2015 was not a year to remember for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
In 2014, Luck came off a career year with high accolades for his development in his first three years of professional football, throwing for 4,761 yards, 40 TD, 16 INT, and helping lead the Colts to their first AFC title appearance since 2009. As usual, big things were expected for 2015.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan. The Colts went 2-5 with Luck as a starter last season, where he only completed 55.1% of his passes for 1,881 yards, 15 TD, and 12 INT in 7 games. After three games, he was forced the sit out the next two due to an injured shoulder, then came back for four more games before sitting out the rest of the season due to a torn abdominal muscle and lacerated kidney (very descriptive, I know.).
Making things worse, when backup and longtime veteran Matt Hasselbeck started in Luck’s place, and shocked the NFL by putting up more efficient raw stats. Completing 60.9% of his passes for 1,690 yards, 9 TD, and 5 INT in 8 games, the Colts went 5-3 under him. Hasselbeck was also less of a volume passer, as he threw 32 pass attempts per game as opposed to Luck’s 41 pass attempts per game (In addition, he also had 211.3 yards per game as opposed to Luck’s 267.8).
Earlier this season, the Colts gave Luck a 6-year $140M contract extension, making him the highest paid player in the league. This led to some questioning the value of Luck, as well as his efficiency down the road. Add in the fact that his peers, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, have appeared in Super Bowls while he hasn’t (And no: wins are not a quarterback stat), and it’s no wonder some would think this way and express concern for Luck’s future.
With that said, I’m here to tell you that none of this matters. Did Luck struggle in 2015? Absolutely. Was he the absolute farce some have made him out to be last year? Maybe not.
Luck is definitely not a perfect quarterback. Throughout his career, he’s made some pretty dumb turnovers, and this was especially the case last year. This is where comparisons to Brett Favre make sense, as both QBs had a gunslinger attitude to them. On a few plays, he holds on to the ball too long as well, trying too hard at times to make a play happen.
However, these were issues that looked worse than they actually were because of what Luck was playing behind last year. He’s never had a half-decent offensive line, but incredibly, the OL quality looked worse than it already was. Like the Vikings, the offensive line often suffocated the quarterback last year, but where Teddy Bridgewater is one of the more mobile passers in the league, Luck often offers more subtle movement. He still offers impressive escapability, but relies more on his brain than his feet to do so.
Evidently, the Colts pass protection did not give Luck enough chances to find open receivers in 2015.
The 3 GIFs above are the biggest offenders of pass protection. Luck misses on all three of these plays because he’s being hit while throwing, but it’s clear that the pass protection gives him zero time to react. So these misses are almost highlight reel worthy because, in these cases, the results could have been a lot worse.
The Colts’ receivers aren’t a bad group. TY Hilton and Dwayne Allen are both talented, but didn’t really get to shine as much as they did in 2014. When Luck played, the short passing game was not as existent as the downfield game was. This is an issue when you have an offensive line as bad as the Colts. Luck thrives on downfield passing when giving time, but when asked to get rid of it quickly on these passes was where he struggled tremendously.
When Hasselbeck, who himself had a successful career with the Seahawks, came in, the results looked different because the offense changed. Because his arm is weaker than Luck’s, the Colts switched into a dink and dunk style of offense, putting much more emphasis on short passing than downfield passing. Hasselbeck was asked to get rid of the ball far quicker than Luck, and thus the results on the box score became different.
The above chart takes a look at when both Luck and Hasselbeck got the ball out of their hands. For example, >2.0 Sec=passes where the QB got the ball out in less than 2 seconds, 2-2.99 Sec=passes where the QB got the ball out of their hands between 2 and 2.99 seconds, and 4+ sec=passes where the QB got the ball out in more than 4 seconds.
With that in mind, the difference in stats between both quarterbacks is amazing. Hasselbeck has a quicker throwing motion than Luck, but that still doesn’t explain why he has much more >2.0 Sec plays and less 2-2.99 3-3.99 and 4+ Sec plays than Luck. Hasselbeck’s throwing motion partially helped, but what really changed was the scheme the Colts put around their quarterback.
The Colts simplified their offensive scheme when Hasselbeck came in, making it easier to scheme receivers open and for routes to be better developed. The quarterback had his reads simplified in addition, with short passes available from the beginning. This was half of the reason why Hasselbeck’s stats fared better (It has also been suggested that after offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s firing, the scheme changed, and that makes sense.)
The other half is the short passing itself. Football Outsiders’ Cian Fahey created a Simple Yards after Catch stat for his Interceptable Passes Project this year. Fahey tracked Simple YAC by highlighting throws that travelled less than 2 yards downfield, and found that 28.2% of Hasselbeck’s throws were Simple YAC. In comparison, Luck’s Simple YAC was 15.9%.
With the aforementioned information in mind, as a follower told me, it’s irritating that the Colts will simplify their offense for a backup QB, but have their starter get a heavier workload. Hasselbeck played better than expected in 2015, but the scheme was the reason why.
Now let’s move on to Luck. There’s no doubt that Luck was by no means one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Saying that he was even average is a strong word. But while his decision making and play under pressure took a step down from previous years, his best plays reminded us of his greatness and will assure he has many more great years to come.
The play above is incredible. Luck is under immediate pressure when 2 edge rushers corner in on him. While one is able to grab his leg, the quarterback is somehow able to perfectly place the ball into his receiver’s hands for a big gain (the penalty flag, as seen in the GIF, was declined, as it was on the defense).
Luck is also a quarterback capable of throwing his receivers open. On the first play, on 4th down in crunchtime against the Panthers, the Colts face a convert or lose situation. Grief Whalen is being guarded by Luke Kuechly, one of the top linebackers in the league. Luck notices that Whalen is not getting any separation, and right as Kuechly’s back is turned, Luck fires a pass to where only Whalen can get it, getting him open and converting the first down. The 2nd play is a strike, where Luck notices space opening up, climbs it, and throws his receiver open on a beauty.
On plays where Luck didn’t necessarily have to throw his receivers open or be suffocated by his offensive line, he thrived.
In a crazy sequence of events, the pass protection on all three of these plays is pretty decent. The first pass is absolutely beautiful, requiring no changes to make it better. The 2nd pass gives Luck enough time to fire a great pass to Allen for a big gain. The 3rd pass was dropped by Coby Fleener, but I still want to highlight the excellent ball placement as well as the fact that Luck’s protection actually didn’t suck here.
Finally, while Luck was getting pressured on seemingly all fronts in 2015, some of the plays he made under it were amazing.
All four of these throws are extremely impressive in their own unique ways. The first pass shows off Luck’s impressive movement in the pocket, as he is able to evade Patriots defenders. As he evades the 2nd defender, he then rockets the ball to his receiver for a touchdown. The play is impressive because of the movement and the placement Luck offers.
The 2nd play doesn’t seem special at first, but Luck is actually getting hit by Kuechly right after making the throw. Look closely and you can see Kuechly is actually in his eyes, but Luck is able to ignore it and fire a clean, perfect pass safely to his receiver.
The third play features solid sidestepping, as Luck notices a literal crack in the armor of the Colts offensive line. Without panicking, Luck is able to fire another clean pass to his receiver.
The fourth play is the most impressive. With a miscommunication by the Colts OL, a defender is easily able to get after Luck. Despite this, the quarterback stays calm and throws perhaps the greatest pass I’ve ever seen Luck make. The placement on this pass between two defenders (from the best defense in the league in the Broncos no less) is absolutely stunning, and is a reminder of how great Luck can be at his peak.
Luck is of the modern era’s best passers, and 2015 did not change that a bit. The overall pocket movement, reaction to pressure, and decision making were more erratic, as the quarterback appeared a bit uncomfortable and shellshocked in the pocket, but his best moments were among the finest I’ve seen in my history of film watching.
The Colts need to build a scheme around their best player instead of hiding it from him, as well as improve the offensive line so that Luck is not as hit as much as he has been in the course of his career. Starting in 2013, Philip Rivers and the Chargers have run a similar offensive scheme to the one the Colts ran with Hasselbeck, emphasizing getting the rid of the ball quicker and throwing to short routes. Why this has not been planned for Luck already is a mystery, and a frustrating one at that.
Head coach Chuck Pagano has subtly placed a lot of blame on Luck taking hits and holding onto the ball too long, but his failure to give his quarterback an adequate offensive scheme like the one he gave Hasselbeck, combined with Ryan Grigson’s failure to draft significant talent with the run game and protection, speaks far more. Both have received contract extensions, so the hope is both have learned their lessons and will turn a new leaf in 2016.
To conclude, Luck is not a perfect quarterback, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a great one. His ball placement at his prime is wonderful, and the plays he can make under pressure are ones few quarterbacks can even attempt, active or inactive. While 2015 was indeed a step down, there was still more than enough to suggest #12’s magic will not run out soon enough.
(Simple YAC stat via Cian Fahey of Football Outsiders and Pre Snap Reads. Main image via foxsports.com)