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His Career at a Crossroads, Andrew Luck and the Colts Have Work to Do to Save It

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutJune 26, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 01:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts avoids a tackle by Malik Jackson #90 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during a game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 1, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The Colts defeated the Jaguars 24-20.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts selected Andrew Luck first overall in the 2012 draft, and through his first three seasons, Luck did just about everything one could expect of a franchise quarterback for a franchise that has surrounded him with lackluster personnel. Luck's totals from 2012 through '14 were singularly impressive—1,062 completions in 1,813 attempts for 12,957 yards, 86 touchdowns and 43 interceptions—especially when you factor in the draft and free-agency blunders from former general manager Ryan Grigson. (In January, not surprisingly, Grigson was fired after compiling a five-year draft record that was problematic at best, and forging a relationship so dysfunctional with head coach Chuck Pagano that it had the team consulting psychologists.

Despite those issues, the Colts finished 11-5 in each of Luck's first three years and reached the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. Luck's postseason totals have not been as impressive—147 completions in 260 attempts for 1,829 yards, nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions—but after a 2014 regular season in which he led the league with 40 touchdown passes, it was thought by many that Luck could continue to lift his average running game, decent receiving corps (with the exception of the spectacular T.Y. Hilton) and OK defense to play at a level beyond their talent.

If you were to magically superimpose Luck into another team with a more diverse offense, better pass protection and a running game that balanced things out and forced defenses to focus on all aspects of the offense equally, there's little question he'd be in a better spot. Luck did manage a good season in 2016—he played in 15 games, completed a career-high 63.5 percent of his passes and threw 31 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.  

Still, the Colts couldn't post a winning record. That was more about a defense that finished 27th against the pass and dead last against the run in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metricsand an offensive line that ranked 28th in FO's pass-protection stats, lending more credence to the notion that Luck needs far more help than he's getting, and that the burden of carrying a league-average team (or worse) is starting to take its toll.

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Attrition is an issue. Luck has missed 10 games over the last two seasons because of various injuries, and he's currently recovering from offseason surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder. Though he's done his best to play through it, the shoulder has been an issue for Luck for most of the last two seasons since he first injured it in Week 3 of the 2015 season against the Tennessee Titans, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells.

Dec 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) looks on against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Colts defeated the Vikings 34-6. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

As a result, the Colts have fallen on harder times. They're 16-16 in the last two seasons, and as the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans start to ascend, Luck and his team won't have the benefit they had in those first three seasons of beating up on relatively weak divisional foes.

A franchise reset is clearly in order.

New GM Chris Ballard is a respected personnel man, and the hope is that he'll do a better job of filling the roster with talent at all positions and providing Luck with the tools he needs to succeed. While Luck has not been a disappointment at any level, one could ask the question: How high is his ceiling, and what can the Colts do to help him reach it?

The common narrative around Luck's recent career is that he's been transcendent despite a horrid offensive line and pedestrian targets. There is some truth to that—Grigson didn't do the team any favors at any position from a depth perspective—but Luck's 2016 tape also showed some issues related to performance and scheme that must be addressed when he's once again healthy enough to throw a football.

When that is, however, remains a bit of a mystery.

"We are not going to be rushing him," owner Jim Irsay said in May, per Stephen Holder of IndyStar.com. "We are going to make sure, obviously, that the shoulder has to be ready and the doctors are going to give full approval before he starts putting real reps on it. We really feel that he's going to be completely healed for the season and he's going to have a great season."

A great season? Perhaps. The kind of season you'd expect from a first overall draft pick coming into his sixth season? There are some fixes that need to be made before that's anywhere near a sure thing.

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Luck has worked with three different offensive coordinators during his time with the Colts. In 2012 there was Bruce Arians, whose high-risk, high-reward deep passing attack was a near-perfect match for Luck's skills. Pep Hamilton next had the job for two-and-a-half seasons until he was fired in November 2015, and Luck seemed to thrive when healthy in a more balanced attack. Then, the Colts promoted associate head coach Rob Chudzinski to the offensive coordinator role in January 2016.

Chudzinski is perhaps best known as the man who was tasked with helping Cam Newton transition from the option offense he ran in college to the pro-style game he needed to learn in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers in 2011 and '12. Carolina's route concepts were not complex, but Newton combined his athleticism and increasing understanding of the game to create a potent brew.

However, Chudzinski's route concepts in the Colts' system created problems for Luck. From his Stanford days under Jim Harbaugh and through his time in the NFL (especially under Arians), Luck has been used to well-developed passing schemes and routes. He's been a full-field reader since before he came into the NFL, and his current receivers are not generally practiced at the kinds of physical battles one needs to win if one is going to get and stay open in the isolation routes Chudzinski calls for, especially against aggressive coverage.

Based on what I see, this is the primary cause of one of Luck's most bizarre statistical splits last season. Of his 13 interceptions, eight came on passes thrown 1-20 yards in the air, per ESPN.com, which is a higher percentage than you generally want to the short and intermediate areas. In addition, 11 of those 13 picks came on throws to the left or right sideline.

To be fair, the problem may not be all on Chudzinski's schemes. In his 40-touchdown season of 2014, Luck threw 16 interceptions, and 13 of them came on throws from 1-20 yards in the air. Eight of those picks came on throws of 10 yards or fewer—that's just not good. Consider that in 2016, fellow 2012 draftee Russell Wilson threw six interceptions on throws traveling 11-20 yards in the air—and none on the one- to 10-yard throws. That's obviously a far more acceptable ratio in any offense. Franchise quarterbacks aren't supposed to get their lunch eaten on the short stuff.

Let's look at this second-quarter interception against the Chargers in Week 3. Here, the Colts have a simple 3-by-1 receiver set with a tight end to the right of the formation. Chester Rogers (No. 80) is the outside right receiver, and he's covered tightly by cornerback Casey Hayward. Rogers gets outside position and makes a quick angle on the comeback—but he doesn't body Hayward out of the play, and Hayward easily jumps the route.

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This second-quarter interception against the Chiefs in Week 8 is to the left side and farther away from the sideline, but the result is similar. The more I watched these types of plays, the more I think there's been a drumbeat around the league: Bait the Colts' receivers on sideline routes and then jump those routes, because you won't get a ton of resistance. Here, Donte Moncrief (No. 10) is the outside left receiver, covered by Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines (No. 23). Watch how Gaines backs off coverage before the snap and then bulls his way through the route with far more physicality than Moncrief provides.

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When receivers allow this to happen, they're allowing defenders to play off for the deep ball and providing no penalty when they come back to jump the route. The lack of a physical outside receiver is affecting this offense negatively, and it really shows up on plays like this.

Luck was more efficient on deep passes, but those plays often had schematic problems that defenses found too easy to solve. Under Chudzinski, the Colts call a lot of deep isolation routes, which task the receivers to get open with their speed and physicality as opposed to offensive design. This is a problem in the modern NFL, when nickel defenses and hybrid coverages are the order of the day. You need to meet advanced schemes with advanced schemes, unless you have a bunch of very fast, Godzilla-sized receivers who can simply beat the daylights out of the cornerbacks covering them.

In 2016, the Colts were Godzilla-free.

This interception against the Packers in Week 9 shows the problem. The Colts are operating out of a tight bunch left formation, and at the snap, two of Luck's targets to the left run straight vertical routes with slight post tails at the end. Tight end Jack Doyle (No. 84), the inside receiver to the left side, then runs a comeback to Luck, who has bailed from the pocket and is moving to his left. But the depth of the route seems to be a problem—Doyle can't get back in Luck's range, because the quarterback is pressured by Packers cornerback Micah Hyde (No. 33), and Luck can't get the ball out of his hands before Hyde obstructs the play. Luck overthrows the pass, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix gets a gift-wrapped pick downfield.

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This is an instance in which Luck would benefit from the kinds of route combinations you often see out of bunch formations. But with tight end Dwayne Allen (No. 83) staying in to block, and Doyle and Moncrief (the outside left receiver) running deep routes, Luck has no relief—no safety valve. That's a lot to ask of any quarterback on a consistent basis.

None of this is meant to imply that Luck is some kind of abject disaster—of course, he isn't. Like most young players with tremendous potential, he has flaws that occasionally get in the way. And those flaws need to be addressed and corrected before Luck will be able to perform on a level expected of the best quarterbacks in the game.

Right now, he can alternate between efficient and messy. The messy stuff is clear. He throws late to his backside reads, he throws into double coverage at times when he clearly shouldn't, he needs to develop a more consistent radar for converging coverages, and he has a tendency to run himself into sacks at times. These are common issues for young quarterbacksLuck will be 28 in September—and he certainly has the mental acuity to progress past these issues. After years of lifting the talent around him to a disproportionate level, Luck may have talked himself into a series of scenarios in which he must do more than the play calls for. The best quarterbacks in history eventually come around to the same understanding: You do what the offense calls for as efficiently as you can.

The addition of former Ravens receiver Kamar Aiken (6'2", 215 lbs.) might give Luck a boost in the big-receiver department, and Ballard may well give Luck more and better support over timethough it was odd that in his first draft as a GM, Ballard didn't select a single receiver.

But in the short term, it's also on Chudzinski to expand the playbook to incorporate routes that are more favorable to Indy's faster, less physical receivers. Such receivers benefit from designed openings, and there aren't enough of those in this passing offense.

Andrew Luck is at a crossroads. He could spend the next few seasons building on the potential of his first three years, or he could continue to lose his current war of attrition. Like most major projects with potentially revelatory results, it will take a village for the best outcome to happen.

   

Doug Farrar covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @BR_DougFarrar.

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