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THE CASE FOR THE...Colts

Jan. 13, 2014
Jan. 13, 2014

Table of Contents
Jan. 13, 2014

LEADING OFF
GOLF PLUS
THE MAIL
BCS CHAMPIONSHIP 2014
The MMQB
The Wizard And the Giant

THE CASE FOR THE...Colts

While America has been captivated by the "revolutionary" likes of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and RG3, Andrew Luck has quietly emerged as one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. Not best young quarterbacks; best quarterbacks, period. Luck's numbers—23 TDs in each of his two years, 81.5 passer rating—aren't staggering. But his 10 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or OT (including last Saturday, completing an epic 45--44 comeback against the Chiefs) and his 23 victories are.

This is an article from the Jan. 13, 2014 issue

When Luck was drafted No. 1 in 2012, Indy had just overhauled its front office, coaching staff and roster after going 2--14. And yet Year 2 of a colossal rebuild has brought about a second straight playoff appearance, even with top weapon Reggie Wayne sidelined since Week 7 (right ACL). Some credit is due the defense, which, with an improved grasp of coach Chuck Pagano's hybrid scheme, has improved exponentially—especially in man coverage. Robert Mathis's move to weak outside linebacker has also been a boon: He gave the pass rush a pillar to build around with his NFL-high 19½ sacks.

But Luck is at the heart of the Colts' success. The NFL loves pocket passers; the 24-year-old is that and more. Not only can he cycle through manifold progressions to find receivers, but he can also work guys open with improvisation. Much like Ben Roethlisberger, Luck extends plays with strength and athleticism. While Roethlisberger flourishes as things break down, Luck flourishes by keeping things together. He has a gift for extending a play without compromising its structure. Even under heat, he keeps his eyes downfield and relies on sharp mechanics to make accurate throws from untenable positions.

Luck also understands defenses, which has translated to more line-of-scrimmage adjustments in new coordinator Pep Hamilton's power-based scheme. Despite Luck's playmaking prowess and pre-snap savvy, the Colts doggedly committed to a power approach in 2013. They dealt their '14 first-round pick to the Browns in September for bruiser Trent Richardson, employed an old-fashioned fullback (Stanley Havili) and buttressed their line with 316-pound right tackle Gosder Cherilus and 334-pound rookie guard Hugh Thornton.

The results, however, have been underwhelming—Richardson averaged 2.9 yards and fumbled his only playoff carry—and could lead to a philosophical shift. Against the Chiefs, Indy fruitfully featured more three-receiver sets with quick-timing throws. This scheme may have been customized for K.C.'s struggling press-man D, but don't be surprised to see more of it.

True, beyond T.Y. Hilton the Colts lack ideal receivers for a pass-oriented system. Undrafted starters Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers have limited experience; second-year tight end Coby Fleener is not very productive. But receiving deficiencies matter less with a QB who dissects defenses, anticipates throwing windows and makes big plays in difficult circumstances. We've seen middling wideouts become stars by playing with legends: Deion Branch and Wes Welker with Tom Brady; Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman with Brett Favre; Brandon Stokley and Eric Decker with Peyton Manning. Including Luck in this discussion may seem presumptuous. But 21 months ago, so would the notion that he'd have the Colts within two wins of Super Bowl XLVIII.

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PHOTOANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LUCK)PHOTOBRIAN SPURLOCK/USA TODAY SPORTS (DAVIS)PHOTOILLUSTRATION