They say rookie quarterbacks are not supposed to be this good this fast.
They have to learn the game, adjust to the speed, build chemistry with new teammates and understand that what worked in college may no longer apply in the NFL.
The game has changed. Young quarterbacks have never been more prepared to succeed right away. Sandwiched between Cam Newton (2011) and Sam Bradford (2010), there are four rookie quarterbacks this season who rank in the top six all-time for most passing yards through five games by a rookie.
None have been more impressive than Andrew Luck, who just completed his first epic comeback victory for the Indianapolis Colts, erasing a 21-3 halftime deficit against the Green Bay Packers. That was only his fourth career game.
When you watch Luck run the offense with the veteran poise of his predecessor, Peyton Manning, it is hard to believe he is only a rookie. The more the Colts put on him, such as the no-huddle offense, the better he plays.
The two-minute offense is actually hard to quantify in the NFL, but it is something you know when you see it. Like how you know Luck is no ordinary rookie quarterback when you watch him play.
Week 5's contest marked the third game in a row in which Luck led his offense to a go-ahead score with less than a minute remaining in the game. Even a veteran would struggle to do that in crunch time for three straight games.
Luck’s ability to already run the two-minute drill at an elite level is giving the Colts a fighting chance to succeed in his rookie season, which was supposed to be a tough, rebuilding year.
Two-minute mastery is supposed to be for the elites
Elite quarterbacks will often take control of games late in each half. This is a different style of football compared to the rest of the game. Managing the clock matters most, and that comes down to the plays being called and the use of timeouts.
Things are moving much faster, so the quarterback must process them faster, from the play call to reading the defense to making the throws.
Success at the end of halves is why many believe elite quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, win so many games each year. It is obvious what late fourth-quarter performance does in the clutch, but you can also make an impact in the second quarter as well.
It does not happen as often as you think, but picture the scenario where a team scores right before halftime and that same team gets the ball first to start the third quarter. Another score there would mean the lethal “double score.”
New England pulled this off in Super Bowl XLVI, turning a 9-3 deficit into a 17-9 lead. Of course, the Patriots lost the game, but that is because they never scored after that point. Still, they turned the game around by closing the second quarter with the no-huddle offense.
If he manages the last two minutes properly, a quarterback will win a lot more games over the course of a season and career.
That is what veterans do, but even in the preseason we saw glimpses of Luck being able to move the offense in a hurry late in a half. Although we do see a lot of things in the preseason that never translate to real games.
While covering Luck each week for Colts Authority, I can tell you that what we saw in the preseason was the real deal, as he keeps doing it each week in the regular season.
Though it is a harder-than-expected part of the game for which to set guidelines statistically, I came up with 10 drives this season (in four games) that would qualify as a “two-minute drill” for Luck.
Week 1 at Chicago Bears
It was a tough debut for Luck against that difficult defense the Bears have this season. But with just 39 seconds left in the half and all three timeouts, Luck quickly took over and engineered a drive, with every pass coming out of the shotgun.
He went to his Stanford teammate Coby Fleener three times for 51 yards. So far, it has been the drive of Fleener’s career; otherwise, he has been very disappointing.
Adam Vinatieri would miss the 37-yard field goal, but it was an impressive drive and as good as Luck looked all day. Vinatieri should have made that kick in what was a 24-14 Chicago lead at the time.
Luck would get a drive late in the fourth quarter, but the Colts were down 41-21, so it was garbage time. He was pressured on most of the drive, but he did convert a 4th-and-15 with a nice 26-yard pass to Donnie Avery. On the next play, Luck forced a pass for his third interception of the day.
When you are down three touchdowns, these things happen.
Week 2 vs. Minnesota Vikings
We would get a better look in Week 2, when the Minnesota Vikings came to Indianapolis. With 1:11 left in the second quarter, Luck started at his own 36. After some short passes, Luck ran for a seven-yard gain and wisely went out of bounds with the Colts out of timeouts.
His next play was the pass of the game, as his subtle movement to the right set up a 30-yard touchdown strike down the middle to Reggie Wayne with 0:07 left. The Colts went up 17-6.
After the Colts blew their 20-6 lead late in the fourth quarter, we saw Luck in his first game-winning drive opportunity with the game tied 20-20.
He only had 31 seconds and two timeouts at his own 20, but the Colts played for the win. Luck rolled out to his left, Ben Roethlisberger style, to find Avery for 20 yards. He followed it up with a 20-yard pass to Wayne.
After Minnesota was called for offsides, Luck spiked the ball and the Colts brought out Vinatieri. He nailed the 53-yard field goal for the win.
This has been a great season for one-minute drills, but what Luck did was still rare. It was the 33rd time since 1981 that a team had 31 seconds or less and completed a scoring drive on their way to a win.
It remains the only loss of the season for the 4-1 Vikings.
Week 3 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Similar to the Minnesota game, Luck was able to take over late in the first half against Jacksonville. With Reggie Wayne making key catches to get the ball deep into the red zone, Luck did make one mistake by using a spike on first down when he had time to call the play.
However, we see the same mistake being made by Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh in his ninth season. Bruce Arians has coached both quarterbacks, so that might be his philosophy.
It did not hurt the drive. Luck threw a touchdown on a slant to Mewelde Moore for a 14-3 lead with 0:37 left on the clock. It was an 80-yard drive in 14 plays.
Once again, the second half would go the opposition’s way; Luck would find himself facing his first fourth-quarter comeback opportunity.
Down 16-14 with 1:33 and no timeouts left at his own 33, the drive was kick-started with a simple check-down to Donald Brown for 39 yards. The Colts went conservative, which was the wrong move. They ran it three times before kicking the field goal for a 17-16 lead with 0:56 left.
You expect to be able to stop Blaine Gabbert in these situations, but a simple catch over the middle by Cecil Shorts led to a quick 80-yard touchdown, and the Colts then trailed 22-17.
Luck had to go 62 yards in 0:35, which would have been superhuman. He did complete a deep pass down the left sideline to rookie T.Y. Hilton for 36 yards to give the Colts a chance, but a deflected pass and failed Hail Mary ended the game.
Week 5 vs. Green Bay Packers
The Packers were strong early with a 21-3 lead, but Luck had two opportunities late in the first half. The first drive eventually stalled, and Vinatieri missed the 53-yard field goal.
With 0:56 left and at his own 15, Luck tried another one-minute drill, but his sideline pass to Hilton was dropped on what would have been a tough catch. The Colts punted. It looked like they may have been out of magic.
Then the second-half rally came, and with a 27-22 Green Bay lead with 4:30 left, Luck took over at his own 20. He would go on the drive of the season so far. Wayne had his back with an incredible five catches for 64 yards.
Whether the coverage was tight or Wayne was not even open yet, Luck threw the ball with no fear or hesitation on the drive. The most impressive play was on a 3rd-and-12 when Green Bay rushed six.
Luck shook off Clay Matthews—an impressive feat in itself—and gunned one to Wayne for 15 yards with Charles Woodson draped in coverage. Four plays later, Luck converted a 3rd-and-7 by lowering his head and running straight through for the first down.
Then he came back to Wayne in very tight coverage with a bullet for the touchdown as Wayne extended the ball through the plane.
On the drive, Luck was 8-of-11 for 80 yards, a touchdown and a seven-yard run. Now that is what you call a game-winning drive.
Here is a summary of Luck’s 10 two-minute drills this season. The “QT” is the quarter. The “SM” is the scoring margin at the start of the drive (negative when trailing). Time is at the start of the drive. Lastly, “DL” is drive length (yards), and “Pts” are how many points the drive produced.
It's a strange coincidence that Vinatieri has both made and missed field goals of 37 and 53 yards this year. If he made them all, we would be talking about 3.40 points per drive.
Still, averages of 50 yards per drive and 2.80 points per drive are “best offense in football” kind of drive stats.
Luck vs. other rookie quarterbacks
You might be thinking, "It is only 10 drives in four games. Big deal. How does Luck compare to past rookies in these two-minute situations?"
Again, it is hard to quantify. I selected four rookie quarterbacks who had a lot of success for comparison: Peyton Manning (1998), Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Matt Ryan (2008) and Cam Newton.
When people hear “two-minute drill,” they like to think of a drive that starts in the last two minutes of a half, but that is rarely the case. They usually start earlier than that.
You also do not want to focus on drives in the fourth quarter when the team was leading. That is the four-minute offense, which is the exact opposite of the hurry-up in both style and objective.
In the end, I kept it to drives that started with no more than 6:00 left in the half. The rule was they had to extend into the final two minutes. Going on a long drive where you have the ball at the 2-yard line when it is the two-minute warning negates the point of what we are looking for.
On the flip side of that, against Detroit last year, Cam Newton was down 42-35 with 2:28 left. This is a classic example of needing to use the hurry-up to tie the game. Newton threw an interception with 2:17 left, so that drive did not make the cut.
Difficult decisions, but I think the comparison was equal and fair for all five quarterbacks.
Warning: These numbers can be very misleading.
Roethlisberger threw a Hail Mary interception against the Jets in 2004 to end the half. A harmless play is the difference between a passer rating of 79.0 and 92.7 for him. One meaningless play can make a 13.7 decrease in rating when we are talking about 36 to 37 attempts.
So can spikes.
Luck has four, and he would move him up to 102.8 without them. Manning and Newton each had three spikes. Ryan and Roethlisberger each had one.
Stat adjustments aside, you can see how good Luck looks here. With fewer opportunities—a lot fewer compared to Manning and Newton—he is really putting together the scoring drives at the end of halves.
This is something we just have not seen, even from several of the best rookie quarterbacks ever.
Conclusion: Luck will return the Colts to prominence quicker than expected
What makes Andrew Luck so dangerous in these situations? Interim coach Bruce Arians would know best.
Arians is a lucky coach. He started in Indianapolis as the quarterbacks coach for Peyton Manning in 1998. He was there for the start of Ben Roethlisberger’s career in Pittsburgh in 2004. There, Arians coached the wide receivers before getting the promotion to offensive coordinator in 2007.
Now, he is back in Indianapolis for the start of Luck’s career.
Luck might be the perfect bridge between Manning and Roethlisberger: a gifted, cerebral quarterback with great control of the offense, understanding of the defense and the physical tools to break out of sacks, scramble for first downs and make plays happen on the run.
That kind of dual-threat attack makes him extremely hard to defend, especially in these hurry-up situations where the defense may be worn down.
Why gush over a kid with four games under his belt, a 2-2 record and only a 54.2 completion percentage?
If you see Luck play, then you know he has been better than those numbers. He will make several bad plays in a given week, but even the best rookies, from Dan Marino to Roethlisberger, did the same.
Without getting much help from the pass protection, the running game or his receivers not generating too many yards after the catch (YAC), Luck is doing an incredible job for a rookie.
It is very understandable why Luck ranks No. 4 (77.6) in ESPN’s QBR formula, which factors in details such as dropped passes, spikes, scrambling, expected points added, win probability, YAC, avoiding sacks, passing under pressure, etc.
The Colts are rather lucky things have turned out the way they have. Luck’s understanding of situational football and performance at the end of halves this early in his career are strong indicators that he will be one of the greats.
He will get there in a hurry, too.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.