Andrew Luck is good at a lot of things. He has impressed with his arm, with his legs, with his smarts, with his leadership, and with his toughness, among other things. He's entering just his third year, but he's already carved out a great reputation as one of the league's top quarterbacks. One of the most amazing aspects of Luck's first two seasons in the league, however, has been his phenomenal fourth quarter success. In one-score games in 2012-13, Andrew Luck and the Colts are 14-2. Yes, that's right - 14 wins, 2 losses. In that span, Luck has led 11 game-winning drives and 8 fourth quarter comebacks.
This phenomenal feat prompted Grantland's Bill Barnwell to explore what the reasons for the record were and more importantly whether the Colts and Luck could continue to keep it up. It was a very good look at fourth quarter success and the Colts far exceeding the norm, and Barnwell concluded that:
"If the Colts are dependent on close games for half of their wins again in 2014, though, they'll be engaged in a very dangerous exercise. Luck proved the numbers wrong in 2013, but history tells us that time is on the numbers' side. Whether his initial run was due to randomness or a stroke of genius, Luck simply can't expect to win more than 85 percent of his close contests as the years go on. His team may feel that pinch as early as this season."
Perhaps, however, we're over-complicating things. Barnwell's statistical look at history compared to what Luck has done is great, but I wonder if we're missing the simplest and most important answer when contemplating why Andrew Luck and the offense have been so incredible in one-score games and, more specifically here, in fourth quarter comebacks: that they're just that dang good.
No, I'm not going against what I've said in that the Colts, outside of Luck, really aren't that great. But maybe the simplest explanation of the Colts success in the fourth quarter is that it's in the fourth quarter that the offense really is able to play to its potential.
Here's the deal with the Colts offense: they're not always putting Luck in the best situation to be at his best. Last year, it was predictable - the Colts would open the game in a two tight end formation with a fullback and with Luck under center, huddle, and run the football. There were actually times when they showed that they could run the football - but there were also plenty of times when running the football didn't work. And even still, with the defense the Colts had, the Colts needed more than the running game to win football games. They needed passing. They needed Andrew Luck. And somewhere around the end of the first half or in the third quarter, the Colts realized this, and their offense seemed to change. They abandoned the run-heavy, run-formation, huddling offense and mixed things up. Luck went to the shotgun, the team ran the no-huddle, and they took to the air. That's when the offense is at it's best.
It's not so much that Andrew Luck is "clutch," as that's an unquantifiable stat that's hard to determine exactly outside of his 11 game winning drives or 8 fourth quarter comebacks. Rather, it's that Andrew Luck is good. Really good. And the time when the Colts really lean on him is in the fourth quarter, and the time when they really run the offense that puts Luck in the best position to succeed is when they're behind.
The running game didn't dig the Colts out of so many holes last year. The defense didn't dig the Colts out of so many holes last year. It was Andrew Luck and the passing game. Let's just take two of the biggest comebacks last year, the ones against the Houston Texans in week nine and against the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card game. In the second half of the Texans game, Luck completed 15-of-28 passes (53.57%) for 215 yards and 3 scores without a pick. In that second half, the Colts went to the shotgun on 79.4% of their snaps and called pass plays on 87.88% of the plays. Against the Chiefs, Luck completed 17-of-24 passes (70.83%) in the second half for 302 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 picks, ran the ball 2 times for 17 yards, and recovered a fumble for a touchdown too. The team was in the gun on 97.55% of their plays in the second half and utilized the no-huddle on 62.86% of them too, while the Colts called a pass play on 76.47% of their plays.
Look, none of this is to say that the Colts didn't utilize the no-huddle or the shotgun in the first halves of games or even that the plays were heavily running plays. What I am saying is that there was a noticeable difference between the Colts offense when they were in the first halves of games and then in second halves when they trailed. Nate Dunlevy summed this feeling up well:
Indy's offense gets better in late-game situations because it's forced to play the way it OUGHT to play all game long.— Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) August 11, 2014
So will Andrew Luck and the Colts get worse in one-score games, as Barnwell suggests (because keeping up their current pace would be nearly impossible). The answer is yes - with a catch. The Colts' record in one-score games will likely get worse, but only as the Colts' overall record gets better. If they truly let Andrew Luck go out and win them ball games to begin with, they wouldn't be in as many close games. And we've seen improvement from offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton down the stretch last year and then this year, so there's reason to believe that the offense will be better this year and more tailored around Andrew Luck. They won't be getting away from the run game at all, but that doesn't mean that they have to keep putting Luck in situations where he has to come back before the offense plays like they can.
It's true that the Colts will probably regress in one-score games, but it's also true that there won't be as many of those games as long as the Colts let Andrew Luck do his thing without waiting until they're behind.