If the rising tide lifts all boats, just call Andrew Luck high tide, because with him back, the whole team’s outlook is brighter. That is especially true on the offense, which suffered from poor play calling and desperately missed Luck’s prodigious play.
No one will be surprised when T.Y. Hilton has another great year now that Luck is healthy, but I think a different player will stand to benefit from Andrew Luck’s triumphant return. Marlon Mack is entering his second year as the epitome of everything Frank Reich has been preaching since he got to Indianapolis. If competition has been Chris Ballard’s official mantra, toughness has been Reich’s. It is hard to think of a tougher guy than the one who played through all of last season with a torn labrum.
However, tough doesn’t necessarily mean good. Marlon Mack had some plays in 2017 that were not just good, they were great. There were times with the ball in his hands that he looked otherworldly, easily avoiding defenders and racking up ridiculous near home-run type plays with regularity.
Other times weren’t so good. He whiffed a fair few times in picking up blitzes, and got Jacoby Brissett hit because of it. He struggled to be effective as a passing weapon. And because he wasn’t used very creatively, and possibly due to his shoulder problems, he ran poorly between the tackles. His game was largely limited to the electric runner who could bounce it outside and make teams pay for losing contain.
So what has changed? For one, Mack is entering this season healthy. His shoulder is repaired, and he has a year of professional football under his belt. That’s a year of learning protections in the passing game, a year watching an all-time great in Frank Gore and learning what kind of work ethic it takes to be great as a running back in the NFL, and a year learning what not to do.
Those things alone would likely make him a much better player this season, but that isn’t all that has changed. A significantly bolstered offensive line will create opportunities to run that simply weren’t there last season. Gone are the days of assigning a starter by default because the guys there as depth are dreadful. This line will be able to provide running lanes, and Mack has already shown in camp that he isn’t afraid to get physical and hit those lanes up the middle.
A more creative offense will be working in Mack’s favor as well. The Colts were one of the least creative offenses in the NFL under Rob Chudzinski. The coaching staff didn’t seem able to develop young players, and made predictable and easily beatable play calls on the offense. Not only that, their lack of situational understanding, or the recognition of their tendencies and patterns in the way they called games left them even more predictable than the average fan realized. These factors really hampered Mack’s production, and won’t be a problem this season under a much more creative scheme from Frank Reich.
It also cannot be overstated just how big an impact having Andrew Luck back under center will have on the ability of the team to capably run the ball. Luck’s ability to stretch the field and make plays both with his legs and his arm will force teams to respect the Colts’ passing game. That means no loading up the box to defend the run, lest they allow T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron to feast on their secondaries. Coupled with the improved offensive line, this equals a much greater freedom to run the ball effectively, and Marlon Mack is likely to be the primary recipient of that benefit based on his performance so far in the offseason.
More than just Luck’s impact making the running game easier on Mack, he also improves the chances of Mack becoming a dangerous receiving back. Brissett struggled last season to put good touch on his screen passes and get the ball to his running backs without seemingly trying to break their fingers.
A lot of the balls Mack dropped in the passing game were lasers, and Luck will be better at adding some touch on those short-range throws. That has already proven a staple of the Colts offense so far in camp, and will likely be a key for success for all the Colts running backs. Getting Mack to the next level with space gives him the opportunity to hit a home run almost every time, and Frank Reich will do his best to make that happen.
Finally, while we’ve talked about how the improved play calling will impact Mack, one of the biggest differences this year is the addition of running backs coach Tom Rathman to the Colts’ staff. Rathman is one of Frank Gore’s favorite coaches, and a guy who Gore credits for making him the player he was and taking his game to the next level. Last season Mack got to study and learn under the guidance of one of the hardest working men in football. This season he gets to learn at the hands of the man who helped mold Gore into that kind of player.
The Colts backfield will likely surprise people with their level of production. Frank Reich understands the need to use lots of weapons, and it is likely he’ll get Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins involved in the running game and short passing game as well. While I think both those guys are primed to have solid rookie seasons, it is Marlon Mack who I believe can be the top guy in this running back room and make a major jump in production from last season.