Luck starts 4th NFL season searching for better numbers
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Andrew Luck has always preferred results to numbers.
This year, he's focused on both.
The Colts quarterback knows that if he and his teammates are going to take the next logical step in what has been a steady progression, Indianapolis must become more efficient on the plays that matter most.
''Red zone and third down,'' Luck said when asked what he wanted to improve on this season. ''Better touchdown-interception ratio down in the red zone and got to convert on some third downs, which will help everybody.''
Luck hasn't said exactly what his 2015 numbers should look like.
Historically, however, research shows those categories have been crucial to a team's success.
In the Colts' Super Bowl-winning season, 2006, Indy led the league in third-down conversion rate (56 percent) and Peyton Manning threw a career-low nine interceptions.
Since taking over as New England's starter in 2001, Tom Brady led the Patriots to AFC title games in five of the six seasons he started at least two games and his interception percentage was 2 percent or less. New England also finished in the top quarter of the league on third-down conversion percentages during three of its four title runs.
Somehow, Luck has defied the trend.
The Colts have continued to win despite having the NFL's fifth-highest giveaway total (56) over the past three seasons, taking a league-high 210 quarterback hits over the past two seasons, according to STATS, and a mediocre 39.3 percent third-down conversion rate over the past two seasons combined.
Luck has led Indy to three straight playoff appearances, back-to-back division crowns and last season's AFC championship game. He is the biggest reason the Colts are now considered a primary threat to the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.
''I'm just glad he's our quarterback,'' coach Chuck Pagano said recently. ''The only thing he wants to do is win football games. That's all that really matters to him.''
In order to catch the Pats, Pagano challenged his assistant coaches to find situational categories they could improve upon.
Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen's chose the obvious ones -- ball protection and efficiency numbers.
But there's a fine line to finding solutions for playmakers such as Luck.
Christensen doesn't want to make Luck hesitant to scoop up a fumble and score, like he did against Kansas City in a playoff game two seasons ago, or to throw a TD pass as he's getting pulled down, as he did against Cincinnati in last season's playoffs.
So Christensen is asking Luck to fine-tune other parts of his game.
''Less adventurous on throwaways is what Clyde calls it,'' backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said Thursday. ''What we try to do is give him a lot of affirmation when he does it. As a quarterback, I know, it's really hard to throw it away on third down because that means you're coming off the field.''
The first big test of Luck's new goals comes Sunday at Buffalo.
He's facing a defense that led the league with 54 sacks, limited opposing to quarterbacks to a second-best rating of 74.5 rating and picked off 19 passes, No. 6, last season.
While there's little doubt the Bills will try to pressure Luck into mistakes, Buffalo coach Rex Ryan understands the risk.
''He is poised way beyond his years and obviously you put him right up there. He is the next Manning, Brady and all that type of stuff,'' Ryan said. ''The once in every generation, even though the Colts get one every 10 or 12 years. But that's who he is, he doesn't get rattled.''
And if Luck can cut down on the mistakes and get the Colts into the end zone a little more frequently, he won't just have the title of the best young quarterback in football.
He'll have the numbers and the results to prove it.
''The expectations inside the locker room, inside the building, are no different than my first year here,'' he said. ''It's you find a way to get to the playoffs and try to win a Super Bowl.''
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL