Naturally, one of the largest draws in targeting Josh McDaniels as the Indianapolis Colts next head coach is that he is an offensive mind and is considered to be one of the brightest in the game. Chris Ballard chose to change gears a bit from the previous six seasons under a defensive-minded coach. His vision may have been to find the best fit to improve offensive scoring considerably, relying on his ability to scout defense to put the best defensive talent on the field that he can find.
The thought of getting Andrew Luck back, and healthy — I get so sick of qualifying that — and to pair his ability with the perceived brilliance of McDaniels should have all Colts fans seeing stars. In addition to having an improved offensive design, the expectations are to be an unpredictable, aggressive, and balanced unit that allows Luck to pilot its path.
The surgery issues and time away from the game undoubtedly will set Luck back a bit in terms of his having to reteach his body the mechanics he improved so much in 2016 under Brian Schottenheimer. He’ll be the captain of the ship and will be expected to take care of the ball while still challenging NFL defenses as well or better than he has at any point in his career to this point.
One of Luck’s biggest stat sheet issues has been his bulk interception total and there is an issue with his propensity to have at least one awful throw per game that will need to be quelled if Luck is to become the standard of the league into the next decade.
Where Luck needs a healthy dose of this work, in my humble opinion, is with his boundary throws. With the heaviest focus on 0-to-15 yards downfield this has been a real issue with Luck. He often uses unnecessary touch, primarily on timing routes, which allows defensive backs time to make a play on the ball. This in turn makes windows smaller for Luck, but also forces his receivers to fight even harder at the catch point to get the reception.
Here’s something to think about.
Since 2012, to either side of the field which is deemed to be “short right,” or “short left” — which I presume translates to either 0-to-10, or 0-to-15 yards down field — Luck’s touchdown-to-interception ratio has suffered outside the numbers. Fifty-six of Luck’s 132 career touchdowns (42.4%) come in these areas of the field which is pretty good in fact. That’s 14th in the league, and considering Luck has missed 25 games over the last three seasons it looks really good.
But, some of his worst throws are coming in these areas as well. In fact, 35.1% (24) of Luck’s career interceptions have occurred throwing towards the boundary. This is ‘good’ for ninth worst among applicable quarterbacks while, once again, we must consider that he’s missed 25 games in the last three seasons. This number would almost certainly be considerably worse.
When we look at raw completion percentage in these areas of the field, a 66.2% rate feels pretty good. Regardless, it’s still 18th among quarterbacks with at least 1,400 attempts in that time span.
Conversely, looking at how Luck has fared when targeting the middle of the field, on some rather ‘underneath’ throws, has been largely righteous. Luck is fifth in touchdowns (34) and only 8 interceptions while averaging about 11.4 yards per completion.
McDaniels will be tasked with fine tuning the timing between Luck and his receivers on the throws to the outside of the field, while maintaining Luck’s exceptional play across the middle of the field. Additionally, Luck has been the eighth most accurate deep-ball passer (41.4% | QBs with more than 400 attempts 2012-16) while racking up the 42 touchdowns which is fifth amongst his contemporaries. Again, he’s missed 25 games.
Now, how can McDaniels’ system benefit Luck’s numbers and overall efficiency?
A few things we know just from casual observation of the Patriots’ offense is that McDaniels uses misdirection and interesting shifts to isolate defenders who struggle in coverage ultimately maximizing mismatches and, while there are deep shots to be taken, a healthy dose of Tom Brady’s options open up quickly in order to create rhythm.
The rest will be up to Luck to use his discretion throughout the decision-making process when he’s asked to make a play or when the early reads are covered. Along these same lines, Luck will be held to a certain standard of play with McDaniels making Luck more accountable for his decisions. Will there be more pressure on Luck from the sidelines? Maybe, but I’m more than convinced that he can handle it and that it will make him an even greater competitor as a result.
After all, Luck was held to task more with Shottenheimer as his quarterbacks coach which should just make this more of a natural progression to McDaniels’ expectations of him. This reportedly was one of the major reasons the Seattle Seahawks were drawn to Shotty to replace Darrell Bevell. Bevell apparently catered to Russell Wilson more than he held him to an acceptable level of accountability.
If we’re to get more in-depth, I needed an outside source who has covered the Patriots and McDaniels closely to spell out more about the system that will be implemented for Luck when he returns. My friend Mark Schofield (Bleacher Report, Inside the Pylon & Locked on Patriots) is as good a resource for offensive schemes, route concepts and quarterback play available, and I employed him to give us a more inclusive understanding of what McDaniels brings to the table.
Here are some of Mark’s observations from the system McDaniels has implemented over time and will likely bring a healthy dose of to Indianapolis for the 2018 season and beyond.
*If you’re interested in diving into the finer points of the game, all linked concepts can be found in the Inside the Pylon Glossary, a fantastic resource for football terminology.
When analyzing Josh McDaniels’ offense, the best place to begin is the Erhardt-Perkins offensive system. There are two structural components to this. Regarding terminology, the EP system incorporates a naming structure that makes play-calls easy. The Patriots’ playbook is filled with two- and three-receiver play-calls that consist of one word.
Topper is a double-slant concept. Utah is a double-in concept, similar to the drive concept. This makes both calls in the huddle, as well as audibles at the line, easier on the offense, provided everyone remembers what the terms call for. But the EP system is traditionally known for timing routes, working the shallow- and intermediate-levels of the field, and working off play-action.
Like all offensive systems in the modern era, McDaniels’ offense takes on components of other offensive systems. The Patriots incorporate many West Coast designs into their offense, for example the Topper concept is a West Coast staple.
Over the past season, with the addition of Brandin Cooks, the Patriots took on even more of a vertical threat, using deeper route concepts such as the Yankee Concept (often a two-receiver, max protection play off play-action with a deep post and a deep dig route) or the Mills Concept (another more vertical play with a deep post and a dig route).
One of their more relied-upon concepts is a route design called HOSS, or “hitch outside slot seam.” This is a great two-man concept that the Patriots have been known to use as part of a mirrored passing design, with dual hitch routes from the boundary receivers, and dual seam routes from the slot receivers. It can attack both man and zone looks. They will also go empty and run HOSS Y-Juke, which gives the inside receiver to the trips side of the formation an option route over the middle.
The final calling card of McDaniels’ philosophy is pre-snap movement. Using motion, shifting and usually a combination of the two, McDaniels will force the defense to tip their hand pre-snap, by identifying their coverage. That enables McDaniels to give Tom Brady great pre-snap looks, and to create mismatches in the passing game.
Through all of these situations and designs, McDaniels should help Luck become a more well-rounded quarterback in the years to come. Now, I know we’re comparing Andrew Luck to arguably the best to ever play the game, but humor me as we look at some of these key areas between the two.
Brady is second in short and outside throws with 84 touchdowns, has a 69.8% completion rate and only 13 interceptions between 2012-2016. He has been equally effective on short passes across the middle of the field throwing 37 touchdowns, completing 69.5% of his passes with only 6 interceptions.
Luck (42) has more deep ball touchdowns than Brady (36), and slightly better completion rate (41.4% — 39.2%) between 2012-16, but Brady has much fewer interceptions (17) than Luck does (33) which would also help with his efficiency in the long-term.
If there is something that we truly need to understand about these outside portions of the field, we need to see how they look in the post season which, for all intents and purposes, is where it really matters going forward.
Here are the two quarterback’s numbers on short and outside throws in the playoffs from 2012 to 2016.
Luck — 56.6% | 4 TDs | 7 INTs
Brady — 69.3% | 16 TDs | 4 INTs
This area of the field, in my opinion, is not only a critical part of a quarterback’s success, but the difference between average playoff football and championship level play from the position.
However, here are the playoff numbers from these two in that same time span on short passes across the middle of the field where Luck happens to really excel and others seem to struggle.
Luck — 77.6% | 1 TD | 1 INT
Brady — 62.3% | 3 TDs | 2 INTs
That completion rate for Luck is 3rd amongst those with at least 30 attempts, and he is also 5th with 389 passing yards within those same restrictions. If McDaniels can get Luck to be as efficient and effective on the outside thirds of the field as he is across the middle of the field, you have to believe that Luck will be nearly unstoppable as the captain of the ship.
However you choose to look at the possible future success of the Colts offense, these areas of the game will be crucial for Luck and the rest of the offense to excel in. Luck will have the opportunity, and the incorporated designs at his fingertips to regain his success from his first three seasons in the league and will also be afforded the ability to reach and exceed his future expectations.