2012 has been the year of the rookie quarterback, with the likes of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson and Nick Foles putting together impressive performances after being thrust into the starting position so early in their careers.
All of the quarterbacks have done a very good job of keeping their team competitive (as much as they can, at least) by making eye-opening throws and heroic drives in the expiring seconds of games.
If I had to pick the most impressive quarterback from the above list, I would select Stanford alum and Peyton Manning's replacement in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck. He was selected No. 1 overall in the draft and has had to put the team on his shoulders late in games and led them to victory.
Luck's numbers aren't pretty: He's tied for the league lead with 18 interceptions, which is the most of all rookie passers and has a quarterback rating of 75.5. However, as it is in most cases in this sport, the numbers don't tell the entire story.
The young signal-caller has been dealt the tough task of turning around a franchise that went a dismal 2-14 last season and is rather bereft of talent; one could unequivocally state that, of the members of the rookie-quarterback class, Luck has the least amount of surrounding talent.
The Colts quarterback has relied on a group of young pass-catchers—including two rookies, tight end Dwayne Allen and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton—whom he looks to as he constantly evades pass-rushers. He hasn't had the greatest of success avoiding rushers, however, as he's been sacked 37 times this season. The rookie quarterbacks closest to Luck in terms of getting sacked, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson, have each been dropped 26 times.
On the other side of the ball, what was once a dominant defense with relentless edge-rushers has declined. The defense is giving up an average of 25.6 points per game, which is 24th in the NFL and has put Luck in position to work from behind. This is a tall task for the rookie quarterback, but he's performed admirably, logging four fourth-quarter comebacks and a total of six game-winning drives this season (via profootballreference.com).
Perhaps his most momentous game-winning drive was against NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers, who were knocked off by a Colts team that had just learned of their head coach's diagnosis of leukemia.
The game-winning drive started at the Colts' own 20-yard line, and Luck littered the possession with first-down completions to favorite targets Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. There were a plethora of impressive throws strung together on the drive, most notably an 18-yard reception by Wayne in the red zone against Green Bay's Cover 3 coverage.
Two pass plays later, Luck went back to Wayne on the four-yard game-winning touchdown. The drive showed the strength of the team and the resilience of the young quarterback, who recorded his first comeback against a playoff team.
Although this comeback will ring as heroic in the ears of many, it is not Luck's greatest clutch performance. That designation belongs to his 11-play, 75-yard drive against the Detroit Lions in a thrilling 35-33 Week 13 win.
With the ball at his own 25-yard line, Luck once again faced adversity. His team was down five points, and he hadn't put forth a great performance up to that point, throwing three interceptions earlier in the game and overall completing only 46 percent of his passes. But like any other quality quarterback, he put those struggles all behind him as he moved his offense towards the Lions end zone.
During the drive, he made two remarkable passes that demonstrated his continuing growth as a QB: a 26-yard completion to a diving Reggie Wayne and a game-winning, 14-yard touchdown to wide receiver Donnie Avery.
Luck's pass to Wayne came on 3rd-and-1, with the former lined up in the shotgun and the latter in the slot. Wayne ran a skinny post, as part of the Colts' "Double Dino" concept. The third receiver, T.Y. Hilton, ran the same pattern down the seam of the Lions soft Cover 2 zone coverage.
The key to hitting Reggie Wayne deep was the post route run by Hilton. Luck had to keep his eyes on Hilton in order to hold MIKE linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who dropped deep down the seam. If Luck could freeze Tulloch for a split second, he would be able to deliver a pass to Wayne in between the outside linebacker and strong safety.
As Luck caught the snap, he focused his eyes on Hilton, forcing Tulloch to account for him, and then abruptly shifted his eyes to Wayne, who ran past the outside linebacker and extended his arms as the ball landed into his hands.
This throw was one that illustrated how quickly Andrew Luck has picked up the speed of the pro game, as he manipulated coverage and delivered a gut-wrenching pass into a tight window of the Lions' coverage.
Eight players later, he delivered another big time throw on the game-winning touchdown. It was 4th-and-10 with four seconds remaining, and it was win or go home for the young Colts. This was the moment that Luck had been dreaming of when he was growing up.
He stood in shotgun set while two receivers and a tight end combined to create a "trips" set to his right. To his left, two receivers aligned to form a "twins" set and one of them, wide receiver Donnie Avery, was going to be the target.
While the other four receiving threats went vertically, running various routes, Avery was set to run a shallow cross. He was going to be the last option for Luck, serving as a checkdown or "outlet" receiver.
With the Lions giving grand cushions after the snap, Avery ran a three-yard shallow crossing route and was uncovered across the face of the formation. Luck dropped back three steps and then immediately stepped up into the pocket, feeling pressure from the Lions' edge-rushers.
After buying time, Andrew Luck delivered a simple pass to Donnie Avery, who caught the pass and ran 11 yards into the end zone to complete the game-winning 14-yard pass.
It is these kinds of throws and drives that make Andrew Luck the most impressive rookie quarterback of 2012.
He could have easily thrown the ball up for grabs into the back of the end zone, but he instead waited it out, saw the Lions' defenders hugging the goal line and dumped the football off to his fifth option. Sometimes the best throw is a checkdown—especially vs. Cover 2—and Luck made it amidst a raucous crowd in a pressure-filled stadium.
Following the touchdown, the Lions' playoffs hopes further evaporated as the Colts and their fans cheered and breathed a sigh of relief because they knew Andrew Luck was on their side.