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The Case for Andrew Luck

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Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson makes the case for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, the kind folks over at Field Gulls contacted me about making my case for why Andrew Luck was the best of the young quarterbacks, specifically why he was better than Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.  Kenneth Arthur did a nice series looking at Wilson compared to all the other young quarterbacks, culminating in the comparison to Andrew Luck.  While I think his results might be biased a bit (hey, mine are too...), it was a good look based simply on the fact that he got opinions from the other side too so you got both sides, but he did a good job making a case for Russell Wilson in each article.

This article isn't to be seen as a shot at Arthur at all - please understand that up front.  Instead, what I am going to do in this article is attempt to make a better case for Andrew Luck than I did in that article.  Why?  Simply because I believe (again, admittedly with bias) that Luck is the best of the young quarterbacks, and so any conclusion otherwise suggests to me that I failed to defend Luck accurately enough.  So I'll attempt to do that here.

But first, as they'll teach you when writing a persuasive argument, you need to address the other views.  And it's here where I hope to come off clear that I think Russell Wilson is a very good quarterback.  The arguments that Arthur says people have against Wilson, such as "he's not a quarterback you can win a Super Bowl with" are ones that I absolutely don't have.  If you're asking me to rank the league's best young quarterbacks, Wilson would be second, with Cam Newton coming in third.  There's no shame in being second.  And that doesn't mean that I think Wilson is bad.  He's a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback already who the Seahawks are rightfully happy to have.  I don't think the argument that the Seahawks would trade Wilson for Luck in a heartbeat is a worthwhile one, because teams that have a good quarterback just aren't interested in trading him.  But if you asked the Seahawks brass who they'd take if they were starting a franchise and they answered honestly, I feel like the answer would clearly be Luck.  That doesn't mean Wilson is bad.  I think he's a very good quarterback.  I just think Andrew Luck is better.

"But oh, this Josh guy is just biased because he's a Colts fan," you might say.  And you'd be right.  So don't just take it from me.  There's ESPN's Mike Sando, who after talking with 26 league insiders (coaches, GMs, and executives) ranked Luck a tier one quarterback and the fifth best in the league overall.  There's NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, who placed Luck sixth and in the "Pro Bowl-caliber" category.  There's ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski ranking Luck as the fifth best quarterback in the league in his annual QB rankings.  There's the MMQB's Andy Benoit ranking Luck as the league's best running quarterback.  There's an ESPN survey of NFL players ranking Luck as the second best player to start a franchise with.  There's CBS's Pat Kirwan ranking Luck as the tenth most influential person in the entire NFL today.   And the rankings and praise for Luck go on and on, including from former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, who said of Luck:

"I mean, just a special, special player.  Not only does he have the physical ability to make all the throws (and) the athleticism to extend plays, he's a smart kid that is well beyond his years as far as understanding the game, seeing defenses, making the proper decisions.

"The thing you love about him is he plays his best football at the most critical moments of games. A lot of times you have young kids that come in, maybe have some of the first two skills, but when the pressure's on you see them fall back, especially early in their career."

Hopefully, my bias is offset a bit by the fact that I'm not the only one raving about Luck - not by any means.  The praise for Andrew Luck has been widespread and very prominent this offseason - not just on this Colts site.  I'm not here going to be as much comparing Luck and Wilson as I'm going to be making a case for Luck - one that, I hope, does the quarterback justice.

When you talk about Luck, a word that is often used is "potential."  So let's start there.  This guy's potential is through the roof.  Entering the 2012 draft, he was widely considered to be the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, and many thought since John Elway.  Luck was (and is) viewed by many as the prototypical NFL quarterback.  He's the complete package.  He has everything you'd look for in a franchise signal-caller.  He's got the smarts, the leadership, the toughness, the arm, the athleticism, and the drive that make him one of the most talented quarterbacks in a while and one with a sky-high potential.  It'd be nearly impossible to make a case against Luck's potential.  So we're not going to worry about that, other than noting that he's just entering his third season in the league and should only continue to get better and hopefully reach that potential.

What we're looking at, however, is where he stands now.  Throw the "potential" crap out the window (although, if talking about which quarterback you'd rather have, I'm not quite sure how you could ignore that huge aspect of it, and I guarantee you there are no team executives or coaches ignoring that part, but I'm getting sidetracked here).

The most common criticism I got about my "defense" of Luck was that I didn't really use any stats or quantifiable arguments.  Firstly, I must note that relying completely on statistics and not on film is what we call fantasy football, and it's often different from actual football - though, at the same time, Luck scored the fourth most points of any quarterback in fantasy football last year.  I do realize, however, the importance of numbers in making an argument, and while it's important not to place too much of an emphasis on it, it's also important not to place too little of an emphasis on it, because they do signify something on the field, after all.

Andrew Luck's passer rating in 2013 was 18th in the league.  Andrew Luck's completion percentage in 2013 was 24th.  Andrew Luck's passing yards in 2013 were 13th.  Andrew Luck's touchdown passes in 2013 were tied for the 15th most.  And Andrew Luck's yards per attempt in 2013 was 26th.  You might say that making a case for Andrew Luck out of the numbers is a losing battle, and on the surface, that appears correct.  But let's dig a little deeper, shall we?

First, and perhaps most importantly, Luck protected the football insanely well in 2013.  He threw just 9 picks in 570 regular season attempts, good for an interception percentage of just 1.58%.  By comparison, Peyton Manning - undoubtedly one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history - has had an interception percentage lower than that just once in his sixteen-year career - with a 1.52% INT percentage in 2013.  Part of this was due to the offense that Luck played in, but more prominently, it was because the Colts quarterback matured in protecting the football.

Speaking of the offense, let's talk about Pep Hamilton's offense in Indy.  His offense features a short passing game and a power run game.  Docking Luck for a lower YPA is essentially docking him for the offense he plays in.  And on an additional note with the Colts offense, I'm not saying it won't work.  I'm saying that it's going to result in such that Luck probably won't lead the league in passing yards or touchdowns as long as the offense remains unchanged.  But the Colts goal is winning the Super Bowl, and this offense can do that.  But the pieces they have aren't equipped to do that.  Namely, the running game.  Last season, Donald Brown, Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard, Tashard Choice, Dan Herron, and Stanley Havili were the backs who got at least one carry for the Colts.  Combined, they rushed for 1,328 yards,  7 touchdowns, and averaged 3.95 yards per carry.  That was the entire production of the entire Colts running back position in 2013.  By comparison, Marshawn Lynch alone rushed for 1,257 yards, 12 touchdowns, and averaged 4.2 yards per carry last year.  The Colts Authority Annual has some in depth stats from Pro Football Focus, and one of them was that just 4 of Andrew Luck's 23 touchdown passes (17.4%) came off of a play-action pass.  While we won't get into the percentages of how often they ran play-action, the Colts lack of a running game caused the defense to not respect the running game and, as a result, the play-action pass.  By comparison, Russell Wilson threw 13 of his 26 touchdowns (50%) off of a play-action pass.  What does this mean?  Nothing, without context, and the context I'm using it in is to explain the Colts offense and show why Luck wasn't helped out at all by it.

But let's move on to a more obvious area that Luck's supporting offensive cast didn't help him out, and that's the offensive line.  Over the past two seasons, no quarterback has been hit more times without being sacked than Andrew Luck.  In fact, Luck has been hit but not sacked 170 times in the past two years, and the next closest, Matt Ryan, has been hit 121 times without being sacked.  A few other stats from the CA Annual show that Luck was pressured on 37.5% of his dropbacks in 2013, but was sacked just 13.2% of the time he was under pressure.  Also, Luck released the ball in just 2.58 seconds on average.  All of those numbers are up from the year before, though not too significantly.  In other words, the line has been bad in both of Andrew Luck's seasons.  We don't have to even look at the other offensive lines - it seems like many fans think their team's line is bad, and I'm not about to suggest that it's not.  But here's the thing: even most team's average/below-average lines would have been an improvement in Indianapolis, and nobody has been getting hit more than Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in his two seasons in the league.

Had enough of the stats?  What about the fact that Luck set the record for the most passing yards through a player's first two seasons ever with 8,196 yards.  Only one quarterback in the past two seasons has rushed for more touchdowns than Andrew Luck (Cam Newton).

All things considered statistically, Luck is a solid quarterback.  But a top-tier - dare I even say elite - quarterback?  Heck no.  But stats don't tell the whole story.

That whole story is this. When Andrew Luck entered the league, he was the first overall draft pick, meaning he was going to the league's worst team.  Because of the quick turnaround, many national folks and fans have the tendency to think it was a talented team already - a similar situation to the Houston Texans in 2013.  But in reality, many of the best players that 2011 Colts team had were cut following the season.  Peyton Manning.  Dallas Clark.  Joseph Addai.  Gary Brackett.  Jeff Saturday left in free agency.  The Colts had a couple of pieces in place in Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis, but the franchise blew everything up.  Longtime GM Bill Polian - fired.  Head coach Jim Caldwell - fired.  Some of the best players - cut.  And the franchise was in salary cap hell.  New GM Ryan Grigson had little cap room to work with, but because he nailed the draft and a few key signings, the Colts made a surprise playoff berth behind an incredibly quick maturation from their rookie quarterback.  But there was a lot of issues that still needed addressing.  The offensive line.  The running game.  The defense especially.  The Colts weren't a good team yet - they were a below average team with a good quarterback and who suddenly got hot.

So they entered 2013 hopefully much improved.  But as it turns out, things aren't always as they seem.  Several of Grigson's free agent signings and draft picks had minimal impact on the team, and the offense was completely decimated by injuries.  The starting tight end, Dwayne Allen, went down in week one.  The starting running back, Vick Ballard, went down after week one.  The starting left guard, Donald Thomas, went down in week two.  The new starting running back, Ahmad Bradshaw, went down in week three.  The starting wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, went down in week seven.  You can say that teams need to be prepared for injuries, but nobody could have been prepared for the onslaught of injuries to key players the 2013 Colts suffered.  And yet they continued to win.  They beat the 49ers on the road.  They beat the Seahawks and Broncos at home.  They beat the Chiefs twice, once on the road and then once at home in the playoffs.  The Colts were helped greatly by a weak division, but that was a minor detail to their 2013 success compared to Andrew Luck.  Throwing to a receiving core that included an often double-covered T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener as the only reliable targets (with Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill, and Griff Whalen all getting time), Luck's offense continued to produce and the Colts continued to win.

Understand this - this isn't just my opinion.  This is the general, widespread belief around the league.  The belief that the Colts are an average team with a very good quarterback.  This is the very reason why so many people have already ranked Luck as one of the game's best quarterback.  This is why those who talk with people within the league come away with that opinion even more, because people around the league see Luck as elevating an average team to one with Super Bowl expectations.

Quarterback wins (especially Super Bowl wins) are a terrible argument to judge a quarterback by, and I'm not about to use the argument that Luck has won 22 games and a playoff game so far in his career with what was the league's worst team just a few seasons ago.  In fact, you'll realize this is the first time I've mentioned the Colts record.  If we're basing it off of wins, then sure, Wilson is the better quarterback than Luck.  And Trent Dilfer is better than Dan Marino.

You can complain all you want about the arguments being not based in stats, but this is the NFL, not fantasy football.  Stats are important.  Film is too.  Stats tell a part, but not the whole.  And we didn't even get into the defenses, which see the Seahawks defense giving up an average of just 14.4 points per game last year compared to the Colts, who were still a top-ten unit in that category, giving up 21 points per game - nearly a whole touchdown more every game.  But when you watch the film on Andrew Luck, you'll see a guy who can do it all already.  There hasn't been a throw I've seen yet that Luck just couldn't make.  Mentally, he's already in control of everything going on in the game.  He has shown he has an incredible knack for making plays with his legs, avoiding sacks, breaking tackles, and running for first downs and touchdowns.  He is a tremendous leader, and the Colts have rallied behind him completely.  He's got ice-water in his veins, and nobody in the league has more than Luck's 11 game-winning drives and 8 fourth quarter comebacks since 2012.  In 17 attempts at a game-winning drive or fourth quarter comeback (with the game within one score), Luck has yet to throw an interception on those drives, but has thrown six touchdowns.  Sure, he's thrown some fourth quarter picks, but those are after the Colts go down more than one score. When they're within one score, Luck has been great.

I'm never going to convince Seahawks fans that Andrew Luck is better than Russell Wilson.  I'm never going to convince Panthers fans that Andrew Luck is better than Cam Newton.  I'm never going to convince 49ers fans that Andrew Luck is better than Colin Kaepernick.  That's just the way it is.  All of them are good quarterbacks, and the Colts, Seahawks, Panthers, and 49ers are all undoubtedly happy with their signal-caller.

But this article hasn't been about trying to convince people that Luck is better.  It's been about laying out a case for why I believe that he is.  From a fan standpoint, hopefully Luck will put the conversation to rest this year, but it's much more likely that it'll remain for his career, just like it did for Peyton Manning with Tom Brady.  I know I'm not going to convince many people that Luck is better, though I hope I've laid out a strong case for why he is and I hope I've done an adequate job of explaining just why Andrew Luck isn't just the quarterback with the most potential among the young guys, he's the quarterback who's shown the most of it in the past few years as well.