INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts franchise has had the good fortune of being a key piece in multiple premier eras of quarterback play.
Dating back more than 50 years, the Baltimore Colts had the man who was long considered the greatest quarterback in league history: Johnny Unitas. He was followed by the great Bert Jones, whose career never reached its full potential due to injuries, but who still enjoyed time as one of the league's best passers of his era.
After about 20 years, lightning struck again when the Colts selected Peyton Manning with the first-overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. The baton was then passed from Manning to the Colts' current quarterback, Andrew Luck, who was also selected with the first pick in the 2012 draft.
Those four signal-callers alone were enough for NFL.com's Ali Bhanpuri to rank the Colts as the No. 4 team all-time in terms of the franchise quarterbacks they've had. Here's how it broke down:
"Only pro quarterbacks who started at least 48 games with a team since 1967 were eligible for consideration. Each passer who met that minimum threshold also needed to satisfy two of the following three requirements:
- Winning regular-season record.
- Minimum passer rating of 75.0.
- At least one Pro Bowl selection.
And just so we're all operating under the same parameters, note that Pro Bowl totals below include AFL All-Star Game selections, while Super Bowl ring totals only include titles won as the team's starting quarterback."
Here are the credentials that were laid out for the Colts' quarterbacks:
"Andrew Luck (2012-present): 86 starts | 53-33 | 4 Pro Bowls | 89.5 passer rating
Peyton Manning (1998-2010): 208 starts | 141-67 | 11 Pro Bowls | 94.9 passer rating | 4 MVPs | 1 SB ring
Bert Jones (1973-1981): 92 starts | 46-46 | 1 Pro Bowl | 78.8 passer rating | 1 MVP
Johnny Unitas (1967-1972): 49 starts | 32-14-3 | 1 Pro Bowl | 68.4 passer rating | 1 MVP | 1 SB ring
The Colts' franchise QBs have combined for six MVPs and 17 Pro Bowls since '67, and that number will surely increase as Luck's career continues. They can't top the Super Bowl titles (or appearances) belonging to the Broncos, but their individual accolades are unmatched. The Colts' transfer of power from Manning to Luck was about as good as it gets, and both have more than lived up to their billing as first overall picks. I'm (maybe unfairly) giving Indy a boost over the Broncos because the Colts currently have their franchise QB, and he's still playing at an elite level."
Unitas ushered in the AFL-NFL merger era by being the best quarterback on the field. "Johnny U" won four combined Super Bowl and NFL championships, was named to 10 Pro Bowls, eight All-Pro teams (five firsts and three seconds), and was named the Most Valuable Player three times. Statistically, he led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns four times. He passed for 39,768 yards and 287 touchdowns in 206 games in Baltimore. All those numbers and accolades we got used to seeing Manning accrue in the 2000s were first seen being done by Unitas.
The passing of the torch that took place between Manning and Luck in 2012 actually first happened in 1973 when the Colts drafted Jones second overall in 1973 to replace Unitas. Many people say Jones had the potential to be the best quarterback of his time, but injuries derailed what could have been an even more stellar career. In 98 games with the Colts, Jones put up 17,663 passing yards and 122 touchdowns on his way to one Pro Bowl, two All-Pros (one first and one second), one MVP, one NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and he led the NFL in passing yards in 1976.
Now, to the man who rewrote the record books that were dominated with Unitas' name for decades: Peyton Manning. Aside from holding just about any and all Colts passing records, Manning brought Indianapolis its first Super Bowl championship. He made 11 Pro Bowls while with the Colts, eight All-Pro teams (five firsts and three seconds), won the MVP four times and one Offensive Player of the Year award. He led the NFL in passing yards twice, touchdowns three times as well as passer rating three times. In 208 games, Manning threw for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns.
What aided the Colts in their decision to move on at quarterback after the Manning era was the fact that they held the first-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and Luck — dubbed by many as the best quarterback prospect since John Elway in 1983 or Manning himself in 1998 — was there for the picking. After going 2-14 the season before in 2011, expectations were initially tempered for the rookie Luck and his rebuilding team. The Colts took those tempered expectations and went 11-5 and earned a playoff berth. They copied those results in the next two seasons as well, advancing a round in the playoffs each year.
The Colts went through some rocky times between 2015-17, going a combined 20-28, with Luck dealing with various injuries before he ultimately needed surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Recovery from the injury forced him to miss all of the 2017 season. However, when Luck returned to the field in 2018, he was as good as new and paired with a fresh, offensive-minded head coach in Frank Reich.
The Colts bounced back into their winning ways, going 10-6 with a largely rebuilt roster en route to their first playoff appearance since the 2014 season. After advancing to the Divisional Round against frequent playoff foe, Kansas City Chiefs, their season ended much farther than many outsiders thought when the season began.
In Luck's eight seasons, he's already started to threatening the franchise's record books even though he's only played in 6 1/2 of them. He is currently third in passing yards (23,671) and touchdowns (171).