He set numerous rookie records, led the team from a 2-14 season to 11-5 on the strength of a record-tying seven game-winning drives and showed veteran poise in carrying the Colts to unforeseen heights.
Despite handing the ball off a lot in his Stanford days and coach Chuck Pagano’s preseason talk of ground-and-pound, Luck was the Colts offense this year. His 730 drop backs are the third most in a season in NFL history, as the Colts relied on all of his skills week-after-week to move the ball.
Indianapolis had very little national airtime this season, so many NFL fans had the rare chance to see the persistent flaws in the roster exposed against a veteran team like Baltimore in the playoffs. Luck did not have his best game, but it was one of his better efforts. Season-long problems with pass protection and a season worst in dropped passes doomed the offense in the 24-9 loss.
But the future is bright in Indianapolis, even if there have been concerns all season long about Luck’s statistics:
- Luck’s completion percentage was 54.1 percent, or right between Mark Sanchez (54.3) and Chad Henne (53.9) at the bottom of the league.
- Luck’s 18 interceptions tied with Sanchez for the second most in the league behind the 19 thrown by Drew Brees and Tony Romo. He also lost five fumbles for a total of 23 giveaways.
- Luck’s passer rating was 76.5, or just behind Blaine Gabbert (77.4) for 26th in the league.
So how does a quarterback with such below-average traditional statistics manage to impress this much? Maybe Luck is just lucky, or maybe you have to understand his situation to truly appreciate his season.
Let’s put a bow on Luck’s rookie season with a full review.
Extreme cases require one to dig deeper into the numbers
People not able to connect the Colts’ quarterback-driven success with some of Luck’s lackluster statistics have been more of a problem than any of the actual flaws in Luck’s game this season. Raw numbers do him no justice, as you have to understand the situation he was in and the type of offense he ran.
The Colts were 11-5, and the main reason surely was not dependent on:
- Offensive line—This disastrous unit was a source for constant pressure, as no quarterback was hit or hurried more in 2012 than Luck.
- Running game—Excluding Luck’s runs, the ground game produced 378 carries for 1,416 yards (3.75 yards per carry). Luck had one fewer rushing touchdown (five) than his backs combined.
- Receivers—While everyone knows about Reggie Wayne, this unit was filled with rookies and the Donnie Avery reclamation project. Unable to create much separation, Luck’s receivers generated 39.5 percent of his yards after the catch (YAC), which was below the league average.
- Defense—Allowed the most points (387) ever for a team with at least 11 wins in NFL history and ranked 23rd in points per drive allowed. The Colts tied the 2011 Steelers (12-4) for the fewest takeaways (15) ever by a team with at least 11 wins.
This team won behind their quarterback, and the Colts asked more of Luck than what most quarterbacks are asked to do even years into their careers. It all starts with the kind of offense that coordinator and 12-game interim coach Bruce Arians runs.
Despite drafting two tight ends with premium picks, Arians likes to run a vertical passing game that is very wide receiver-centric and offers little in the way of passes to the running backs or checkdowns. Instead, Arians would just rather call a bubble screen.
Luck had 339 completions, but only 34 went to running backs (10.0 percent). By comparison, Peyton Manning completed 101 of his 326 completions (31.0 percent) as a rookie in 1998 to running backs, including 86 to Marshall Faulk alone.
Vertical does not have to mean bombs and go routes, but a lot of the routes are over 10 yards down the field. Luck had the highest average depth of pass this season at over 10 yards per attempt. He threw 27 percent of his passes at least 15 yards, which was the third-highest rate in the league.
Deeper throws are tougher to complete, and that alone starts to explain the lower completion percentage. But it’s not just the depth of targets. You need time to throw vertical routes, and the Colts offensive line just could not afford Luck that time often enough this season. He was sacked 41 times, and that number could have easily doubled without his Ben Roethlisberger-like combo of physicality and mobility, which Arians is used to relying on from Pittsburgh.
It helps to use play-action passing to throw deep, but you need a reasonable running game for that to be most effective. The Colts did not have that; hence, Luck rarely used play action, and even when he did, he was a threat to be sacked on those plays as they take longer to develop.
Pro Football Focus keeps track of play-action passing, and Luck had the league’s biggest increase in completion percentage (11.5 percent) when he used it. Luck used play action on 18.5 percent of his drop backs, which is half as often as fellow rookies like Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, who had strong running games. Proving he can be deadly on it, the Colts must find a way to get Luck more opportunities to use play action in 2013.
When you are asked to drop back 45 times per week, in an offense that is often throwing down the field to receivers, without a lot of clean pockets to stand and deliver in, you are going to rack up incompletions and, even worse, mistakes.
Unmatched in the clutch (for a rookie)
But Luck handled this offense from day one, and he delivered in the clutch in a way no rookie ever has before.
Luck’s seven game-winning drives tie the league’s regular-season record, and he also put the team ahead in the final minute against Jacksonville before losing after a late touchdown. Indianapolis was 9-1 in games decided by 1-7 points, which is the second-best record ever (min. eight close games).
In Luck’s seven game-winning drives games, he led the Colts to scores on nine out of 11 total drives (4.27 points per drive). That is remarkable efficiency, and on those drives, Luck was 40 out of 62 (64.5 percent) for 469 yards with four game-winning touchdown passes, one interception, no sacks and six runs for 38 yards. He even had three spikes, which give him a 67.8 completion percentage when excluded.
Luck’s dominance on third down is also unseen for a rookie. Here are the final regular-season numbers on third down conversions (spikes and kneel downs excluded).
Where Luck really shined was converting on tough 3rd-and-long situations (needing at least eight yards). He was 35-of-93 for a conversion rate of 37.6 percent. No play magnified this more than the perfect pass for a 70-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-23 to T.Y. Hilton to clinch the win over Houston in Week 17.
That level of excellence at situational football explains how you can go 11-5: Avoid the big mistakes (11 of Luck’s interceptions came in four games, one of which he won in Detroit), and come through in the clutch. Luck did that at the elite level in 2012.
Next level: Breaking down Luck’s stats
At the end of the day, Luck’s 2012 stats will look pedestrian to most eyes. His 23 touchdown passes are the third most ever thrown by a rookie, but the efficiency numbers are not up to par. We have already detailed how the circumstances of his offense make it hard for him to be efficient, but let’s break the numbers down further.
I have been covering Luck’s every drop back each week at Colts Authority. It was a project I planned on starting months before he was even drafted by the Colts, as I thought it would be a pioneering effort to cover a quarterback’s career this way.
The column is called “Following a Legend,” with the double meaning of Luck trying to replace Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and the hopes that he becomes a legend in his own way. By summarizing the drives and analyzing the video for each play, it should serve as a unique collection of detailing every one of Luck’s games. You can find the links to each column in my archives in the Colts Authority section.
While I am confident in my ability to collect data, I have compared my numbers to those produced by other statistical services, such as STATS LLC and Pro Football Focus (PFF) each week. Since it is humanly impossible to do what I do for other quarterbacks, I use these sites to compare Luck to other players. The problem is the three of us have different data for many things.
It has been an eye-opening experience in learning just how much people can see things differently when reviewing the same play. This ranges anywhere from how far the pass was thrown, how many yards were gained after the catch, dropped passes or whether or not the quarterback was pressured.
While I personally have done my best to consistently judge things the same way, as I am sure STATS and PFF also do, there is a level of subjectivity in these advanced stats that should not be ignored when viewing them. I certainly plan on refining my data in the offseason.
What is an indisputable fact is that Luck threw 288 incompletions this season, which is the fourth most ever by a quarterback in one season.
All No. 1 overall picks, so it cannot be that bad, right? But 288 is a lot, and based on my research, here is how they break down for Luck this season.
Some types are obviously more on the quarterback than others, such as the overthrows, underthrows and passes thrown wide. Overthrows have been a bit of a problem with Luck this season. Guess that helps kill the argument for a lack of arm strength, but he definitely missed some plays down the field by being too inaccurate with the long ball this year.
Sometimes you can have a pass that is both overthrown and wide of the mark, so which should it be? Judging the intent on an intentional throwaway is also very subjective. This is all part of the struggle in clarifying such things. For comparison, here is the summary of incompletions based on STATS’ data with their exact titles.
Note this only adds up to 282 incompletions, so they have six plays missing. Using STATS’ data again, here are some incompletion comparisons for Luck against the six elite Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks this season and his two rookie rivals. These numbers are percentages of total attempts in the 2012 regular season.
A “Poor Throw” is the sum of overthrows, underthrows and passes thrown wide. You can see Tom Brady is surprisingly high this year, and Luck is the highest. Of course, you are more likely to have a poor throw when you are throwing deep, but it is what it is.
Passes that get defensed are when the defense gets a hand or two on the ball. Some of them are great defensive plays to prevent completions, while some are just really bad throws right at coverage. Hard to get a read on from a statistical standpoint.
While a lot was being made of Luck’s interception total, there is nothing wrong with his percentage (2.87). The league-average interception percentage was 2.63 percent. In the previous five years, the league-average interception percentage was 2.98 percent.
For Luck to be around the average in interceptions, it is a minor miracle given the pressure and length of passes in this offense. He even had a Hail Mary interception before halftime against the Titans, and that was in the same quarter in which the NFL blew an instant replay on a pick-six when his knee was clearly down.
Luck’s eight spikes to stop the clock led the league, as he was so effective in hurry-up situations at the end of each half. The Colts scored 27 points on those seven drives with spikes (scored on all but two drives). No need to penalize the quarterback there.
According to PFF, no quarterback had more pass attempts when he was hit as he threw than Luck this season. These can be dangerous plays, as the ball often hangs in the air and is an easy target for interceptions.
Passes that get batted at the line of scrimmage are tricky to place the blame on. They sound like a function of bad offensive line play, but is the quarterback still at fault? Is it the offensive linemen’s fault for not holding his block, letting someone through to swat the ball, or the defender disengaging and jumping up to swat the pass? It would seem like a short quarterback is at a disadvantage here, though more work needs to be done.
Having said that, Luck’s 14 passes batted at the line were the fourth most in the league.
Dropped passes are always a fun one. Not an official statistic, it is all in the eye of the beholder. STATS says Luck’s receivers had 36 drops this season, tied for seventh most in the league. PFF has 50, which is the most drops for all quarterbacks this year.
Here’s a secret: Sites do not like counting plays where the receiver catches the ball, gets hit, then…drops the ball as a dropped pass. They like to call that a “defensed” play. Well, if the receiver wouldn’t have dropped the ball, it would have been a catch, so how is this not a drop? Receivers get hit and hold onto the ball all the time, and we count those as catches just the same.
This is why I create two splits for drops: regular drops and defensed-drops, which are those ones where the receiver loses the ball after taking a hit. By that combined standard, Luck had 61 passes this year that his receivers had in their hands and did not come away with the catch. That is a lot of drops for just one season.
Another area of stats I learned has a lot of gray area is “under pressure” data. STATS is very strict on what counts as pressure, while PFF is a lot more lenient. For example, STATS has Luck with 117 pass attempts under pressure compared to 203 for PFF. Luck is pressured on 38.1 percent of his drop backs (290 plays) according to PFF, which they rank as the fourth highest for a quarterback in 2012.
My pressure data falls somewhere in between, as I have Luck with 144 pass attempts and 217 drop backs under pressure. Even though not all pressure is created equally, it is a real obstacle for any quarterback to play well under it.
If you are often trying to throw down the field, getting pressured and receivers are dropping too many passes, then it is going to be difficult to have a good completion percentage. It will be difficult to be efficient.
Quarterbacks who are not efficient are rarely effective, but Luck certainly was effective in 2012. As long as he continues his strong situational play, the better numbers should come soon.
Conclusion: What to expect from Luck in 2013
When you break down Luck’s game, you do see some obvious rookie flaws with the way he can hold onto the ball too long (causing some fumbles), the stubbornness to give up on a play, staring down the receivers and he did have a tendency to overshoot his receivers in 2012.
But there are more positives to take away, and they were not always reflected in his traditional statistics this season.
Some advanced stats did see the value in Luck’s season, as he ranked 11th in ESPN’s QBR with a well-above average mark of 65. That ranking was even higher before a late-season slump that was brought on by the increase in pressure after an offensive line already lacking talent suffered injuries.
No quarterback added more value to his team via penalties (19.3 EPA), as Luck was very good with the hard count and withstood more personal foul penalties from illegal hits by the defense than any quarterback in 2012.
Luck’s rushing EPA (expected points added) was also very high (No. 3), as he had the five rushing touchdowns and ran for 13 first downs on 18 third-down carries (excluding kneel downs).
At Advanced NFL Stats, Luck ranked fourth in Win Probability Added (4.50), which speaks to his late-game heroics. He also was eighth in Expected Points Added (119.3), which is helped out by his third-down efficiency.
It remains to be seen if Luck will repeat this type of season in 2013, but history says he will likely improve his game to where the traditional stats start reflecting the overall impact he delivers.
At Stanford, Luck completed 56.3 percent of his passes his first year (2009) before completing over 70 percent the next two seasons. He is a fast learner and there is no reason he cannot enjoy a Peyton Manning-like jump. Manning went from completing 56.7 percent of his passes as a rookie to 62.1 percent in 1999. He has done nothing but exceeded that mark ever since.
The young receivers (T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener) can improve right along with Luck, and the offensive line should be the top priority in the offseason for GM Ryan Grigson. Better play from the receivers and line will also help out the running game, which all goes back to helping Luck play more efficiently.
There is no certainty Arians will return as offensive coordinator, since he is getting consideration as a head coach now after his 9-3 mark as interim coach. Keeping that kind of consistency is big for a young quarterback, though Luck has the right tools to take on any challenge.
The Colts sure gave him a big challenge this season, and he passed. By already reaching the playoffs, Luck has proven he can carry a NFL team the way a veteran is expected to. Luck’s rookie season should be the new gold standard for how much you can get out of a rookie quarterback when you make him the savior of your franchise.
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.