Colts must build around Andrew Luck to justify big payday
Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts are in talks over a new contract. With the way the league is today, anything less than a market-setting deal would be a surprise. But has Luck earned that deal so far in his career, and will he ever if the Colts don’t do a better job of surrounding him with talent?
Last season was a disaster for Luck and the Colts. At the time injury finally shut him down for the season, he was ranked 34th in the league in overall grade, and only Matthew Stafford had a worse passing grade. Used to dealing with constant pass-rush pressure, for some reason he just couldn’t overcome it in 2015.
Before that campaign, however, Luck had actually been a remarkably consistent quarterback over his first three seasons in the league—it just wasn’t consistently elite.
Luck’s cumulative overall PFF grades for his first three seasons were +20.2, +25.1, and +23.1 before his nightmare -13.6 last season. That was enough to rank 13th, ninth, and sixth in the NFL, respectively.
His talent was never in question, and Luck has always been a player that can flash almost peerless brilliance, but there has always been an element of “Bad Luck” (sorry) that people often swept under the carpet and rarely dealt with.
Luck has 55 interceptions in 55 career starts, or an interception rate of 2.6 percent of his pass attempts. That is very high in an era where QBs are more careful with the ball than ever. By contrast, it took Aaron Rodgers 105 games to notch 55 picks—his career pick rate is a full percentage point lower at 1.6, and he still only has 65 career interceptions after eight seasons starting.
Aaron Rodgers, of course, is a tough guy to be compared to, but Luck is shooting for a contract that puts him right in that conversation, and when people talk about him, that is the air he finds himself in. Being pretty good isn’t going to cut it for Luck if he’s being paid to be elite.
Despite the disastrous end to 2014 in the AFC Championship game, that season was probably Luck’s best. He threw 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and had the best performance of his career both under pressure and against the blitz. When heat was applied, he had a passer rating of 75.7, and against the blitz it was 112.1.
That was the best Andrew Luck we have seen, and yet there were seven quarterbacks with a better cumulative PFF passing grade when you break down the tape play-by-play (his rushing grade brought him up to sixth overall). He had 13 interceptions that season when under no pressure, which is eight more than Aaron Rodgers had total, or four more than Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tony Romo.
The bottom line is that Luck has always made far too many mistakes over his career. He has a highlight reel that can rival anybody, but quarterback play—more than any other position—is about the body of work from 1,000+ snaps and 600+ dropbacks, and most of the other top passers in the NFL don’t have the same lows, or are simply consistently better on the easy, routine plays.
Even the moments of brilliance aren’t consistent. Luck has mounted a series of fantastic comebacks or late-game surges to win, but over his career when trailing, his passer rating is 79.2, more than 15 points lower than when he has the lead (94.7). In the fourth quarter, his passer rating (86.8) is lower than in the second or third quarters. About the only career split that does make him look consistently able to up his game when it matters most is looking at his performance by down. His passer rating on third down is 89.5 for his career, higher than either first (84.3) or second down (81.3), and on his 16 career attempts on fourth down, he has completed 10 passes for 106 yards, converting 62.5 percent of those do-or-die plays.
“Bad Luck” (again, sorry) isn’t simply a product of his supporting cast. I’m not saying he’s had a great situation to work with, but he has usually had weapons surrounding him. When he arrived in 2012, Reggie Wayne was his top receiver, and was still excellent. Rookie TE Dwayne Allen had an outstanding season, and there were flashes from other role players. The next year was the beginning of Wayne’s decline, but it coincided with the emergence of T.Y. Hilton. The Colts could certainly find him some more options—and ideally beef up the running game—but he hasn’t been all alone out there.
In terms of supporting cast help, however, the real issue around Luck has been the play of his offensive line.
Since he arrived, the team’s O-line has ranked 31st, 25th, 17th, and 15th in PFF’s end-of-season rankings. To their credit, they have been moving up the list each season, but at this rate, Luck will be retiring right around the time they’ve assembled a really top unit to protect him.
All quarterbacks get markedly worse when pressured. Last season, the league-wide passer rating dropped almost 25 points (96.2 to 71.6) when facing pressure. That’s the equivalent in 2015-passer-rating terms of turning Ben Roethlisberger into Matt Cassel simply by applying pressure. For his career, Luck actually suffers more than average when pressured. His average drop is 32.4 points in passer rating. It’s true that he has made some special plays when under pressure, but when looking at the big picture, he suffers as much, if not more, than the average quarterback.
The idea that the O-line wasn’t a big area of need because Luck could overcome their shortcomings is misguided when looking at the big picture.
If the Colts are going to give him an elite, blockbuster contract, then they need to do a better job of surrounding him with weapons and protection on the offensive line.
They have taken shots at both in the past, but the talent acquisition has been wide of the mark.
Investing big in a franchise quarterback is always a complicated issue in today’s era of salary cap and roster management. Luck has clearly shown he can be special, but he has also shown limitations that mean the Colts need to focus not only on his contract, but also on maintaining the ability to surround him with a capable supporting cast. Without improvement on the line or in the skill position talent around him, he may never justify the blockbuster deal he is shooting for.