Andrew Luck vs. RGIII? Colts got it right — again.

Stephen Holder
Robert Griffin III (left) has been benched while Andrew Luck is chasing records.

Two terrific quarterbacks. Two players with the potential to transform an NFL franchise.

The Colts had a choice to make. A franchise-altering, history-making choice.

And they chose Peyton Manning.

The rest of the story is familiar: Manning, picked No. 1 in the 1998 NFL Draft, has become one of the game's greatest quarterbacks, leading the Colts to two Super Bowl appearances. The player Indianapolis passed on, Ryan Leaf, had minimal success and flamed out after four seasons during which he threw 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. In recent years, he's spent about as much time in the penal system as he did in professional football.

The Colts went on to record double-digit victory totals in 11 of Manning's 13 seasons as the starting quarterback. It's one of the most vivid examples in NFL history of a single decision changing the entire course of an NFL franchise.

That is, unless you consider that other historic, monumental decision the Colts made.

The Colts chose Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in 2012. The Washington Redskins picked Robert Griffin III at No. 2. Luck is making a personal assault on the record books. Griffin just got benched.

Whether you believe two of the NFL's most significant personnel decisions in recent decades were easy calls or gut-wrenching choices, they illustrate the importance of making the right assessment when the stakes are highest.

When the Redskins and Colts meet Sunday, their first regular-season game since that landmark moment in 2012, we will be reminded of the rewards — consequences? — of a single decision.

Owner Jim Irsay and his team are 2-0 in these scenarios. Whether you believe it's because they were savvy or simply lucky, the fact remains that the successes seen during the Colts' Indianapolis era — as well as those to come while Luck is under center — can largely be traced to those two decisions.

On a recent afternoon in his luxurious office at Colts headquarters, Irsay sat back and reflected on it all. Rest assured, the significance of April 18, 1998 and April 27, 2012 is not lost on him.

"I am very excited about the era we're in and, obviously, Andrew Luck," he said. "Peyton was such a special guy in that era. There were so many guys who contributed to that. But normally the quarterback obviously is the one out front. And having Andrew, it was not easy to go from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. A lot of people think it kind of falls into your lap. But not even close. That's not the way it goes. When you look at all the possibilities that could've happened, including the debate of Leaf versus Manning, Luck versus RGIII, I'm really blessed.

"Looking at the opportunity that this franchise had to shift gears so quickly and be a playoff team in 2012 and here, in 2014, being even a better team than that, that's something that's special."

It's not just that the Colts made the right call with both Manning and Luck. It's also the fact that both decisions were arguably more difficult than many believe.

With Manning and Leaf, for example, the Colts deliberated over the choice for months. Neither pick was seen as a slam dunk. Based on some recollections shared in the years since, debate continued among members of the front office until the morning of the draft.

In his recent book, The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team, former Colts president Bill Polian recalled a conversation with Irsay thusly:

"I can't tell you if either of these guys is going to win a Super Bowl or become a Hall of Famer. We are just trying to find a quarterback that we can win with. But I'll tell you this: If we bust out with Leaf, we have busted out everything. If he busts out, we've lost. If we are wrong on Peyton Manning, the worst we have is Bernie Kosar — a really good, winning quarterback.

"So much for my scouting acumen."

The last line is an acknowledgement that no one — not Polian, not Irsay — anticipated Manning throwing for the most touchdowns in NFL history or having the sustained greatness he's displayed for 17 seasons. The term "bust", however, was an appropriate description of Leaf's potential as a player. And that's to say nothing of his struggles with drug abuse.

With Luck and Griffin, there was consensus that Luck was the purer quarterback prospect. He was a pocket passer, a cerebral player who showed impressive decision-making at Stanford. Griffin arguably had higher upside. He was a phenomenal athlete, even compared with the athletic Luck. He won the Heisman Trophy, beating out Luck for the award in 2011.

Both oozed with tantalizing potential.

Ultimately, Luck was determined to be the better choice for the Colts in part because of his more traditional quarterbacking style and the potential for injury considering Griffin's less-structured game.

When Griffin won Offensive Rookie of the Year, it was arguable the Colts got it wrong. But since suffering a knee injury in the 2012 postseason, Griffin hasn't been the same. Redskins coach Jay Gruden made the excruciating choice to bench a player once seen as the franchise's savior.

Meanwhile, Luck leads the NFL in passing yards and is on pace to throw for nearly 5,300 yards this season. The Colts have had some recent struggles but appear on pace to make a third consecutive playoff appearance.

The current gulf between Luck and Griffin is so wide that members of the Colts brass declined interview requests for this story. The reason? Relishing in the reality that their pick has worked out so wonderfully might be construed as gloating.

You can't recount the Colts' decisions to draft Manning and Luck without pondering what might have been if either choice had gone differently. What if, for example, the Colts had opted for Griffin? Would it be the Redskins invading Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday with the league's No. 1 offense, and not the Colts? Would the Colts be wallowing as a lost franchise with a 3-8 record?

Would the Colts be the ones trying to find their way and – more important – a quarterback?

In the NFL, that is, perhaps, the most desolate place to be.

"I've been there," said Colts running back Trent Richardson, who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2012, two picks after Luck and Griffin. "When you don't know who the quarterback is going to be week to week, it's so hard. When you have that guy, and you know who he is, it just builds confidence and trust. Not having that guy puts more pressure on the rest of the team."

Colts defensive end Cory Redding played on Detroit's 0-16 team in 2008. One of their biggest obstacles? The lack of a reliable quarterback. The Lions had three different starters that year.

"I've been on teams where we had just a revolving door of quarterbacks," Redding said. "You just never knew what the quarterback was going to do. There was no stability."

For the Colts, there are no "what ifs?"

Two separate decisions on two different players made 14 years apart have helped the Colts avoid that fateful question.

Follow Star reporter Stephen Holder on Twitter: @HolderStephen.