One of the most stunning and surprising elements of the 2015 NFL season has been the Indianapolis Colts struggling to a 3-5 start behind an awful start from quarterback Andrew Luck. This was a team that was a frequent preseason pick to win the Super Bowl and a quarterback who was a frequent preseason pick to win the MVP award. Now, midway through the season, the Colts are two games under .500 and only in first place of the worst division in football thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker, while there has been discussion among some fans about whether Luck should be benched for a time.
The struggles of the team as a whole are surprising, but even more baffling has been the struggles of Andrew Luck. Through his first three years in the league, Luck looked like the next sure thing and was well on his way to being an elite quarterback for the next decade. After all, he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons and in 2014 led the league in touchdown passes while setting a single-season franchise record for passing yards. This year, however, Luck has completed just 54.7% of his passes for 1,629 yards (6.3 yards per attempt), 13 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions for a 71.6 passer rating - a number that ranks 32nd out of 33 qualified quarterbacks, ahead of only Ryan Mallett.
|By the Numbers: Andrew Luck by Year|
Luck is clearly struggling, and Monday night's game against the Carolina Panthers was a new low. Yeah, he played much better in the fourth quarter and nearly led them on a comeback, but the overall game was rough, and particularly early on it was the worst I have seen Luck play. Passer rating doesn't tell the whole picture, but at one point early in the fourth quarter, Luck's passer rating was at one for the game. One. This is a quarterback with so much talent, so much potential, and so much production already in the league who is struggling mightily this year. He has flat out stunk. But why is that? I went back and took a look to try to figure that out, and I realized that it doesn't have to be just one thing. I think there are multiple factors that are all contributing to Luck's poor play, and while so many want to pick just one issue and in doing so ignore the others, I don't think we can do that. Some of these issues are much bigger factors than others (and I'll specify which are which), but here's the picture of why I think Andrew Luck is struggling:
Mental Mistakes and a Lack of Confidence
Probably the biggest factor of all of them is simply that Andrew Luck doesn't look confident and is making a lot of stupid mistakes. Take two plays from Monday night's game against the Panthers that were particularly not smart throws. The first was Andrew Luck's first interception of the game, on the Colts' second drive. They faced a third down and short (where they really struggled on Monday) with plenty of ballgame left only down 3-0. Luck dropped back to throw and waited for the play to develop, and then he felt pressure coming. It didn't get there, but Luck had to make a throw, and he decided to force it to T.Y. Hilton, who wasn't open. It would have taken an absolutely perfect pass to drop the throw in to Hilton, and Luck didn't make it. The Panthers got an easy interception and would then march down and take a ten point lead. A punt is better than an interception - especially early in the first quarter. That's a throw that Andrew Luck didn't need to make, but he tried to force it and it cost him. Another stupid throw came at the very end of the game, with the Colts at the 6 yard line, down three points, with nine seconds left. A field goal extends the game, a touchdown wins it, and a turnover ends it. The Colts had a chance to run one play to try to score, and if they didn't, then kick a field goal and send it to overtime. The one thing you absolutely cannot do there is make a stupid play and turn it over. Andrew Luck did the first part of that but the Panthers couldn't turn it into a turnover. Luck knew he needed to get rid of the ball (that was smart), but then he made an equally bad decision and bad throw, trying to lead a covered Andre Johnson in the middle of the end zone. Panthers linebacker Luke Keuchly had the ball in his hands but dropped the interception, giving the Colts a chance to tie it and send it to overtime. That's a play Luck absolutely can't in that situation, but it was another stupid decision. Those are only two plays out of many that we could highlight both Monday night and this season in which Luck has made stupid decisions.
Going along with that, it looks like Andrew Luck is not playing with confidence and is mentally rattled. I can't figure out the cause of this and can't point to one specific time where I think this started, but it seems like Luck doesn't trust himself. There's hesitation from him on what to throw, and often he's either making the wrong decision or making it too late. Again, I don't know the cause of this. Maybe it has to do with seeing his coaches in serious jeopardy of losing their jobs (offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was just fired on Tuesday night) and feeling like he needs to save their job. Maybe it has to do with feeling rattled after three years of hits adds up and after taking several more early this year - hits that injured him (the line has been much better recently, but it could be that the hits have finally added up). Maybe it has to do with seeing Matt Hasselbeck come in and outplay him in two games. Maybe it has to do with an injury where Luck doesn't trust himself physically to make the plays he normally could. I don't think we can pinpoint any specific reason as to why Luck isn't playing with confidence unless we're around him everyday in that locker room, but it seems clear that something is not right and that he's rattled. He's lost confidence. He's making stupid mistakes. And that has been perhaps the biggest reason for his struggles.
That's not the only reason, however. We know for a fact that Luck was dealing with a shoulder injury earlier this year that kept him out for two games, and a recent report seemed to corroborate weeks of speculation: that Luck is still dealing with an injury. FOX Sports' Jay Glazer reported on Sunday that Luck is playing through multiple fractured ribs. If that's the case (and it certainly looks like it when watching him play), that would be another contributing factor to his struggles. It's not easy to play through an injury like that. He's missing passes he normally doesn't miss, and it could be that his rib injury is limiting him somewhat. He looks like he's aiming passes at times. In baseball, people talk about a pitcher aiming pitches to say that he's focusing too hard on his delivery and at trying to hit the strike zone instead of just going out there and throwing, and that looks to be the case on some of Andrew Luck's throws. He seems to be aiming them, putting so much focus into trying to hit his target that he's actually missing, and I think that could have to do with injury as well.
Let's be honest: there was a reason why Pep Hamilton was fired, and it goes beyond simply being a scapegoat. Hamilton has not been doing Luck any favors this year with his coaching. If you have an injured quarterback who is struggling, perhaps having him take five or seven step dropbacks isn't the answer. When you have a quarterback who seems to lack confidence, perhaps getting him going early would be a smart thing to do in building confidence. Perhaps giving him a few easy plays on short dropbacks to get him into a rhythm. Matt Hasselbeck did this, and while Luck and Hasselbeck are different players, I don't think Hamilton helped Luck out much. Furthermore, the decision to not run more up-tempo offense is stunning to me, and it sounds like that might have been a reason why Hamilton was fired. Luck and this offense are at their best in when the offense is more up-tempo, but Hamilton only resorted to that late in games when the team was battling back from a big deficit. Many have wondered why Luck looked so bad early on and then looked like Luck again late in the game, and I think it had a lot to do with the hurry-up that they were running. As I already mentioned, they're better suited to run that offense, but also I think we can't rule out this part of it either: that gives Luck less time to think. That sounds funny when you think about how smart of a player he is, but hear me out. We've already talked about how Luck seems to lack confidence, is aiming throws, etc. Perhaps, though, when the Colts go to an up-tempo offense, is leaves less time for him to think and more time for him to simply react and play naturally. You just let him go out there and play football, doing whatever you can to limit his second-guessing and time to think and instead just playing football. The up-tempo offense is something that the Colts need to do more of under Rob Chudzinski.
Lastly, one more note on the coaching: it didn't look like Luck was getting great coaching individually, either. He wasn't progressing like many thought he should, and he was reverting back to mistakes that a fourth-year quarterback with his talent shouldn't be making. A lot of that is due to other issues too, for sure, but it looked very questionable as to whether Luck was getting the coaching that he needed. It's understandable, too, for a franchise quarterback who has had so much success to be put on a higher level, but this is still a fourth-year player who still needs coaching. It's hard to tell for sure whether this was the case with Pep Hamilton or not, but it was questionable enough that the subject still needs to be mentioned.
Receivers not providing much help
This one will remain the least significant of the issues until Andrew Luck can prove that he can hit open receivers reliably, which he hasn't done. So it's hard to place too much blame on the receivers not getting open when Luck doesn't always hit them even when they do break open, but the receivers have struggled to create separation this year. This isn't a new thing, as we saw it in the AFC Championship game last year, but it has shown up again this year. This might sound crazy, but I think the play we've seen on the field so far (even though the Colts are 3-5) actually helps justify Ryan Grigson's decision to take a wide receiver in the first round. Obviously, Phillip Dorsett is now hurt, but we're seeing a group of wideouts who are struggling to get separation and get open - including T.Y. Hilton. Again, I'm not going to place a ton of the blame on this area until Luck can reliably see and hit receivers when they are open, but this can't be completely ignored either. And for a quarterback who is struggling enough already, having his wide receivers inconsistent and struggling as well isn't a good match.
Alright, let's put it all together. What we see in Andrew Luck this year is an injured quarterback making stupid decisions and lacking confidence while not consistently getting helped out by his coaching staff or wide receivers. That's never a recipe for success, and it's easy to understand why the quarterback and the offense have been struggling so much.
So what do the Colts do? How do they move forward? And are these issues reason for concern long-term? Let's start with that last question first: I don't think what we've seen so far is particularly reason to be worried about Luck's long-term play. Maybe he won't get things turned around this year, but I don't expect it to be a lingering issue moving forward beyond that. His injury will heal, his confidence will at some point come back, and he'll have a new coaching staff to work with (most likely). We do see that perhaps he might not be the consistently elite quarterback every single year that Colts fans were blessed with in Peyton Manning, but he still should be a good quarterback in this league for several years.
But what can the Colts do about it now? Because, while 3-5 is nowhere close to where they wanted to be, they can still realistically win the AFC South and get into the playoffs - and if Luck and the offense can figure it out before then, the Colts still could, unbelievably, win a playoff game or two. So how do they get Luck going now? That's the big question that is now on Rob Chudzinski to answer, and I think a lot of it has to do with helping him get his confidence back. Going more up-tempo will help both Luck and the offense, and getting him going early in games could help him get into a rhythm and get some semblance of confidence.
Andrew Luck is broken, but he can be fixed. The Colts' season (and several people's jobs) depends on it, and it's now Rob Chudzinski's job to help him figure it out.