Recently, I had the chance to do a comparative film study of Luck against the other young quarterbacks in the league. I came away with Luck as my No. 2 QB under 25 years old in the NFL—second only to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
I wrote: "Luck is a phenomenal prospect and will only continue to get better at the NFL level. Any franchise would be lucky to start its rebuilding plan with a quarterback as physically talented and mentally sharp."
Critics want to point out Luck's shortcomings in year one, but they fail to realize the circumstances he was saddled with as the No. 1 pick and the talent he did without. No, Luck wasn't perfect in his rookie season, but it is more than possible that year two and beyond could be the stuff of legend.
A Realistic Look Back at 2012
Every No. 1 pick draws attention, but an accomplished quarterback like Luck can command a lot of headlines. In that spirit, many of Bleacher Report's best and brightest have taken their turns studying the positives and negatives of Luck's young NFL career.
None have cast such a close view with such a talented eye as former AFC South Lead Writer Nate Dunlevy—author of numerous books about the Colts. Although Dunlevy is a Colts fan at heart, he was always unbiased and critical of the young signal-caller.
He looked back at Luck's rookie season with this note:
While it will be difficult for fans to do, it's important to set aside all of the "noise" surrounding Luck's season. Issues like a young team, a terrible line and no running game inform the savvy observer about Luck's true ability, but they have no value for the purpose of diagnosing where Luck needs to go. While the Colts clearly need to upgrade the line, the primary responsibility for sack avoidance always rests with the quarterback. There were times when Luck held the ball too long while looking for a man deep downfield.
I agree with Dunlevy on the importance of tagging quarterbacks with needless sacks they take. So often, the line is blamed or unofficially "charged" a sack that could have been easily avoided. I've made this argument before and will continue to beat that drum until someone finally listens.
Luck cannot be blamed for every sack in 2012, but it's fair to believe that, moving forward, managing the pass rush is something he needs to do better.
The biggest and most popular derision of Luck has to do with his interception numbers in his rookie season. Of course, this ignores the fact that Luck's teammates and scheme rarely helped him out in this regard.
Even worse, it ignores the fact that Luck's touchdown to interception ratio (23:18) was on par with the first full-year campaigns of both New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (18:12) and Colts legend Peyton Manning (26:28).
Again, this doesn't absolve Luck of any blame for his high interception number. It does, however, put that number into context. The full story is that Luck's ability to cut into those interception numbers in his second season could portend greatness in his future. Knowing his high level of natural talent and his fantastic command of the game, odds are high that he makes good on that potential.
The most troubling scouting point for Luck over the course of my film study was a "paralysis by analysis" when it came to making plays with either his arm or his legs.
Dunlevy and I went around and around on this point, as he tended to blame the coaching staff for reining in Luck's running ability while I recognized the coaches' role but ultimately hold him responsible for the the plays he makes or leaves on the field:
This is an issue of decision-making—a paralysis of thought. Luck can't seem to reconcile his innate ability to create plays with his arm and his natural ability to create plays with his legs. Either route would help the Colts win games, but doing neither or attempting to do both on every play is going to doom Luck and this offense.
While it is true that the Colts coaching staff wanted to keep Luck in the pocket, it was a learning curve for the rookie that took him much of the season to overcome. He's not the first quarterback under now-Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians to suffer this fate, as both Peyton Manning and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needed to learn to be decisive—at times, the hard way—in Arians' scheme.
Offense That Fits His Skill Set Better
Then again, maybe the trick is to simply find a scheme that works better with Luck's skill set.
With Arians headed off to Arizona, the Colts made a great selection in their new offensive coordinator—the former "Andrew Luck Director of Offense," Pep Hamilton.
Not only did the Colts reach out to Luck's former position coach and coordinator, they managed to get a guy whose job was named after the former Stanford all-star.
Hamilton wasn't just brought over as some sort of favor for Luck. He has seven years of NFL coaching experience and has been coaching since 1997. In his time at Stanford, Hamilton was known for a few things that don't sound anything like Arians' ideal game plan—lots of running, play-action passing and a West Coast-style passing tree.
Stanford was, for many years, a college team running a "pro-style" offense. It's one of the things that made Luck so valued by the scouting community. Luck learned from Hamilton, who learned from Stanford head coach David Shaw, who learned from guys like once-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh and long-time San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh.
Now, Hamilton is reuniting with Luck and bringing his own branch of said coaching tree to Indianapolis, where Luck can be Luck rather than trying to be a pale imitation of one of Arians' former quarterbacking disciples.
Remember, Luck made a name for himself doing two distinct things at Stanford: hitting tons of high-percentage throws and being able to capitalize on lower-percentage throws because the defense had to crowd the line of scrimmage against the threat of the run.
The Colts went, let's say, a different direction last season. From Dan Pompei of the National Football Post:
Forcing defenses to defend the run more could help the development of Luck. He was pretty good as a rookie, but he can be better if the Colts play better situational football. Last season the Colts had 113 situations of third-and-six or longer. No team that made the playoffs had as many.
That is, in many ways, the Arians offense in a nutshell—especially under a rookie quarterback. First-and-10? Chuck it deep! Second-and-10? Let's chuck it deep again! No, it's not quite as simplistic as that (though, the play-calling sheet would look phenomenal if it were), but it does demand a lot of low-percentage passes.
It would not be overstating the matter to say that the passing philosophy of Luck's first season is the opposite of what he'll be asked to do in 2013 and beyond, as per ESPN:
"It will be a variation of it," Hamilton said when asked about bringing the West Coast offense to Indy. "Short passing game, high completion rate. But I enjoy watching our guys coming off the ball and trying to knock the opponent back. I'm a big believer in the power-running game, I believe that opens it up for your passing game. I want to be flexible schematically in that we find ways to get the ball into playmakers' hands."
Arians' offense obviously worked for the Colts last season as they went to the playoffs. It obviously worked for guys like Roethlisberger and Manning, who have studied under Arians before. It will likely work for the Cardinals next season.
When Arians' scheme works, it's a thing of beauty. In Indianapolis, though, the chips were stacked against it and against Luck from the get-go. Luck didn't have the familiarity with the scheme, nor did he have the weapons to truly succeed. He really didn't have the protection.
[Luck] attempted 101 passes in which the target was 20 or more yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus' metrics, which was 10 more than NFL runner-up Joe Flacco. And according to Football Outsiders' game charting, no quarterback last season faced pressure on more plays -- 187 "pressure plays" in 710 total plays. In the last three seasons, only Tampa Bay's Josh freeman was under fire on more plays (191 "pressure plays" in 2010).
But wait, you say, didn't we just go over how quarterback pressures are supposed to be a quarterback thing rather than something we automatically blame on the offensive line? Yes, astute reader! However, in Arians' scheme—filled with longer routes, option routes, double-moves and seven-step drops—the quarterback needs some minimal level of protection. Luck didn't always get that.
Now, it's still Luck's responsibility to make good choices with the ball, not take sacks and not throw careless interceptions, but a scheme that largely takes Luck out of those situations will also be helpful.
Improved Help Around Him
The real story of Luck's rookie season, however, wasn't the insurmountable odds of Luck leading a team to the playoffs in his first year. It was Luck leading that team to the playoffs in his first year. The Colts were terrible just the season before, and general manager Ryan Grigson has been working overtime to overhaul the roster.
Luck's offensive teammates were a ragtag bunch of rookies, castoffs and journeymen. In reality, he only had a few choice people to count on—mostly just receiver Reggie Wayne and eventually rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton when he'd be wide open down the field.
The good news for Luck is that Grigson managed to grab every single major need this offseason.
Running back? Check. The Colts will be moving from rookie Vick Ballard to the oft-injured Ahmad Bradshaw. Ballard actually surprised as a runner in 2012 with 814 yards, a 3.9 average and two touchdowns, but it wasn't the sort of rushing attack that Luck is used to having next to him.
Bradshaw will be harder-nosed between the tackles and will be more apt to break longer gains (Ballard only had four 20-plus runs in 2012). For comparison, Luck had five. Most importantly, Bradshaw will be more well rounded as a back.
In addition to a better rushing attack, Luck will also have better line play in front of him. Tackle Gosder Cherilus (the best right tackle on the market this offseason) and guard Donald Thomas will step right in as starters. Both are talented all-around blockers, but Thomas gives the Colts a real road-grader on the inside while Cherilus is an athletic bookend pass-blocker.
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey also enters the offense as another vertical threat along with Wayne and Hilton. With those three on the field, it seems almost impossible that a defense will be able to pick and choose between stopping the Colts' new-look rushing attack and covering all of those burners down the field.
It wasn't just the Colts offense that improved this offseason. Grigson added player after player to the defense as well—guys like linebackers Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner, safety LaRon Landry and cornerback Greg Toler. These improvements should help a defense that didn't help out its offense in 2012, as the Colts average starting field position was 30th in the NFL.
Turnovers, too, are supposed to be a hallmark of Coach Pagano's defense, but that wasn't the case last year, as per Kevin Bowen of Colts.com:
"We left a lot of plays out there last year and I don’t think we created enough turnovers last year,” [cornerback Darius] Butler said. “The people that we brought in will help us change that and right now we are building that attitude as far as creating turnovers because that’s the most important thing when it comes to winning ball games in this league."
Overall, Luck should be able to play a lot better with a few extra possessions and his average possession being a few yards shorter. In a game of inches, it's as if the Colts defense was leaving all of the inches for the opponents in 2012.
In the last 10 years, only three non-quarterbacks have won the MVP award. If Luck is going to be the next in a long line of talented passers to take home the trophy, he'll need to lean on the improved help around him while thriving in an offense that better suits his skill set, culminating in him making better decisions with the football.
It is more than possible—even probable—that Luck could take a huge step forward from a rookie season where the chips seemed stacked against him. While there's a lot of football left to be played, Luck is a legitimate MVP candidate heading into 2013, and no one should be surprised if he's being handed a lot of hardware at the end of his second season.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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