In 2012, Andrew Luck had one of the most impressive rookie seasons by a quarterback in history. He led a previously 2-14 team to the playoffs through nail-biting comebacks, efficient running and a little bit a luck. His 4,374 total passing yards set a new rookie record, and though his efficiency stats didn't show it, he put Indianapolis fans at ease.
One stat that helped illustrate Luck's brilliance, however, was his performance on third down. Luck had the highest third-down success rate by a rookie quarterback ever and was the league leader in converting long third downs (eight or more yards).
That 2012 season seemed magical at times, and Luck's ability to churn out first downs was a big reason why.
So, when the Colts offense struggled at times in 2013, going three-and-out and generally being inconsistent, it was the third downs that stuck out the most. Luck simply wasn't having the same success.
Once the season was over, the numbers confirmed that.*
In 2013, Luck was 28th in the league in passing third downs, converting them just 35.8 percent of the time. Now, Luck was extremely effective running the ball, but even when including rushes, Luck finished just 17th in the league at 39.13 percent.
When adjusted for distance, Chase Stuart of Football Perspective found that Luck actually gained nearly nine third downs less than what would have been expected from an average quarterback. Only E.J. Manual picked up fewer first downs relative to expectation.
So why the step back in 2013, and will it improve in 2014? To answer that, I needed to take a closer look.
*As I did after the 2012 season, I recently tracked every third down for every quarterback with at least 50 third-down attempts (42 in total). I adjusted for spikes, kneel-downs and penalties to come up with complete third-down conversion statistics.
A Subpar Group of Receivers
It's become old hat to blame Luck's supporting cast for his statistical struggles, but there is so much data that supports it, it's impossible to ignore.
Consider this: Before Reggie Wayne tore his ACL, Luck was converting third downs 49.47 percent of the time, which would have edged out Peyton Manning for second in the league. After Wayne was injured, Luck's third-down performance—and the team's consistency—plummeted, as Luck converted just 33 percent of his third downs.
It makes sense.
Wayne was Luck's leading wide receiver on third down during his rookie year (converting over 13 percent more than Donnie Avery), and Wayne and T.Y. Hilton were well ahead of the pack in 2013.
Kyle J. Rodriguez
Losing Wayne, especially after already losing Dwayne Allen early in the season, gave Luck a bare cupboard to work with for the back half of 2013. Combine that with a putrid pass-protecting offensive line, and you get some ineffective third-down play.
In the first half of the season, Luck was playing fantastic on third downs, aided by his confidence in his receivers. According to Stuart, this time in an article for The New York Times, Luck had the league's best QBR on third down through Oct. 8 (the time the article was written).
That included plays like this:
After the injury, however, Luck had to acclimate young receivers like Da'Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen into the offense. Without the familiarity of Wayne, Luck didn't have a security blanket when the pocket began collapsing, which was often. An already suspect offensive line did not look any better when players failed to get open down the field, and Luck was forced to hang on to the ball.
With Wayne and Allen returning in 2014, along with veteran Hakeem Nicks and rookie Donte Moncrief, Luck should have no shortage of weapons. Barring catastrophe, Luck won't be forced to rely on players like undrafted free agents Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers as primary targets in 2014.
A Change in Scheme
While the loss of individual players was a significant blow to the Colts offense, it doesn't completely explain the inconsistency in 2013.
One of the issues in Pep Hamilton's scheme was poor route combinations on third down, particularly in the first half of games. At one point late last season, the Colts had converted just five of their last 40 third-down attempts in the first half, according to Kevin Bowen of Colts.com.
According to Hamilton at the time, the key for Indianapolis was to get into more "manageable" situations on third down. But the Colts got into plenty of manageable situations last season. In fact, the Colts had the lowest average yards to go on third and fourth downs, as a team. For individuals, only Philip Rivers and Matt McGloin faced shorter third downs on average than Luck.
The problem for Luck and the Colts wasn't that the third downs were too long. The problem, well, one of them, was that the route combinations frequently didn't match the yards needed to get a first down.
Another week, another third down play where the routes don't reach the first-down marker. pic.twitter.com/QheXXBBFlY— Kyle J. Rodriguez (@ColtsAuth_Kyle) October 23, 2013
One problem, as illustrated in the tweet above, was not sending enough players past the first down marker on longer third downs. This can be especially seen in Coby Fleener's performance. Under Bruce Arians, Fleener converted five of nine targets for first downs, a 55.6 percent rate.
That's a small sample size to be sure, but it's still interesting to note. Under Pep Hamilton in 2013, Fleener converted just 31.8 percent, and a big reason why was his routes breaking short of the first-down marker.
On this play, for example, there are just three options: two go routes down the sidelines and a shallow crossing route by Fleener. First of all, it's a bad combination in general. The two go routes down the sideline are designed to work the field vertically and open up space, but a four-yard crossing route doesn't fill that space in the intermediate part of the field.
The only way this play works is if the defense is playing man-to-man coverage and the slot receiver, in this case Fleener, can outrun his defender across the field to get open and avoid getting tackled by his mark. If that were to happen, there would likely be space for yards after the catch down the left sideline, where space would have been vacated by the wideout.
But therein lies the second problem: For this personnel, this play is an awful choice. Against the Cover 2 look by Arizona, there is only one possible target: Fleener. And this isn't some slow linebacker that Fleener can just outrun across the field, it's Tyrann Mathieu (blue). Mathieu reads the play easily, sticks with Fleener across the field and knocks the ball away.
With just three players going out for passes, the Cardinals can safely commit six defenders to pass rush and keep Luck contained in the pocket. Luck escaping was really the only threat on this play, and the defenders do a good job of holding their gaps and keeping their eyes on Luck while a few make their moves. Luck is forced to get rid of it to Fleener, and the punt team is headed onto the field.
I am shocked, I tell you. Shocked. pic.twitter.com/wHksv05cuN— Kyle J. Rodriguez (@ColtsAuth_Kyle) June 13, 2014
But even when Fleener caught the ball on those short routes, he generally didn't convert the first down.
He's not a strong after-the-catch threat, and the plays simply didn't work in themselves to give him the space necessary to get first downs.
Here's another one.
And another. Just one receiver on this, and the previous play, ran a route that reached the first-down marker.
It was a consistent issue, either sending everybody deep on short third downs or not enough people deep on longer third downs.
With a more talented personnel group in 2014, the Colts may be able to get away with this kind of thing, especially if Luck is given more control at the line of scrimmage. But it's not ideal for any offense, much less one with Andrew Luck, one of the most talented quarterbacks to hit the gridiron in years.
A Blip on the Radar
All signs point to this being a down year for Luck, due to some extenuating circumstances, rather than the start of a new trend. No, Luck wasn't perfect on third down, but his tape doesn't look like one of a quarterback who simply can't handle the pressure and makes poor decisions.
It simply looks like a quarterback who was overwhelmed at times, who was pressured early and often on third downs and occasionally tried to do too much. Even still, Pro Football Focus graded Luck as the fifth-best quarterback on third down last year, despite his low success rate.
Not only should improved targets help in 2014, but the acclimation of younger players to Hamilton's system, as well as Hamilton's development as a coordinator, should put Luck in better situations to succeed. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll have shorter third downs, it's difficult to improve there when you lead the league. But Luck should see more intuitive play designs that fit his receivers' skillsets in 2014, that is if Hamilton evolves in to the coordinator many executives around the league think he can be.
But even if Hamilton's play calls don't improve drastically, we should see much more efficient group, as evidenced by Luck's numbers during the first half of 2013.
The ball should bounce his way in 2014, which bodes well for Indianapolis. When Luck is cooking, nothing but good happens for the horseshoe.