Watching Andrew Luck struggle this season as he has never struggled before in his still-young NFL career has been jarring. Almost since the day he entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick out of Stanford in 2012, Luck has been considered a once-in-a-generation quarterbacking talent, a superstar player who checked all the boxes and seemed destined for greatness and eventually a place in the NFL’s quarterback pantheon in Canton.
And despite the wholly unexpected ugliness of his first two games of the 2015 season—three touchdowns, a league-worst five interceptions with a brutal 58.9 passer rating—based on his strong track record, all of those assumptions and projections of greatness most likely will still come to pass. After all, there are obvious issues on the Colts offensive line affecting Luck’s play, and another factor in Indianapolis’s 0–2 start could be the backdrop of potential distraction and acrimony in the team’s front office, where the state of the owner-general manager-head coach relationship has already come under heavy scrutiny. Those problems aren’t Luck-centric.
But then again, nothing about the NFL is a given and we really shouldn’t be as shocked as we are by Luck’s sluggish start, even if it is early and the sample size is small. No matter how great the talent, quarterbacks rarely take a steadily ascending ride in their careers, and there’s a fairly recent example of a player who perfectly illustrates this and compares very favorably to Luck at this point in his career. That we make the mistake of mentally putting a player in the Hall of Fame and assigning him a place in the game’s history long before the story has been fully told says more about us than anything else.
Like Luck, Carson Palmer entered the league out of the Pac-12 Conference as the No. 1 pick in the draft, the consensus top-rated quarterback with the prototypical size and skill set needed to enjoy elite NFL success. Simply put, he was considered a can’t-miss superstar in the making, and the kind of prospect that can change the fortune of an entire franchise. And nothing in the first three seasons of his stint as Cincinnati’s starter told us otherwise. After not playing at all behind starter Jon Kitna as a rookie in 2003, Palmer from '04–06 was dazzling, making multiple Pro Bowls, leading the bedraggled Bengals to the playoffs in 2005 for the first time in 15 years, and hanging up a host of gaudy statistics.
In fact, with Luck having just made his 50th career regular-season start in the Colts’ dismal Monday-night loss to the visiting Jets, it’s the perfect check-point to compare his first three-plus seasons as a starter to Palmer’s. And it’s illuminating to realize that most of Palmer’s 50-start statistics were as good or even better than Luck’s:
33–17, three playoff berths
26–24, one playoff berth
1,109 of 1,899
1,059 of 1,664
Yards per attempt
Statistics and be used to make any case you want, but these are two franchise quarterbacks who had remarkably similar early career results. Like Luck is currently enduring, Palmer had a rough opening to his fourth season as the Bengals starter, with Cincinnati getting off to a disappointing 1–4 getwaway (which coincided with his 50th start), and Palmer throwing 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions in those games, including a four-game streak of two picks per week. He posted three consecutive games with a passer rating under 80.0 during that slump, and though he rebounded somewhat that season, the Bengals finished 7–9 in 2007, their worst record since the year before Palmer was drafted.
So it has happened before, and to a quarterback we once presumed was destined for greatness and who had tremendous production early on in his career. It might be difficult to remember now, but once upon a time, our default setting on Palmer was that he was the kind of young passing talent who could wind up in the Hall of Fame, playing out a long and successful career for the franchise that was lucky enough to have chosen him at No. 1.
But that didn’t really work out as planned. Palmer’s career—while very good on whole—obviously didn’t follow the trajectory we anticipated, and it’s a cautionary tale that Luck’s might not either. The great promise is obvious and some of it has already been fulfilled, but as Palmer’s experience has taught us, nothing more is promised going forward. These first two weeks of Luck’s 2015 season will probably be just a blip, forgotten by November, but who really knows?
Palmer, of course, in late-to-mid-career wasn’t exactly cut from the superstar mold. There were knee injuries, contract stand-offs and a bevy of turnovers, and he bounced from Cincinnati to Oakland to Arizona in the span of 2011–'13, having an itinerant-type career that we didn’t expect. But in yet another twist we didn’t see coming, he has seen his career practically re-born the past three seasons under Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.
The irony is that while Palmer might be playing some of his best football yet at the age of 35, the 26-year-old Luck is experiencing his worst stretch. Palmer just had his first consecutive games with at least three touchdown passes since 2006 the past two weeks, and his seven touchdowns, one interception and 124.4 rating is a big reason Arizona sits 2–0 atop the powerful NFC West.
Luck and Indianapolis have benefitted mightily from playing in the AFC South, perennially the NFL’s weakest division, and yet the Super Bowl-contending Colts are 0–2 and tied for last with Houston, having been out-scored by an average of 13 points per game. Luck so far looks like any other harried quarterback who has a strong pass rush in his face almost constantly—in other words, pretty shaky. His accuracy has dropped, his decision-making looks dubious and his pocket presence is almost non-existent. Even his normally supportive coach, Chuck Pagano, unloaded on him late Monday night once the Jets were through with him.
Clearly this is not the Andrew Luck Experience we thought we bought a ticket to. Yes, it’s still September, and the Colts have got plenty of time to figure things out, and probably will. They were 0–2 last season, too, but finished 11–5 for the third year in a row, again making the playoffs. Still, this 0–2 feels different in Indianapolis, and considerably more alarming with Luck’s game sagging. And if the Ryan Grigson-Pagano marriage continues to fray around the edges, a bad season and big changes could both be on the way with Colts owner Jim Irsay in win-it-all-now mode. Let’s check back in a month and see where things stand, because that’s forever in today’s NFL.
The football fortunes of Palmer and Luck are just an instructive reminder that the game isn’t predictable, and thus the careers of even the best and brightest quarterback talents aren’t either. We think we know what’s coming based on what’s already happened in the past, but that’s almost always a forecast guaranteed to be wrong.