The Indianapolis Colts famously went straight from one generational quarterback prospect to another prior to the 2012 season, but what did their QB situation look like before The Sheriff came to town? Here are the five best QBs in Colts history.
5. Jim Harbaugh, 1994-1997
Drafted 26th overall in 1987, Harbaugh spent the first seven years of his career with the Chicago Bears, but started four seasons with the Colts. He went 20-26 as a starter, throwing for 8,705 yards, 49 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. The Colts were a wild card playoff team in 1995 and 1996. In 1995, they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. They lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-16, as wide receiver Aaron Bailey was unable to grab a last-second Hail Mary attempt.
4. Bert Jones, 1973-1981
A College Football Hall of Famer, Jones was selected second overall in 1973 after a great career at LSU. He played nine seasons for the Colts, starting 92 games. Baltimore won the AFC East each year from 1975-1977, but went one-and-done in the playoffs each time. Jones threw for 17,663 yards, 122 touchdowns, and 101 picks with the Colts, fighting through injuries.
His NFL career was not as illustrious as his collegiate days, but Jones earned the respect of many league figures. Longtime scout and general manager Ernie Accorsi claimed that had Jones been placed in a better position, he would have been the greatest player in NFL history. Bill Belichick said that Jones would be on his shortlist of QBs (other than Tom Brady) to start a franchise with, and that Jones was the best pure passer he had ever seen.
3. Andrew Luck, 2012-2018
With Peyton Manning missing the 2011 season to a career-threatening neck injury, the Colts completely fell apart and finished with a 2-14 record which netted them the first overall pick in 2012. They lucked right into Stanford’s Andrew Luck, the best QB prospect in years. He had good size, had a strong arm, was accurate, mobile, and incredibly smart. He was essentially the prototypical QB, and even though Baylor’s Robert Griffin III had a more impressive 2011, Luck was the safer NFL prospect, and he was the Colts’ choice.
Luck made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, leading the Colts to an 11-5 record a playoff berth. He would go on to make three of the next six Pro Bowls, missing nine games in 2015 due to a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle. Luck also missed the entire 2017 season after offseason shoulder surgery. He came back strong in 2018, but in August of 2019, abruptly announced his retirement at the age of 29.
“I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. It’s taken the joy out of this game. The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football. This is not an easy decision. It’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.”
It’s very sad to see such a talented player forced into early retirement because of injuries. He played behind some terrible offensive lines and was sacked 174 times over 86 games. The Colts started to prioritize protecting Luck, drafting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson sixth overall in 2018, but by that point, it was too late.
With the Colts, Luck went 53-33, throwing for 23,671 yards, 171 scores, and 83 picks. His retirement sends a harrowing message to other teams with good young QBs; protect them at all costs.
2. Johnny Unitas, 1956-1972
One of the NFL’s biggest legends, Unitas lived up to the mythical hype surrounding him. He originally broke into the league with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but wasn’t able to make the team. While working in construction, Unitas was convinced to attend a friend’s tryout with the Colts, and the team signed him afterwards. He played 17 seasons for Baltimore, going 117-60-4, and passing for 39,768 yards and 287 touchdowns, winning three NFL Championships, and one Super Bowl. At one point, he had thrown a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, a record that stood for 52 years until 2012, when it was broken by Drew Brees.
1. Peyton Manning, 1998-2010
Unitas is an all-time great, but Manning is perhaps the greatest passer in the history of the game. The Colts made the correct choice by taking him over Leaf, and although he threw 28 interceptions as a rookie, he ended up making 11 Pro Bowls, was named an All-Pro eight times, won four MVPs, and led Indianapolis to two Super Bowls, winning it all in 2006. Over his 13 years with the Colts, he went 141-67, throwing for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns. He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2021, as his career is the definition of legendary.