If anyone was ever a franchise quarterback, it was Andrew Luck, the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts’ owner, Jim Irsay, suggested he would be better than his predecessor, the certain to be Cantonized Peyton Manning. Indeed, Luck had as much arm as Manning, comparable size (6-4, 240 pounds), and far more mobility, which was supposed to give him unique escapability from a pass rush.
But too often Luck has run into trouble instead of away from it. His coach, Chuck Pagano, complains of him playing “like a linebacker, with a linebacker’s mentality. He can’t do that all the time. We love how he extends plays, but he’s got to be smart and know when to slide.”
Now, for the first time in his football career, Luck’s intelligence is coming under question – not what you’d expect from a Stanford grad and son of an NFL quarterback. He brought this on not only with some catastrophic on-field decisions but by revealing in an interview – in London, of all places — that he sometimes forgets the play after he calls it, that he has to turn around and ask the fullback for help.
This may not be comforting to a team that in this offseason bestowed a $140 million contract on Luck that made him the highest-paid football player ever.
So will there now be questions about ADHD?
The franchise quarterback is entering his fifth season, which means he’s had enough time to master his craft and collect his senses. He’s about to be 27, that magical age when an athlete’s physical skills, the strength and speed, are still at their peak, heightened now by – theoretically at least — knowledge and wisdom.
Luck is just four months younger than Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback who’s the reigning Most Valuable Player of the NFL.
Perhaps Luck has been trying too hard to be like Cam, relentlessly powering his way toward the end zone. Luck has scored 12 rushing touchdowns in his four pro seasons, a respectable total, but Newton has 43, and that gap is not likely to narrow.
Luck’s playing style also brings comparison to Ben Roethlisberger rolling away from pressure, clutching the ball as long as possible to provide receivers time to reach open areas. This approach produces thrilling long-distance plays but continual injuries to the quarterback, be it Big Ben or the almost as big Andrew.
Luck missed nine games last season, with assorted ailments related to his right shoulder, ribs and abdomen before his season was ended altogether by a lacerated kidney.
He’s presumed fully healed, though the shoulder bears scrutiny. The Colts would like to see Luck develop more attention to his health and survival. Perhaps as a role model: Aaron Rodgers, a bit smaller than Luck, at 6-2, 225, equally mobile and creative, but more sensible about his scrambling, and willing to slide to safety.
In eight seasons as Green Bay’s starting quarterback, Rodgers has missed a total of nine starts – the number Luck accumulated in 2015.
For Luck to become the FQB he’s supposed to be, he needs to pick up where he left off in 2014, breaking Manning’s record with 40 touchdown passes.
The regression from 2014 to 2015 is not short of astonishing. Luck’s passer rating last season was the lowest of his career, 74.9, was worse than that of his backup, the since retired Matt Hasselbeck.
Luck threw only 17 TDs, suffered 12 interceptions. The Colts won three games with Luck, five without him, and gave up their ownership of the AFC South to Houston.
The Texans have their own quarterback issue, Brock Osweiler searching for consistency that eluded him in Denver. And like the Colts, the Texans have a reshuffled line that must prove it can protect.
Pass protection begins at left tackle, where Anthony Castonzo last season was not much of a shield for Luck. Castonzo missed three games with injuries and was barely present in a couple of others. But he’s been very solid in previous seasons, and he’s 27, perfectly aged. The blind side is also stout at left guard, with Jack Mewhort returning as the starter and ascending at 24.
But elsewhere Indy’s O-line is a patchwork of mediocrity and inexperience. General manager Ryan Grigson is more drawn to players catching for Luck than blocking for him. He drafted Phillip Dorsett on the first round in 2015 even though he had two other talented young wide receivers in T.Y Hilton and Donte Moncrief.
It might help Luck if Grigson got serious about a running game. Frank Gore at 33 will try as hard as anyone but is nowhere near the breakaway runner he was two and three years ago in San Francisco. He’s backed up, unconvincingly, by the overly traveled Robert Turbin and Jordan Toddman. Nobody here is a screen-play threat who can slow the rush on Luck.
Pagano, whose own job was in jeopardy, replaced 11 of his assistants but stayed with Rob Chudzinski as offensive coordinator, who replaced Pep Hamilton last November. Chud hasn’t had much time working with Luck, who’s had three very different offensive coordinators in three years.
What Chud has is an endorsement few can match. He was former OC with the Carolina Panthers, and Cam Newton credited him with developing his pro game.
But who knows if such multi-option quarterbacking has a long-term future? Only one other athlete has played the position that way, and not for long. Is Cam Newton the next RG3?
And where does Luck – of all kinds — factor in here? We can expect the new playbook to create maximum opportunity for him to throw deep to Hilton. And undeneath again and again to Moncrief and Dorsett.
And we already see Pagano subtly nudging Chud toward a policy of protectionism, whether or not the quarterback wants it.
Still, given the limitations of Indy’s running backs and O-linemen, there may be no scheming out of Luck playing too much of a role, and too much of a roll.
Houston and Jacksonville have more balance, more depth on offense and defense and a pass rush that can exploit the Colts’ persistent weakness: potecting their main investment.
If it’s not too early to make a prediction on the next football season, I like Indianapolis to finish third in the AFC South, behind Jacksonville and Houston.