By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Andrew Luck has made the transition from Peyton Manning look incredibly smooth.
The No. 1 overall pick already has a terrific comeback victory under his belt and is playing as if he’s a seasoned veteran, firmly establishing himself as the Indianapolis Colts’ franchise quarterback.
And that’s just four games into his career.
“His light’s been burning bright since he got here,” interim coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s an unusual person, an unusual player, at his age.”
The New York Jets thought they had the same when they traded up to draft Mark Sanchez fifth overall in 2009. Now, they won’t even commit to him as the starting quarterback beyond this week — not with Tim Tebow patiently waiting to have his role increased.
Sanchez has struggled mightily and the calls to play Tebow more, and even step in as the starter, have increased with each subpar performance. Sanchez will surely need a solid performance today for the Jets (2-3) against Luck and the Colts (2-2) at MetLife Stadium to keep the heat from reaching a boiling point.
“A lot of things can happen and I’m not going to deal with ‘what-ifs’ because I’m telling you right now he’s our starting quarterback this week, barring injury,” coach Rex Ryan said earlier in the week. “Things happen, but I feel really confident in Mark. … I’ve never wavered on that.”
But his “this week” qualifier raised some doubts as to how committed he and the Jets are to Sanchez.
“He’s our starter,” a slightly testy Ryan said. “What do you want me to say? He’s our starter. I’ve put it: ‘He’s our starter this week. He’s our starter.’ You can go answer ‘A’ and answer ‘B’ and come up with ‘C,’ I guess.”
For the Colts, there’s no question they’ve got their guy. While Indianapolis went through a miserable 2-14 season with Manning out for the year with a neck injury, the silver lining was always that they could be in position to draft Luck out of Stanford.
Many believed Luck could step in immediately and become a star in the NFL. So far, so good.
He’s coming off leading the Colts to a 30-27 victory over the Green Bay Packers in which they overcame 21-3 halftime deficit, and won on Luck’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 35 seconds left.
“I don’t think I had any revelations or momentous ‘a-ha!’ moments,” Luck said. “I think it was just maybe a little extra focus on the offense and good things started happening.”
That’s how it’s been for Luck through four games. He became the fourth rookie QB in NFL history — and first since Detroit’s Matthew Stafford in 2009 — to overcome a deficit of 18 points or more and win. He’s the first rookie to throw for more than 1,200 yards and win two of his team’s first four games, and can become the first Colts rookie to toss a TD pass in each of his first five career games.
He’s also looking to become just the second Colts rookie to record four 300-yard passing games, and the first since Manning in 1998.
“Personally, I think I’ve gotten better each week and that’s a good sign,” Luck said. “I think we haven’t played perfect football by any means. We’ll still continue to try and get better and get to that point. I think as long as we’re improving, and hopefully getting wins, then we’re on the right track.”
Ryan has long praised Manning, and the Jets even flirted with the idea of signing him in the offseason — before signing Sanchez to a contract extension and then inviting controversy to their quarterback situation by trading for Tebow. The fact Manning is no longer in Indianapolis doesn’t mean Ryan has it any easier preparing for the Colts.
“Man, I’ll tell you what, you guys know how I felt about Peyton Manning: He’s my all-time favorite, but I absolutely hated to go against him,” Ryan said. “Here’s a young man that I mean, wow, when you see him, he can make all the throws, he stays in, he extends plays, he’s active with the football. He can move. He just seems very confident and obviously he’s doing a tremendous job.”
Meanwhile, Sanchez is doing little to resemble a fourth-year quarterback with four road playoff victories on his resume. He has completed less than 50 percent of passes in four straight games, and his 48.4 completion percentage ranks last in the NFL. His 66.6 quarterback rating is 31st in league — ahead of only Kansas City’s Matt Cassel (66.2) and Cleveland rookie Brandon Weeden (64.5).
Not good for a player expected to be among the league’s top quarterbacks by now.
“I just keep playing and playing hard, giving this team my very best,” Sanchez said of the growing criticism. “I’m trying to get the best out of them, so that’s where my head is at.”
In fairness, it’s not all Sanchez’s fault. He has been without injured receivers Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill, and tight end Dustin Keller. The running game with Shonn Greene has averaged just 3.2 yards a carry, and the offensive line has not consistently opened up holes for the backs. That’s all added up to an offense that ranks 28th in the league.
Tebow also continues to have a limited role and has yet to score with the Jets. Expected to be a dynamic addition to the offense, he is averaging just eight offensive snaps a game. Tebow is also just 1 of 2 passing for 9 yards, and has 57 yards rushing on 14 carries.
And the Tebow-led wildcat-style offense that was supposed to throw off opposing defenses has been mostly a dud so far.
“I’m definitely someone that gets frustrated, but I know my role here right now,” Tebow said. “You just try to do the best job you can, do a good job in practice to expand your role and when you get opportunities, make the most of them.”
Just as Luck has done with his sensational start for the Colts.
“Andrew Luck just seems to be one of those guys you can build a franchise around,” Ryan said. “When he came out, he’s recognized as the top quarterback prospect probably since Peyton. Obviously, that’s a lot to carry with you, but this young man looks like he really handles it well.”