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BEST OF LUCK

Sept. 08, 2014
Sept. 08, 2014

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Sept. 8, 2014

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ANDREW LUCK
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BEST OF LUCK

THE BALANCE OF QUARTERBACK POWER IS WEIGHTED HEAVILY TOWARD THE NFC (SEE LAST WEEK'S ISSUE), BUT THE FIELD GENERAL WHO WILL MAKE THE BIGGEST LEAP, THE TRUE HEIR TO BRADY AND MANNING, PLAYS IN THE AFC

"... THIS IS for a feature story arguing that you'll be the best quarterback in the NFL by the end of this season. Thoughts?"

This is an article from the Sept. 8, 2014 issue Original Layout

Andrew Luck shrugs. "Well ... thanks," he says. "Lot of work to do to get to that."

Luck is outside the athletic building at Anderson University, 45 miles northeast of Indianapolis, where the Colts hold training camp. The morning walk-through has been checked off his list, as has the midday press conference. He still has on shoulder pads, which are covered by a bright-red jersey, reminding everyone that he's untouchable.

"I've always found it funny when people ask, Are you a top five QB? Are you elite? As a player, who cares?" Luck says, shrugging for emphasis, each shrug a little more emphatic than the last. "It's so hard to measure who's better, who's worse, because every team is different. Football is a team sport. You have to be the best for your team.

"Good luck proving who the best is."

NO TEAM asks more of its quarterback than the Colts do of Luck. While familiar top-shelf passers such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have worked in and mastered long-established systems, Luck, entering his third season in the league, has already had to learn a litany of different schemes.

As a rookie under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Luck played in a two-tight-end, heavy play-action system that asked him to make anticipatory throws at the deep-intermediate levels. In 2013, after Arians left to coach the Cardinals, Indianapolis replaced him with Pep Hamilton, the offensive coordinator during Luck's senior year at Stanford. Under Hamilton the Colts transitioned to the traditional run-oriented, two-back, ball-control scheme that Luck had run in college. That is, until they assumed a multireceiver, spread-oriented approach late in the season. In last January's 45--44 wild-card win over the Chiefs, Indy ran an unequivocally pass-based offense.

Hamilton made the last change in response to a rash of injuries, plus the ineffectiveness of newly acquired running back Trent Richardson. Which gets at another obstacle Luck has overcome: serious personnel shortcomings. Outside of wideout Reggie Wayne, Luck's primary receivers have mostly been first- or second-year players, some of whom (Griff Whalen, Da'Rick Rogers) entered the league undrafted. Furthermore, he has operated behind an offensive line that—aside from left tackle Anthony Castonzo—is among the least athletic in the league.

Luck's supporting cast will be more viable this season: Wayne is fully recovered from the right-ACL tear he suffered last October; versatile tight end Dwayne Allen returns from a right-hip injury; former Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks comes aboard, along with third-round rookie receiver Donte Moncrief (Mississippi), whom Colts brass raved about in training camp. The O-line has also been upgraded, with second-round rookie Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) taking over at left guard and last year's fourth-round pick, Khaled Holmes, slotting in at center.

Still, it doesn't promise to be a great front five, which is why Hamilton is likely to continue his wide-open, pass-oriented approach. Spreading the offense out fosters more quick throws, which allows Luck to get the ball out of his hand before the protection breaks down.

The beauty is that the Colts are not overly concerned about what system to run this season. They'll draw from a variety of schemes, going with whatever offers them the best chance to succeed in a given situation. Every team espouses this, of course, but most settle on some foundation. With the 6'4", 239-pound Luck at the helm, however, these Colts truly can do anything.

THE CAREER numbers are nothing to marvel at: a 57.0% completion rate, 46 touchdowns, 27 interceptions and—the most impressive stat—256.1 passing yards per game. That ordinariness is partly a product of Luck's playing with unstable lineups and in different systems, all of which have saddled him with the full spectrum of quarterback responsibilities.

But ask: Why have two offensive coordinators felt so comfortable loading so much on a young QB who has an iffy supporting cast? Sure, there have been some hiccups—see blowout losses to the Cardinals and the Rams last year—but not many. Luck's stats will naturally improve, but, like Brady's early in his career or Troy Aikman's, they won't reflect his full value. The Colts were coming off a 2--14 season and had experienced a 67% roster turnover when Luck arrived as the No. 1 pick. They've since won 11 games in each of his two seasons, far exceeding the expectations set for the team back in 2012.

"Is he a third-year quarterback who's playing like he's been in the league for six or seven years?" asks Indy coach Chuck Pagano. "I don't know. I just know he's on track to be one of the best ever to play the game."

You don't get on that track without top-level skills. At the very least Luck is, as 38-year-old Indianapolis backup Matt Hasselbeck says, "above average at everything." His right arm may not be the league's strongest, but there's no throw he can't make—something that can't be said of many quarterbacks. And like a great chef with seasoning, Luck has an innate feel for just how much to put on each ball, making his passes easily catchable. He's dangerous throwing to any spot on the field, be it underneath, near the sidelines, over the middle or deep. And he can do this not just from a traditional drop-back position, but also out of the pocket.

One way in which the 25-year-old Luck is underestimated: his mobility. If you take out kneel-downs, last season he gained an average of 8.8 yards on 45 runs, all but two of them scrambles. At the 2012 NFL combine, his unofficial 4.59 in the 40 matched Cam Newton's official time from the previous year. In the pros Luck has been a more selective and therefore a more efficient scrambler than Newton—not to mention his other peers. A recent study conducted for TheMMQB.com revealed that last year Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson made the correct choice on when to scramble between 60% and 75% of the time. Luck graded out at 88.6%.

That incisive decision making is also manifest in Luck's aerial game. A full-progression passer who's deft at reading coverages, he has even been able to recognize open plays outside of his progressions. One AFC assistant coach cites the Week 7 pass against the Broncos last year, when Wayne tore his right ACL trying to catch a ball that Luck had zipped low and away. "Yeah, it was an inaccurate throw and an unfortunate outcome," the coach says, "but it's absolutely amazing that Luck even threw to Wayne on that play to begin with. Luck had a standard three-read progression to the right side, and it was quick three-step timing. Luck knew once he eluded pressure that Wayne's clear-out route would be uncovered on the left. Remarkable."

Another example: the game-winning 64-yard touchdown that Luck threw to receiver T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis's miraculous, 28-point wild-card comeback against Kansas City last January. "That play was designed to go to [tight end] Coby Fleener," Hasselbeck explains. It was a two-progression read to the left side. Hilton, coming out of the slot from the three-receiver side on the left, was essentially running a clear-out pattern to hold the safety. "But you see a flat-footed safety, you realize it's real hard for him to turn and get speed," says Luck. "No one is ever truly dead on a play. And T.Y. and I had sorta given each other the Hey, be ready look. He knew the ball was coming to him if he got behind the safety."

Fleener, in fact, got open on the play; Luck very easily could have made the designed throw, gotten a completion and achieved a good outcome. Instead he willingly ventured out of the structure to earn the great outcome.

"He's got that sixth sense," says Pagano, "and he's a much better athlete than anybody gives him credit for. He's very, very strong. He's like Roethlisberger. Having played against Ben twice per year for the four years I was in Baltimore [as a secondary coach and defensive coordinator], I learned how hard it is to get Ben down. You can be draped all over him. This kid has the same strength. Physical prowess, too."

"Roethlisberger sheds a lot more tackles than I do," Luck says.

But not really. There's no reliable stat for tracking a quarterback's proficiency after a defender's contact—and if there were, there's no measurement for the contact's varying degrees of force—but there are stats that hint at it. Last season, according to NFL.com, Luck was hit 109 times, most among all quarterbacks. But he was sacked only 32 times, fewer than 17 other passers.

Typically, at least 20% of a young quarterback's sacks are a product of his improperly reading the field and failing to get rid of the ball. Going through Luck's sacks on film, it's hard to pin even one on him.

And yet many of Luck's late-game heroics stem from keeping his eyes downfield at all times, whether he's in the pocket, out of the pocket or draped by a defender. "With Andrew, the play is never over," says Hilton. "You just keep working and he'll find you."

Few quarterbacks display this trait. All of the great ones do. But not many of those great ones have such physical gifts to go with their fearless concentration. The physical freaks tend to ad lib; Luck's brilliance is that he can extend a play without compromising its structure.

"We practice [that] a lot in team drills," Luck says. "Say it's obvious you're going to be sacked. We still say, 'Don't give up the play; fabricate a scramble. Work on that.' It's a conscious effort in practice."

Still, there's a significant instinctive nature to his play. Where does that come from? Was it instilled by his father, Oliver, himself an NFL quarterback of four years? "This might be a stretch," Andrew says, "but I grew up playing a bunch of sports—basketball, soccer, baseball, track. Maybe there's a bit of that in play when you're running around, getting in space, seeing guys downfield."

Whatever it is, no quarterback is more dangerous than Luck when improvising late in the play. It's something the Colts can practice but that opponents can't fully replicate during the week.

WHAT LUCK has accomplished in two years is impressive, but that theory—that he'll be the best quarterback in the NFL by season's end—is predicated on what he's about to do. Privately, this thesis was floated to numerous coaches, scouts, front office executives and analysts. The only refutations came from the few who believe Luck is already the best QB. Those inside the league know that he is eventually going to start seeing the field even more clearly—particularly presnap, which is when guys such as Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers differentiate themselves.

Here, he's already shown signs of greatness.

"I'll never forget the first time he walked into the huddle," says Pagano, thinking back to June 2012. Because Stanford works on the quarter system and Luck did not graduate until the summer, NFL rules had prohibited him from attending Indy's May minicamp. "Still," Pagano says, "his first day he started calling out plays and audibles. He started using terminology no one had learned yet, doing things that everybody who'd been through the whole off-season didn't know yet. Every lineman, every receiver, every running back—they're all going, What's he talking about?

"He was able to digest so much; he's so intelligent. It was like O.K., timeout: This guy just re-identified the Mike linebacker, changed the O-line's protection, changed everything at the line of scrimmage. Players were like, O.K., this guy's for real."

And still, he was nowhere close to where he'll be this season.

"As a rookie," Luck says, "there was a lot of thinking about, What is our play? Even last year there was still a little bit of, What is our play? And how does it match up with what the defense is doing?

"[I'm now] definitely quicker in that regard—not having to think so much about our play but now looking at the defense and seeing, O.K., this is what they're doing; I know that this guy's here, this guy's there, this guy's here and this is how we're going to beat it."

The man who will soon be the NFL's best quarterback pauses, and then issues a reminder that has helped get him this far—one that should terrify defenses across the league: "There's still a ways to go."

There's no throw Luck can't make—which can't be said of many QBs. And like a great chef with seasoning, he has an innate feel for just how much to put on each ball.

109

Times Luck was hit in 2013, the most among QBs. But he was sacked only 32 times.

4,374

Passing yards in 2012, the most in a rookie season in NFL history.

8

Fourth-quarter comebacks for Luck in his first 33 games.

PHOTOPhotograph by AJ Mast/APRAPID PROGRESSION Luck has made game-winning throws because he constantly keeps his eyes downfield. "With Andrew," says Hilton, "the play is never over."PHOTOMSA/ICON SPORTSWIREHANDY ANDY Luck, who's adept at both reading defenses and running by them, has an old connection with Hamilton (right, top) and a new one with Nicks (bottom right).PHOTOANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTOZACH BOLINGER/ICON SPORTSWIRE (IN RED)[See caption above]PHOTOCHRISTOPHER SZAGOLA/CSM[See caption above]PHOTOANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDPEYTON REPLACED? After leading Indy to a 39--33 win over the Broncos last October, Luck got kudos from the reigning king of the QBs.PHOTODILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]