2012 NFL Draft: Will Andrew Luck Break Cam Newton's Rookie Passing Record?

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIJanuary 9, 2012

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 02:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Stanford Cardinal walks out onto the field against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 2012 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Though it is now in some dispute, recent news that the Indianapolis Colts will take Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft gives us license to start making absurd projections about the Stanford sensation's rookie season.

The first that comes to mind: Could Luck eclipse the rookie passing record set by Cam Newton just this year?

The short answer: no.

The long answer: Well, you'll have to read on for that.

But before we explore all the reasons Luck can't surpass Newton, here's the reasons he can:

1. Andrew Luck is good. He's been hailed as one of the best, most pro-ready quarterback prospects in years, maybe decades.

2. He'll be playing in Indianapolis, the same system that yielded Peyton Manning's record-setting rookie season in 1998.

3. Changes in the NFL rule book have driven teams to pass more, creating an environment conducive to big passing numbers.

4. Did I mention he was good?

On points one and four, I must concede Luck is good. But many great prospects before him have had great rookie seasons without rewriting the record books.

To say a prospect will break the all-time rookie passing record just because he's highly rated ignores the fact that the lion's share of highly rated prospects preceding him failed to do just that. Being good is no guarantee.

Take, for instance, the tale of another big-time Stanford quarterback prospect who was the consensus first overall pick: John Elway. Great as Elway was, he passed for only 1,663 yards his rookie season and just 2,598 yards in full-time duty as a sophomore.

Many are great; few set records.

Point two I would disregard altogether.

The system a rookie quarterback inherits has little bearing on his rookie-year output.

Look at Newton's Carolina Panthers, a team that ranked 26th in passing attempts the year before he shattered Manning's mark.

Newton's case underscores the fact that teams shape their systems around the skills of their star quarterbacks, not the other way around.

Soon as Newton arrived with his 70-yard missile launcher in tow, Carolina opened things up. Soon as Tebow began starting in Denver, they became a run-first offense. Soon as Sam Bradford arrived in St. Louis, focus shifted away from Stephen Jackson (went from 16th in passes attempted to fifth).

NFL teams do their best to create offensive strategies that make their star picks comfortable and draw on their best skills. And on that note, Luck is particularly unlikely to break Newton's record.

At Stanford, Luck thrived in a balanced system that promoted equal parts pass and run. If anything, Luck's college career was a small-scale repudiation of the forward pass' supposed superiority.

We've seen Luck's former coach, Jim Harbaugh, bring that same system to San Francisco and the results have been stunning. Not only has Harbaugh helped San Francisco to a 13-3 record, he's done it with an offense that ranked 31st in pass attempts.

I doubt an Andrew Luck-led offense will pass the ball that infrequently, but it goes toward the greater point that the team drafting Luck won't drop him back 50 times a game. That team is more likely to recreate elements of the pounding offensive style Luck directed in his successful college career.

Now it merits mention that Newton didn't pass a ton in college either.

Though in Newton's case, the offense he ran in college wasn't a pro-style offense. Most folks assumed Newton would retool his game upon entering the NFL and that the results would be difficult to project.

Luck, however, did run a pro-style offense in college and it's very likely that the offense he ran in college will look a lot like the one he runs in the NFL. If that's the case, he's a longer shot to break Newton's record than even the other guys in his draft class.

Which leaves us with point three, or what I consider the strongest of the four points: In today's NFL it is easier than ever for rookie quarterbacks to play early and throw the ball often.

The above is an indisputable fact.

Over the last four seasons, four rookie quarterbacks (Newton, Andy Dalton, Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan) have passed for more than 3,000 yards. Before 2008 only three quarterbacks (Manning, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon) had ever passed for that many yards in their first year.

But let's not mistake trend for aberration. Newton's season was exceptional for any scoring climate, and still near impossible to replicate, much less surpass.

Even in today's pass-happy NFL, none of the other aforementioned quarterbacks of the past four years came within 500 yards of Newton. Given that stark assessment, the likelihood of Luck challenging Newton's mark remains low.

What's happening today reminds me a bit of the climate that surrounded Moon and Kelly in the mid-'80s.

In 1984 Moon became the first rookie quarterback to pass for more than 3,000 yards. Two years later Kelly bested his mark by throwing for 3,593 yards.

Times were changing, offenses were opening up and it seemed someone new would break the rookie passing record every couple of years. Until, naturally, no one did.

Were Moon and Kelly a sign of changing times? Of course.

Did that mean every quarterback in their wake would smash their records? Of course not.

In retrospect it's silly to assume anyone would, but that's the emotional tenor of sports.

As fans and pundits we get caught up in what Bill Barnwell calls recency bias, or the tendency to focus on what's just happened and ignore the greater set of data available to us.

In an attempt to explain the inexplicable, we take an outstanding achievement and re-appropriate it as a sign of the times. Cam Newton isn't crazy good; he's just the new normal.

But when take a step back and examine just how difficult it is to pass for 4,000 yards, any rational being would conclude that Luck has a next-to-zero chance of breaking Newton's rookie passing record.

It's easy to see from all the ink spilled above, but also from the heretofore unmentioned fact that Luck might not even play his rookie season.

The Colts could draft him and retain Peyton Manning as starting quarterback. It could be years before Luck takes a meaningful NFL snap. Luck could break his arm. Luck could renounce football altogether and take a job as a blacksmith's apprentice in Papua New Guinea.

All of it adds new layers of improbability to the impossible standards that surely await Luck in the NFL.

Nothing short of the absurd will satisfy fans and critics alike. And as unlikely as he is to break every record before him, it is just as likely people will expect him to do it.

Which means the only certainty in Andrew Luck's budding NFL career is that he and the rest of us will have to endure way too many articles like this one.