Red-zone performance is a critical area for offenses. The difference between a field goal and a touchdown can have critical implications, and that's just for one score. When that begins to add up, teams' win totals are undoubtedly affected.
But our perception of play in the red zone can be misconstrued. We have team efficiency red-zone numbers, how often a team scores a touchdown once they reach the red zone, but not necessarily numbers for individuals, namely quarterbacks.
It's easy to use quarterback rating, but that's not particularly helpful. I prefer efficiency by tracking how often quarterbacks create first downs and touchdowns inside the red zone. If a quarterback throws an eight-yard out on second down for a first down after going incomplete the play before, his stat line includes 50 percent complete and a yards per attempt of 4.0. That's not pretty, but the quarterback was successful in creating another chance for his team to score a touchdown.
After the 2012 season, one of the things I dug into and studied was quarterback play in the red zone. Even though the Colts' team performance in the red zone was spotty, coming in 21st according to Team Rankings, Luck was above average in his efficiency in the red zone.
Luck picked up a first down or touchdown on 37.8 percent of his dropbacks in 2012, according to my study, which was good for 11th in the league. For a rookie quarterback on a team with little offensive help around him, that was an incredible number. With Pep Hamilton coming in for the 2013 season, I had high hopes that Luck would see his numbers, and the team's as a whole, rise.
Well part of that did occur.
The Colts improved their team red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 56.9 percent of their trips to the red zone, 10th in the league according to Team Rankings. A large part of this was due to the team's rushing success. In 2012, just 29.5 percent of all rushing attempts in the red zone resulted in a first down or touchdown, ranked 14th in the league. In 2013, however, the Colts raised that number to 40 percent, the best mark in the NFL.
Andrew Luck and the passing game, however, decreased in efficiency in the red zone. Luck only created a first down or touchdown on 30.6 percent of his dropbacks in 2013, while turning the ball over the exact same amount of times (twice).
While I haven't cranked the numbers for each quarterback in the league in 2013 yet, Luck's 30.6 percent would have ranked 28th in the league in 2012, right between Kevin Kolb and Ryan Tannehill. From an elite quarterback, that's not what you want.
Injuries certainly played a factor, as the Colts missed starting left guard Donald Thomas and tight end Dwayne Allen for the entire season. The void left by Allen was particularly harmful. Allen was the Colts' best red-zone receiver in 2012, with a 75 percent catch rate in the red zone and four of his eight targets resulting in touchdowns or first downs.
Contrastingly, Coby Fleener had a catch rate of just 33 percent in the red zone in 2012, and just two of his nine targets resulted in touchdowns or first downs. Fleener would improve his catch rate in 2013, but his success rate stayed relatively the same (see below).
One injury that didn't have a large effect statistically was that of Reggie Wayne. Before Wayne went down with a torn ACL in the Denver game, Luck's red-zone efficiency was just at 31 percent, just .04 percent higher than his full-season marks.
Taking a look at the individuals he was throwing to, we can garner a bit more insight about Luck's season.
Pro-Football-Reference and Kyle J. Rodriguez
It's just three attempts for Da'Rick Rogers, but you see right away the glaring difference a big-bodied receiver can make. Allen was that guy in 2012, and his presence was missed in 2013. If Rogers or Donte Moncrief can develop into a legitimate weapon, the red zone is one area where their size and ball skills will be very useful.
Fleener, on the other hand, saw his catch rate rise as a product of the type of targets he was seeing, rather than a jump in performance. In 2013, Fleener saw more underneath routes that the defense was willing to concede, routes that didn't result in a first down or touchdown. Fleener isn't particularly dynamic after the catch, so if he didn't catch the ball in the end zone, chances were he wasn't going to make it there.
That being said, Fleener did flash those high-pointing abilities that made him such a unique prospect back in 2012, as seen in this two-point conversion against Houston.
This particular play doesn't show up in the charting because it was a conversion, but it was a flash of red-zone potential that the Colts desperately need. Fleener shows great concentration and body control to reel in the catch, something that has been inconsistent for him in his career. Now if he can just work on holding onto the ball through contact, he'll be set to go.
One would hope that the big-bodied Hakeem Nicks would help in the red zone, but his 2013 was abysmal in the red zone. Nicks was targeted 13 times in the red zone, and the only two targets that resulted in a first down or touchdown were two defensive pass interference penalties.
Nicks has actually been steadily declining over the last three years. It will be very interesting to see if he can bounce back with Luck throwing him the ball in Indianapolis. He can't possibly be worse than Darrius Heyward-Bey, right?
Pro-Football-Reference and Kyle J. Rodriguez
Then there are changes that Luck needs to make as well. As much as the play-calling has been criticized under Pep Hamilton, Luck has struggled with consistently making quick, sound decisions. He was fairly secure with the ball in the red zone last season, but he has to do a better job of reading the defense correctly prior to the snap.
I'd also like to see Luck be more willing to improvise. One of Luck's greatest abilities is how he can avoid rushers in the pocket and extend a play. He does a great job of keeping his eyes down the field and finding open receivers or open running lanes.
At times under Hamilton, he would trust the play too much and throw to a covered receiver. Adaptability is a quarterback's greatest asset, and Luck has it aplenty. He can move outside the pocket, get open throwing lanes and be great. It's just a question of doing it consistently, like just about anything in the NFL.