Why Andrew Luck Finally Has a Legitimate Case for NFL MVP

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystNovember 13, 2014

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a pass as New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul (90) rushes him during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Andrew Luck has been an excellent player since the day he was drafted in Indianapolis. The third-year quarterback has led the Colts to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, looks poised to make that three in a row (per Football Outsiders, the Colts are now at a 98 percent chance to return to the playoffs) and is heading into a Week 11 showdown with quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots that could decide home field in the playoffs. 

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Wilfork w high praise for Luck, lauding his competitiveness, saying Luck may be toughest QB mentally & physically

What Andrew Luck hasn't always been is an empirically impressive quarterback. In his rookie season, Luck finished with just a 55.4 percent completion percentage in former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' downfield attack. Current offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton brought a passing game that found more room underneath, but injuries to tight end Dwayne Allen and wideout Reggie Wayne forced the Colts to feature a bundle of untested receivers alongside second-year pro T.Y. Hilton. 

In 2014, the leap has officially commenced. Hilton has become a true No. 1 receiver, Hamilton has worked on the offense so that running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson are receiving weapons out of the backfield and Luck has shown that when he is spoiled for choice, he makes some pretty damn good decisions. 

Andrew Luck's Career Advanced Statistics
YearTeamDYAR (Rk)DVOA (Rk)QBR (Rk)
2014IND923 (2)22.4% (5)72.9 (6)
2013IND650 (14)4.6% (16)62.0 (8)
2012IND257 (19)-5.1% (19)65.0 (11)
Source: Football Outsiders

It was never hard to understand Luck was great with your eyes alone. He was able to overcome some terrible units, perform trademark Andrew Luck Witchcraft Sessions in the fourth quarter, and could connect on any route on the tree from about the second half of his rookie season on. But now, given enough weapons, we are seeing Luck be statistically great in a way that matches what our eyes always knew. 

Luck currently ranks second in Football Outsiders' DYAR. He has thrown more passes than any quarterback in the league. And, as Aaron Schatz wrote about in his DVOA column at Football Outsiders this week, his basic stats look a little superficially behind some of the other MVP candidates because he has played a pretty tough schedule of pass defenses. It's easy to say that Houston has a bad defense, but what they really have is a poor run defense. Same with Cincinnati and Tennessee

If you stack up Luck against the other MVP candidates, he compares pretty favorably from a descriptive numbers standpoint. By DYAR, he's ahead of every candidate but Peyton Manning. By DVOA, he only trails Manning and Aaron Rodgers by an appreciable amount. 

Potential MVP Candidates, Quarterbacks, 2014
PlayerTeamDVOA (Rk)DYAR (Rk)QBR (Rk)
Peyton ManningDEN33.1% (1)1,037 (1)84.7 (2)
Andrew LuckIND22.4% (5)923 (2)72.9 (6)
Aaron RodgersGB32.7% (2)863 (4)85.5 (1)
Philip RiversSD27.5% (3)750 (6)83.1 (3)
Tom BradyNE23.8% (4)818 (5)75.8 (5)
Source: Football Outsiders

We can talk until we're blue in the face about a potential MVP candidacy for Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, but as good as he's been, the season to reward him with that honor was 2012, and it still didn't happen. Dallas running back DeMarco Murray is going to get some support as well, but he's on the outside looking in, as the devaluation of the position has continued unabated. This is, realistically, a race of quarterbacks. 

Where Luck has the advantage in this race is very simple: He is the player doing the most with the least. Richardson has barely launched off the ground. Outside of cornerback Vontae Davis, the Colts defense has been hit (when defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's blitzes get home) and miss (when they don't). Indianapolis has only one unit that is empirically dragging the rest of the team up: its pass offense. 

Rodgers and Manning both have empirically better defenses. Brady, while perhaps a better story after we left the Patriots for dead in the roadside ditch after the Chiefs embarrassed them on Monday Night Football, has been reliant on a healthy Rob Gronkowski for his resurgence. And I'd argue that the Patriots defense, despite underperforming the Colts empirically, is a much more talented unit. 

DVOA Ranks by Unit, Teams of Players in MVP Contention
PlayerTeamPass Off DVOA (Rk)Run Off DVOA (Rk)Pass Def DVOA (Rk)Run Def DVOA (Rk)
Peyton ManningDEN52.7% (1)-3.9% (14)-9.3% (4)-34.9% (2)
Andrew LuckIND35.2% (6)-16.0% (25)7.8% (18)-3.1% (22)
Aaron RodgersGB43.6% (5)-2.5% (12)3.0% (12)-4.8% (20)
Tom BradyNE49.1% (2)-25.4% (31)8.5% (19)0.1% (26)
Philip RiversSD45.8% (3)-22.0% (28)29.4% (29)-4.9% (19)
Source: Football Outsiders

Luck's only real competition at this table, to me, is Philip Rivers. But, where Rivers' performance may stand out more against his peers, I'd argue that MVP voters probably aren't going to consider that if Rivers can't even make the playoffs. San Diego's playoff odds (again, per Football Outsiders), are at just 13.4 percent. That doesn't erase how good Rivers has been, but it does make me think he won't get rewarded by a crew of writers who are traditionally very focused on the win-loss column. 

For me right now, the MVP is Manning. He's played the best of any quarterback in the league, and I think, once we cut through the arguments about "clutch" and "cold weather," when the media throws up in a vain attempt to keep him human, Manning is also the quarterback who adds the most to his team. 

But the media tires of giving MVPs to Manning. Whenever a legitimate candidate has emerged against him, they've rewarded the underdog rather than going back to the well and giving Manning yet another piece of hardware. 

And if the media is going to continue to do this, Luck is ready. As it was in Indianapolis, he's not a flawless comp for Manning, but he's as phenomenal and talented as any quarterback in the league. And, for once, the numbers back him up. 

Rivers McCown is the AFC South Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Three-Cone Drill podcast. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.