50 million to spend under the cap next year, my thought is this team is right back in the playoff hunt come 2013. Hopefully, they’ll be a year ahead of schedule.

(Greg Rakestraw is vice president of Hometown Sports Indiana. His familiar voice can also be heard on the IHSAA Champions Network, NCAA.com, and on ESPN 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis, where he hosts the Sunday morning “The Golf Connection.” He is the primary fill-in host for The Dan Dakich Show and The Ride with JMV. His column appears monthly in the Sports Journal.)

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