The Colts’ offense looks like an All-Rookie Team that actually took the field instead of just getting voted into a magazine. Andrew Luck at quarterback. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end. T.Y. Hilton at wide receiver. Vick Ballard at running back. These guys should still be figuring out where the lavatories are in team headquarters and what the little symbols at the bottom of the playbook pages mean. Instead, they have the same win-loss record as the Steelers and Patriots.
The lynchpin of the Colts' rookie attack is Luck, of course. Luck operated in the shadow of GriffinSanity and RussellMania in the first half of the season. Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson do lead Luck in efficiency rating (Griffin 93.9; Wilson 87.2; Luck 79.0), but Luck blows the rookie competition away in several categories. Luck has thrown for 400 more yards than Griffin and 700 more yards than Wilson in one fewer game. He has completed 37 passes of 20 or more yards, compared to 28 for Griffin and 19 for Wilson. Football Outsiders ranked Luck second to Griffin in their DYAR metric (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) entering Sunday’s games, but the results may be flipped once this week’s numbers are done cookin’.
The higher yardage and big-play totals reveal a key difference between Luck and the other rookies in his class. Despite a huddle full of rookies, the Colts offense isn’t as child-proofed as the offenses run by Griffin and Wilson (and Ryan Tannehill in Miami and Brandon Weeden in Cleveland). There are few option plays or run-dominated gameplans. There’s no relying on Marshawn Lynch or Reggie Bush or the defense. Luck must throw downfield and make plays in difficult situations for the Colts to be successful.
As the season goes on, Luck keeps getting better and better in those difficult situations.
The Conversion Factor
Third-and-long conversions are a challenge for any quarterback. For rookies, third and long can be a true test of a passer’s development. The play-action rollout pass is out the window. So is the zone-read option. Rookie quarterbacks must throw into ready defenses to convert on third down. That means making smart reads and throwing accurate passes on time, with no bells, whistles or training wheels.
Table 1 shows Andrew Luck’s game-by-game passing totals on third down and eight or more yards per go. When the season started, Luck looked like a typical rookie. Last week, he looked like Joe Montana circa 1984.
Table 1: Andrew Luck on Third and Long
The gradual improvement shown there is striking. Note that Luck has not been sacked on third and long since Week 2; sacks are a “hidden consequence” of starting a rookie quarterback, one that doesn’t show up in the efficiency ratings. Luck also does not scramble for yardage as much as he did early in the season, though he did complete several passes on the run against the Dolphins. Even when Luck completes a pass that does not yield a first down, he still gets results: a 13-yard pass on third and 14 against the Dolphins set up a chip-shot field goal.
Let’s compare Luck’s third-and-long statistics to those of the other rookie quarterbacks -- and what the heck, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning this year --- in Table 2. First downs and touchdowns are lumped together:
Table 2: Rookies and Hall of Famers on Third and Long, 2012
On third and long, Griffin becomes an expert at passing short of the sticks, a by-product of an offense built around play action and the run threat. The Seahawks don’t ask much of Wilson on third and long. Tannehill and Weeden throw downfield more often, with about half the success that Luck has achieved. Griffin, Wilson and Tannehill are greater threats to run than Luck, but relying on the scramble on third down is not a sound long-range option. When it comes to passing, Luck blows the competition away.
None of this is meant as an indictment of the other rookie quarterbacks. As the table shows, Peyton Manning is struggling on third and long this season; like the Seahawks, the Broncos play it safe because of their fine defense and precious commodity under center. But the similarity between Luck’s numbers and Brady’s is most striking. Both take their shots past the sticks on third down, and both produce results. The big difference: So far this season, Luck has actually been better.
Tale of the Tape
Let’s take a look at an example of what Luck does so well on third down from the Titans game two weeks ago. This play includes a guest appearance by one of the other Colts rookies: Luck’s college teammate and bestie, Coby Fleener.
The figure shows the Colts facing third and 10 midway through the second quarter. Look at all the nonsense the Titans are throwing at the rookie quarterback! Their three-man front is split incredibly wide because they do not fear the run. Three linebackers are showing blitz. The cornerbacks are in soft coverage, the safeties deep. The blitz is more bark than bite -- only one outside linebacker will rush Luck -- but the crazy front is designed to throw off both the blocking scheme and Luck’s reads. The Titans are just playing man coverage with two deep safeties, plus one linebacker playing zone in the short middle of the field once it's clear that the running back is staying in to block.
Luck has two receivers running leveled out-routes on the right side, while the split end “takes the lid off” the defense by running a deep route. Plays like this are designed to make the quarterback read only one side of the field: a smart accommodation for a rookie, but hardly a draw play. Luck looks first to Reggie Wayne (87), the Splinter of the Colts’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles attack. Wayne runs his out at just under 10 yards, making him an inviting target who could tiptoe just past the first-down marker. The defender covering Wayne reads Luck’s eyes, however, and sits on that route.
Luck adjusts quickly, sidesteps a pass rusher, and looks to Fleener, running his out at a depth of 15 yards. The linebacker covering Fleener was feigning blitz at the snap and employed an inside technique in pass coverage: he's in no position to stop an out-route, and Luck knows it. Luck’s pass to Fleener is actually a split-second late; Luck double-clutches before throwing, giving Wayne’s defender a chance to change directions and converge on the throw. But Luck delivers a laser, on target, netting 15 yards and a first down.
On this play, Luck read a fake blitz, looked off his primary receiver, moved in the pocket to buy time and found an open secondary receiver. These are advanced quarterback tactics. The double-clutch suggests that he still has room to grow, but that was a great play for a guy making his seventh NFL start. And he made even greater plays on Sunday in his eighth start.
The Kids Are All Right
There's nothing wrong with putting the rubber baby buggy bumpers on the offense when a rookie is under center. Griffin’s pistols-and-options offense has given defenses fits. Wilson’s Seahawks can win with a run-run-BOMB approach. Tannehill has shown a lot of promise. Weeden … well, he shows that even with training wheels, some rookie quarterbacks fall over.
Of all the rookie quarterbacks, Luck has made the greatest strides toward running a full-fledged NFL offense. And the other Colts rookies are growing up with him: Allen and Hilton have combined for 21 receptions in the last two games (Fleener was hurt on Sunday), Ballard has rushed for 199 yards in three games and is starting to make an impact as a receiver.
Luck set a rookie passing record on Sunday, which is great, and he has thrown for the exact same number of yards as Peyton Manning, which is unusual. But appraising rookies is not about tabulating statistical tidbits, but about evaluating fundamentals and progress. Luck has been most impressive in the last few weeks once you look past the raw numbers.
The Redskins have some exciting rookies around Griffin, too. In a few years, we may see Luck and Griffin in the Super Bowl. But in this year's playoffs, we will probably only see Luck.
All stats provided by Football Outsiders.