A series of serendipitous events: Harbaugh, Manning, Luck forever linked by fate


Fooch's Note: This is an awesome FanPost I wanted to get onto the front page. It's a fun look at Harbaugh-Luck-Manning. It's not some kind of explosive theory, but it's a fun look at how things can come full circle to a certain extent.

I am a self-professed, reverent football nerd. My fanaticism is a yearlong occupation that knows no offseason. Long after the actual players have cleaned out their lockers in January, I am the guy hammering away on my keyboard scouring forums, blogs, columns, tweets for anything to satiate my appetite until August comes back around. I am the guy who spews the most arbitrary and useless NFL-related facts to my friends at the most random moments before asking, "Isn't that interesting?!" To that, they either respond with, "No," or, "I don't think we should be friends anymore."

Sometimes, the stories that develop off the gridiron fascinate me more than what happens on it. This story borrows from several decades of National Football League lore, so if you don’t pay any attention to NFL history, you may have missed it. But if you found this particular article from this particular website, I'm going to assume you're at least half as crazy, err...enthusiastic about the sport as I am. Perhaps you'll enjoy this story as much as I do. Perhaps you already know all about it.

This past April, Andrew Luck was drafted #1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Luck was the most prolific quarterback Stanford had ever seen. He finished with a career total of 82 touchdown passes, a passer rating of 162.76%, and was responsible for 10,387 yards of total offense – the career leader in all three categories by any Cardinal quarterback. Luck was also twice the runner-up for the Heisman trophy, awarded to the nation’s most outstanding college football player.

Many NFL draft pundits pegged him as ‘the next great quarterback.’ Other critics touted him as ‘the next Peyton Manning.’ ESPN’s resident draftnik Mel Kiper called Luck the most talented quarterback prospect since John Elway. If the constant comparisons to numerous Hall of Fame quarterbacks were any indication at all, it was safe to say that Luck was – simply put - the next big thing.

As the story of one Colts quarterback was just beginning, another was writing his last chapter.

On May 23rd, 2011, Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery. As Manning’s recovery from the surgery had slowed, he would eventually be ruled out for the start of the 2011 NFL season. Later that year on September 8th, Manning opted to undergo another surgery classified as a one-level cervical neck fusion which ruled him out of the 2011 season for good. The nature of the neck injury was serious enough to cast doubts in the minds of many as to whether Manning would (or should) be able to play another down in the NFL ever again.

Since the year Manning was drafted by the Colts in 1998 and up until the 2011 season, the franchise enjoyed an extraordinary stretch of success with a total regular season win/loss record of 141-67, 11 playoff appearances, 2 conferences titles, and 1 Super Bowl victory. The Colts dipped below 10 wins in only two seasons in that span – Manning’s rookie season (3 wins) and again in 2001 (6 wins). Without their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, the 2011 Colts performed just about as poorly as anyone could have imagined. The losses were ugly and plentiful, and as Manning stood on the sidelines to watch them pile up, he certainly had to wonder about his future with the team.

Indianapolis Colts’ owner & CEO Jim Irsay watched and wondered as well. He watched his floundering Colts limp past the finish line to an abysmal 2-14 record and wondered if Andrew Luck really was ‘the next Peyton Manning.’ Irsay was in a precarious position: should he stick with the horse he rode in on or gamble on a fresh young stallion?

"With the 1st pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Andrew Luck, quarterback from Stanford University."

And Manning was left in exile. But you probably knew that.

"I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts," Manning began, at his last press conference for the team on March 7th, 2012. "For 14 wonderful years, the only professional football I’ve known was Colts football." With teary eyes and a shaken voice, Manning continues, "I’ve been a Colt for almost all of my adult life, but I guess in life and in sports, we know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of the NFL."

Manning was visibly heartbroken and understandably so. He was the boy who married his high school sweetheart, and after enjoying years of a healthy and fruitful marriage, ended up being dumped for someone younger and more attractive. But as Manning said, times change and circumstances change. Perhaps he first learned that lesson in 1998 when he was on the more favorable end of the breakup. Then, it was Jim Harbaugh being dumped, and Manning the younger and more attractive option.

Harbaugh was a bit of a journeyman during his NFL playing days as a quarterback. In Harbaugh’s 15 years in the league (1987-2001), he played for four different teams and signed with two more in his last year before retiring. But Harbaugh was no slouch as a gunslinger. Christened with the moniker of "Captain Comeback" for his late-game heroics, Harbaugh enjoyed moderate success at the pro level and reached the playoffs a number of times. His most successful season came in 1995 during his four-year-long tenure with the Indianapolis Colts. Harbaugh finished the season having thrown for 17 touchdowns (to only 5 interceptions) and a quarterback rating of 100.7% - both career highs. Expanding on a successful regular season, Harbaugh was able to engineer a playoff run that brought the Colts to the AFC Championship game against the Steelers where they would fall just short of a Super Bowl bid.

In 1997, only two seasons later, Harbaugh would throw for a modest 10 touchdowns (to 4 interceptions) and a quarterback rating of 86.2%. Just good, but not quite good enough, as the Colts finished with a league-worst 3-13 record.

The story of Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf is a well-documented one. Both entered the 1998 NFL Draft as the consensus top two quarterbacks. Manning was seen as the most pro-ready prospect and Leaf was seen as having a stronger arm, more athleticism, and more upside. In the months leading up to the draft, the race was too close to call for many draft ‘experts.’

"With the 1st pick of the 1998 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Peyton Manning, quarterback from the University of Tennessee."

And Harbaugh was left in exile. But you probably knew that.

Harbaugh would sign to four more teams before retiring as a player in 2001 and becoming an assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders in 2002-03 (an offensive assistant in 2002 and a quarterbacks coach in 2003). Harbaugh had spent the last eight years of his playing career priming himself for the coaching ranks as he served as an offensive consultant and assistant coach for his father, Jack Harbaugh, who was the head coach at Division I-AA Western Kentucky University. After his coaching stint with the Oakland Raiders, Harbaugh was named head coach at the University of San Diego in 2004 where he would lead the Toreros to two consecutive Pioneer League Championship titles in 2005 and 2006.

Harbaugh’s coaching talent was undeniable, and it wasn’t long before major college football programs took notice. The long-suffering Stanford University football program hoped to turn around their fortunes by naming Harbaugh as their head coach for the 2007 season. While the Cardinal finished with a 4-8 record in Harbaugh’s inaugural season, what happened the following year would truly spur the turnaround for Stanford football. If Harbaugh’s hiring was the fuse, then Luck’s arrival was the spark. Luck, recruited heavily out of Stratford High School in Houston, Texas, was one of the country’s most highly-touted high school quarterbacks. Luck would commit to the Cardinal over Oklahoma State, Purdue, and Virginia, among others.

According to Luck, two things brought him to Stanford: academics and coach Harbaugh.

"I just felt comfortable there," said Luck, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle from 2007. "It's important to feel comfortable where you go. They have great academics and Jim Harbaugh is a great coach. I got to know [coach Harbaugh] pretty well...Stanford has great tradition. I hope to be able to help them get back to the top of the PAC-10, where they belong."

Luck would redshirt his freshman year, but once he won the starting job in 2009, the spark ignited the fuse. The 2008 Stanford Cardinal finished with a record of 8-5, a mark that hadn't been reached since their 2001 season. The next year, the Cardinal achieved a record of 12-1 with their final win being over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl - the first BCS bowl victory in the history of the program. It would also mark Harbaugh's final season at Stanford; he departed after the 2010 season to accept a job as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. And after a wildly successful college campaign, Luck would begin his professional football career with the Indianapolis Colts.

Manning supplants Harbaugh. Harbaugh grooms Luck. Luck supplants Manning.

Weird coincidence, right? It gets weirder.

It wasn’t very difficult for a future Hall of Fame quarterback like Manning to find suitors. After Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts, early reports claimed at least 12 NFL teams expressed interest in signing him. That’s over one-third of the teams in the entire National Football League. Miami, Arizona, Seattle, Washington, Kansas City, and Tennessee were among the throng of teams to throw their names in the hat. But after almost two weeks of team visits and workouts, Manning had narrowed down his new home to two cities: Denver and San Francisco.

If Manning had decided to sign with the San Francisco 49ers, his head coach would have been the man he was drafted to replace in Indianapolis 14 years earlier - the man who recruited Luck to Stanford, who would eventually replace Manning 14 years later.

Apparently, the cross-generational twists of fate were too weird even for Manning. On March 19th, 2012, Manning announced that he would be signing with the Denver Broncos, thus avoiding one of the most awkward reunions in sports history. Phew.

What gave Denver the edge over San Francisco?

"I've always had a great deal of respect for John Elway," Manning revealed, two days after announcing his new team. "He's one of the best quarterbacks ever, and his knowledge and respect for the game is evident in everything that he does…I've always had a relationship with John, and it goes back a long way," Manning explained. "I've always seen him as a quarterback, never having played against him, but…now I'm seeing him as the leader of a franchise, and I really liked what he had to say."

If there was one advantage that Denver had over San Francisco and the ten other teams vying for Manning’s services, it’s the fact that Elway, the team’s Executive Vice President of Football Operations, could look Manning in the eyes and honestly say he’s been in his shoes. Elway might know more than anyone else about the struggles of a veteran quarterback trying to win a championship in his twilight years. Elway was in the National Football League for 15 years and reached the Super Bowl four separate times before he could finally hoist his first Lombardi trophy (and his second the following season). He would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame for his career statistics alone, but the two Super Bowl rings certainly helped his cause.

You see, NFL history is a funny thing, because Elway almost never forged his remarkable career with the Denver Broncos had he not forced a trade. The Baltimore Colts finished their 1982 season with a league-worst record of 0-8-1. The Colts, owned then by Robert Irsay, was awarded the top pick in the NFL Draft, and they had their sights set on the top collegiate quarterback prospect that year.

"With the 1st pick of the 1983 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Colts select John Elway, quarterback from Stanford University."

And fate would have its way. But you probably knew that.

Follow Anthony Ly on Twitter: @TheBellamores

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.