The score was 41-31 Kansas City Chiefs just a few minutes into the fourth quarter of the AFC wild card game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts had previously been down 38-10 but had since gone on a 21-3 run. With just 10:45 left in the game and at the two yard line, the Colts offense knew they needed to score. They handed it to Donald Brown, who had fumbled just one time in 577 career carries (and that came in his rookie season in 2009) and who had scored the previous two touchdowns for Indianapolis.
Fumble. At the worst time possible.
The ball bounced backwards, right to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. This was second and goal - they would still have another play if they recovered it, all they needed to do was recover the fumble. Quarterbacks are told to just secure the ball and nothing more. Instead, Luck scooped it up, tucked the ball, and took off up the middle. Before anyone could figure out what was going on, Luck was diving across the goal line. Touchdown, Colts. "Are you kidding me?" NBC color analyst Mike Mayock exclaimed. "Talk about Luck!" play by play man Dan Hicks added.
That's exactly what it was. It was Luck, doing whatever it took to score. It was Luck, throwing for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns to overcome 3 interceptions and a 28-point deficit to beat the Chiefs. It was Luck, once again proving that the Colts are lucky to have him.
"Usually a quarterback just knows innately to not pick up a fumble and do a Walter Payton over the goal line," general manager Ryan Grigson said of Andrew Luck. "That's his mindset. He plays like a linebacker. He's built like a tight end. He's tough. And we've tried to wean him off some of those things and he's done better. He's slid a lot more and it's just a progression. And sometimes you want him to run it because he's got some wheels, I mean the guy can really run. So it's a delicate balance because he is your franchise."
On the Colts next drive following Luck's fumble recovery for a touchdown, receiver T.Y. Hilton ran past the defense with ease. Luck hit him perfectly in stride deep and Hilton trotted in for a 64-yard touchdown to complete a 28-point comeback and put the Colts ahead for the first time in the game. They won 45-44.
By all means, Andrew Luck's 2013 season was a tremendous success. The 24-year old took major steps in his second year in the league and led his Colts to a second straight 11-5 season, their first AFC South championship, and their first playoff victory.
On the season, Luck completed 343-of-570 passes (60.18%) for 3,822 yards, 23 touchdowns, and only 9 interceptions while having a passer rating of 87. He rushed 63 times for 377 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 5.98 yards per carry. He led the Colts to 3 game winning drives and 3 fourth quarter comebacks in the regular season, and another one of each in the playoffs against the Chiefs. In the playoffs, Luck completed 57 percent of his passes for 774 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while rushing 8 times for 50 yards.
Last year, he became the most prolific passer for a rookie ever, and this year he became the most prolific passer for a player through his first two seasons ever. And he improved on his rookie season, too. Take a look at this chart of some of the comparable stats:
|Completion %||54.07%||60.18%||+ 6.11%|
|Yards Per Attempt (Pass)||6.98||6.71||- 0.27 YPA|
|TD %||3.67%||4.04%||+ 0.37%|
|INT %||2.87%||1.58%||+ 1.29%|
|Passer Rating||76.5||87.0||+ 10.5|
|Yards Per Attempt (Rush)||4.11||5.98||+ 1.87 YPA|
|Points Per Game (Team)||22.31||24.44||+ 2.13 points|
Luck had a lot to deal with this season. He had a new offensive coordinator after Bruce Arians became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. His former offensive coordinator from Stanford, Pep Hamilton, was hired in the same role with the Colts but Luck still had to adjust from playing in Arians' offense - where the passing game was based around deep passing - to Hamilton's offense - whose passing game consists of more short to intermediate level throws. It was an adjustment to say the least, and on top of that the coaching staff had their minds set on being a running football team. They frequently wouldn't really turn to Luck to win a game until they had put themselves in a hole. Luck wasn't completely absolved of blame for the holes, but he really wasn't given that much of a chance to win games earlier in the year until it was either too late or he had to pull it out with a fourth quarter comeback. Later in the year they finally began to adjust and Luck thrived, but it wasn't always smooth sailing with Hamilton this year - although he improved greatly as the season went on.
Additionally, Luck had to deal with numerous injuries to the offense. The Colts placed 17 players on injured reserve total this year, and that includes key offensive players Dwayne Allen, Donald Thomas, Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Reggie Wayne. You don't just replace guys like that. Luck and the rest of the offense had to make up for the loss of several key players. And, of course, the offensive line was terrible at protecting Andrew Luck for much of the season.
Luck made big strides this year in only his second year, and he is already entered the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. He set the record for most passing yards in a player's first two seasons ever. He has posted a 22-10 regular season record, a 1-2 postseason record, and won an AFC South title all in his first two seasons. His 9 interceptions in 16 regular season games is something that Peyton Manning has only done in one season in his entire career. Including playoffs, he has led 11 game winning drives and 8 fourth quarter comebacks - in other words, 11 of his 23 career wins have come on a game winning drive by Andrew Luck - that's 47.8%.
Last year, Andrew Luck replaced the legendary Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and broke Manning's rookie records - besides the one for most interceptions. But while last season Luck took over Manning's job, this year the baton was officially passed. In week seven, Manning's Broncos - the 6-0 Denver Broncos, I might add - came to Indianapolis to the "House that Peyton Built" to play on Sunday Night Football before a packed and energetic home crowd and before a nation that watched on as the most beloved figure in Indianapolis history came home. The pre-game ceremonies were nice, and Colts fans gave Peyton a thunderous standing ovation. It was clear that Indianapolis still loved Peyton, and that Peyton still loved Indianapolis. But that wasn't the loudest Lucas Oil Stadium got that night.
No, the loudest the stadium got on that cool October night with the roof open was when Andrew Luck took over the game. He threw 3 first half touchdown passes and added a rushing touchdown in the third quarter to put the Colts ahead 33-14. They went on to win the game 39-33, and when Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning met at midfield they were surrounded by numerous cameras trying to catch a picture of the moment. It was a special moment, but the true significance came in the hours preceding it. The baton had been passed, and the entire nation had seen it.
Luck will continue to improve, just like he did this year. His accuracy and number of turnovers both improved, even though neither were terrible before anyway. He became a much better runner, being smarter about when he ran and even improving greatly in sliding at the end of runs. He became a better leader and continues to earn respect. The fact that a second year player would even get votes among NFL players when asked "who is the most respected player in the league?" is an accomplishment in itself, and Luck got some votes.
Still, there are areas in which Luck can improve, and probably the most notable one is, as Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson have both preached as what the team most needs to work on, is consistency. For Luck, that means being consistently on the top of his game from pass to pass. Nobody is going to be perfect, but there were several times this season when Luck would overthrow a receiver. There are several theories as to why that was, but he seemed to improve as the season drew near to an end. The biggest thing going forward will be for Luck to limit the overthrows and bad passes and become an even more consistent passer than he already is. He still makes some bad decisions and bad throws at times (see his first interception against the Patriots) and he needs to improve on that, but overall there is no way that you can look at Andrew Luck and not be impressed with the 24-year old. He's a phenomenal quarterback, already well respected by both his team and peers throughout the league, and is a great guy who is a great leader.
I totally agree with ESPN's poll of players as to "who is the player you'd take to start a franchise?" when Luck finished second only to Peyton Manning. Well, actually, I disagree with it. I'd take the 24-year old Andrew Luck over anybody else in the league if I were starting my team today. He was incredibly impressive in 2013, and he showed that the future is even brighter than Luck was this year. As general manager Ryan Grigson said, "you win in this league with great quarterbacks, and we have a great one." And that's why they'll continue to have plenty of wins as well in the future - probably including a Lombardi Trophy or two.
One last question to address is this: how many more wins will Luck's backup in 2013, Matt Hasselbeck, be around for? He signed a 2-year, $8 million deal last offseason, and that's a lot of money to be paying to a guy who appeared in 3 games (all blowouts) and completed 7-of-12 passes for 130 yards and a pick. He looked good when he played, but he never played in a meaningful situation. He was brought in purely for insurance and to mentor Luck, but will he still be around next year? I'm not sure. That is yet another offseason question facing the Colts in the upcoming months, but unlike many of the other ones, this one won't have a huge impact on the team other than money, and that's because the Colts have Andrew Luck. The Colts are lucky to have Luck, but there's nothing lucky about the way he plays - he's really good, and he's just getting started.