Grading Andrew Luck's Rookie Season Following Playoff Loss to Ravens
That doesn't take away from how inspiring and shocking—and just about every positive superlative that comes to mind from this team—the 2012 Colts really were.
GM Ryan Grigson deserves a ton of credit for putting together a stellar nucleus of players that were able to win immediately, as does offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who filled in for head coach Chuck Pagano during his treatment for leukemia.
But the franchise made the best no-brainer move it possibly could have last April, when it selected Luck as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
While Luck has had his shortcomings and taken some lumps as a rookie, he is a big reason why the Colts were able to exceed all expectations and somehow push their way into the playoffs. So here is a breakdown of how Luck fared in key QB categories, and an overall graded assessment of his first pro season.
There was a core of veterans on defense consisting of longtime Colts Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea.
On offense, star wide receiver Reggie Wayne was truly the only mainstay, and Luck was able to establish himself as a leader early on.
Any concerns about his ability to take the reins and be the savior of a franchise can be put to rest. The numbers weren't always pretty, but Luck found a way to guide his team to victory, which can't be overstated.
Phil Simms also publicly questioned Luck's arm strength back in late 2011 (h/t Pro Football Talk). Hindsight is 20/20 sometimes, and it's safe to say that Luck showed he can effectively sling the ball at the NFL level. A big reason why the Colts were able to field the seventh-ranked passing offense was Luck's ability to throw the ball down the field and fire it into tight windows.
There was nothing lucky about the Colts winning 11 games. They earned it by playing like a team. Luck could have hogged the spotlight as the fresh face of the franchise, but frequently delegated credit to his teammates, and that is the mindset of a true leader.
Nearly 33 percent of Luck's throws traveled between 11 and 30 yards in the air. That is a big reason why his completion percentage hovers just above 54.
Still, accuracy was expected to be a strong suit for Luck, since he completed over 70 percent of his passes in his final two years at Stanford University playing in a pro-style offense. That wasn't quite the case in his rookie campaign.
Several other factors should also be considered. Luck had to throw the ball away frequently due to being under constant duress, which caused his footwork to be inconsistent and for him to change his arm slot to release the football. Inconsistency in mechanics leads to inconsistency in accuracy.
Reggie Wayne was the only consistent receiver Luck had to start off with. Their chemistry caught on more quickly than the other members of Luck's supporting cast.
Donnie Avery played well, and fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton wound up leading the Colts with seven touchdown grabs. That said, Luck needs a little more help around him before he can ultimately thrive, and a consistent running game would also help in that regard.
This is the area that Luck needs to improve upon the most. Although he cleaned up by not turning it over in his last three starts in the regular season, he still gave the ball away 23 times as a rookie (18 interceptions, five lost fumbles).
Again, this goes back to how much heat Luck was facing on a snap-by-snap basis. That made it all the more difficult to adjust to the speed of the pro game, and also caused him some problems in diagnosing disguised coverages once the ball was in his hands.
No one questions Luck's football IQ, but Bruce Arians' offense called for him to stretch the field more frequently than any other quarterback. That required Luck to hang in the pocket so plays could develop, and was a reason he frequently locked onto receivers—especially Wayne.
Here comes the bad Andrew Luck pun of the day: He really pressed his luck by constantly being in attack mode, trying to fit the ball into even the smallest spots. That cost him dearly in the first 13 games especially.
The fact that Luck cleaned up his ball security late in the year is an encouraging sign for Colts fans and for the Indy defense, which was a unit that struggled to generate turnovers.
That made the 11-5 season all the more incredible: The Colts were minus-12 in turnover margin for the year.
Imagine what could happen when Luck has more time to throw, becomes slightly less aggressive and has a whole offseason with players who have developed alongside him.
Calmness Under Pressure: B+
This is an intangible quality that all the great quarterbacks have, and Luck has displayed that on-field moxie even as he was the most punished signal-caller in the NFL.
Luck received shoddy pass protection all year, yet remained serene as he surveyed the secondary for an open target.
An inexperienced offensive line had trouble handling pass-rushers all season, which landed Luck frequently on his back. Luck was sacked 41 times, bad enough for fourth-most in the league. But his mobility and sheer strength helped him avoid plenty more.
For him to be the franchise quarterback the Colts expect for the next 15 years or so, the front office has to make the offensive line a priority for improvement in 2013.
All things considered, Luck held up extremely well under the gun and avoided serious injury. Part of that is due to good fortune, but part of that is being smart and knowing how to fall, which Luck showed he could do in his first year.
Coming Through in the Clutch: A+
Seven game-winning drives. Enough said. Luck showed that he has a huge clutch gene, and that he can elevate his play when the stakes are highest, just like all the great quarterbacks.
That didn't necessarily come to fruition in the playoffs, but the fact that the Colts were there in the first place was a minor miracle in more ways than one.
The aforementioned emphasized lack of pass protection and imbalance in the offense led to a ton of 3rd-and-long situations, which are clutch scenarios in their own right. Luck had to constantly keep drives going by converting these, and Indianapolis was the best team in the league at doing so.
It certainly helps to have a reliable target like Reggie Wayne at your disposal, but everyone's game was raised with the outcome hanging in the balance, and Luck deserves a ton of credit for that.
Defenses also had to play a little softer late in the game, which allotted Luck more time in the pocket to read the coverage and find the open man.
Such a point isn't meant to take anything away from what he accomplished late in games, which is nothing short of staggering. It is simply to highlight what Luck can do when given adequate time to survey the field.
Improvisation and Scrambling: A-
Not to sound like a broken record, but the protection had plenty to do with this grade as well. Plays frequently broke down, and Luck was on his own to try to avoid sacks and make plays.
That included running with the football rather than simply extending the play. Unlike a lot of exceptionally mobile quarterbacks, Luck was very judicious when he took off and ran with a purpose: 23 of his 62 carries resulted in first downs, including five touchdowns.
Sometimes Luck would abandon the play a bit too soon, though, and miss out on hitting an open receiver. Hard to blame him.
A lot of Luck's best plays came when he broke containment and got out on the perimeter. He showed exceptional accuracy rolling to both his right and his left in throwing the ball deep, which strengthens the assertion that he has a big-time arm.
At 6'4" and about 235 pounds, he is a load to bring down. That gives him a bit of a Ben Roethlisberger feel—only with much faster foot speed. That comparison is ironic because offensive coordinator Bruce Arians most recently called plays for Big Ben in Pittsburgh before joining the Colts' 2012 staff.
Hopefully Luck doesn't endure the career of punishment that Roethlisberger has in his Steelers career, because that seemed to finally catch up to him this season.
Living Up to No. 1 Pick Hype: A
Nothing like a tweet from ESPN Stats & Info to sum up why Luck did in fact live up to the hype as the top selection in the 2012 NFL draft:
Andrew Luck will be the 1st QB drafted No. 1 overall ever to start a postseason game as a rookie (from Elias).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 5, 2013
No quarterback selected as the top pick has started a playoff game, because in almost every case, the team picking No. 1 is going to be the worst team from that previous season.
Such a turnaround in one year is inconceivable in most cases. Luck is not most cases.
Hailed by many as the best quarterback prospect since John Elway, there wasn't much to dispel that assertion in Luck's rookie year. Although he was the consensus No. 1, it was a difficult decision with a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Robert Griffin III sitting on the board as well.
Comparisons between Luck and RGIII will be inevitable for the rest of their careers, and both got off to phenomenal starts. That only adds to the scrutiny, pressure and high stakes, all of which Luck has taken in stride.
Overall Grade: A
The scary thing for the rest of the league is that Luck isn't even close to putting it all together, and this core of Colts is just beginning to realize its potential.
It seemed unfathomable that Cam Newton's sensational 2011 season would ever be surpassed by another rookie, but three quarterbacks came along this season and arguably played at a higher level.
Newton set the rookie passing record just a year ago, and Luck has already broken it by throwing for a whopping 4,374 yards. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was just 23-to-18, but that should only improve, as should his aforementioned accuracy issues.
The 6.98 yards per attempt at a 76.5 passer rating should not be counted against him either, since he flung the ball deep downfield so frequently and had to evade pressure nearly every time he dropped back to pass.
NFL players often make their biggest jumps between their first and second seasons, but highly touted quarterbacks are always in danger of a sophomore slump after setting the bar so high.
That is precisely what happened with Newton for much of 2012 until a late resurgence.
The future looks extremely bright for Luck, who has so much room for improvement and could establish himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in the game as early as next season.