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This has not been the easiest season for Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Jeff George.

First, there was the controversy over the whopping price the Colts paid Atlanta to make him the No. 1 overall pick of the draft.

Then, there was the whopping hit Buffalo Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett placed on him in his NFL regular-season debut Sept. 9 (from which George would not return the rest of the day).

Then, there was the pulled abdominal muscle, suffered against Houston Sept. 23, that caused him to miss four starts.

Of all of George's hardships, the last seemed to cause the most damage.

The Colts had an 0-3 record at the time. As George watched from the sidelines, Jack Trudeau led the team to victories over Philadelphia and Kansas City.

Losses to Denver and Miami followed, and a severe knee injury to Trudeau in the latter game forced George to return to action.

Meanwhile, questions were raised about his toughness. To most outsiders and even some teammates, a pulled abdominal muscle didn't figure to keep him out of one game, let alone three.

Once again, the critics grumbled about the price for the former University of Illinois standout: wide receiver Andre Rison, offensive tackle Chris Hinton, a fifth-round draft pick this year and a first-rounder in 1991.

Not to mention a fat contract.

But George, who will lead the Colts against the Bills Sunday at the Hoosier Dome, maintains the three-week hiatus was the best thing that could have happened to him.

"Being on the sidelines, I was picking up blitzes and seeing how the rotations in the secondary worked, and I really learned from it," he says.

It is the type of education the Colts hope will pay off. For now, they are in the throes of a 5-7 season and their offense ranks dead last in the NFL.

If there is any cause for encouragement, though, it has come from George in the past four games. He did particularly well in the first three -- victories over New England, the New York Jets and Cincinnati -- and held his own for most of last Sunday's 20-17 loss at Phoenix.

He has thrown only two interceptions in 152 pass attempts during that stretch. However, the second
pickoff was returned for the deciding points by the Cardinals.

George's best day came against the Bengals: He completed 21 of 31 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns without being intercepted.

"I'm learning more each week," he says. "Now, I'm to the point where I'm recognizing the defenses and the disguising that goes along with that. And I feel like a veteran, really, when I'm out there, because I'm making the proper checks and the proper reads and I'm trying to throw to the right people."

But probably the most important stride he made this year was returning to action after receiving a massive blow from Phoenix defensive end Freddie Joe Nunn. That seemed to restore faith in those who were doubting his toughness.

"I didn't think I had anything to prove," George says. "But I think my play on the field has shown the people (in Indianapolis) that I am for real and I hope I'm going to be the player that they want me to be."

He insists he isn't the least bit squeamish about his rematch with Bennett, Bruce Smith and the rest of the Bills' defense.

"You're going to get your hits and take some big knocks," George says. "And that's just all part of it. That won't be any concern of mine this game.

"I remember that last hit (from Bennett), I guess. We were playing well up to that point. We were moving the ball against one of the best defenses in the league, so it was a big confidence-booster for us (despite a 26-10 loss)."

As far as Colts coach Ron Meyer is concerned, the Colts are a better team with George starting at quarterback.

"The woes of our offense are certainly not weighed in the beat of a rookie quarterback. On the contrary, I think the production we have had and the success we have experienced are, quite frankly, due to his skills.

"We took a step backward hoping to take several steps forward in the future."

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