I started wondering how Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck was holding up a few weeks ago, after watching him miss some open throws and take too much of a pounding.
The last four games, Luck has had his share of rough moments. This isn’t mentioned to be overly critical. It’s because, as I’ve said since preseason, the No. 1 priority is to protect this kid, the franchise QB, and not get him hurt. As much as he’s been hit, Luck has proven he’s plenty tough. He’s redefined resilience for any rookie who ever plays in the NFL.
But this league is the school of hard knocks and bodies eventually break. Colts interim coach Bruce Arians conceded Monday the O-line needs to provide a cleaner pocket. While Luck insists he’s fine every time the question comes up, that he doesn’t have time to be affected by the “rookie wall,” his numbers of late suggest he could be wearing down.
It has me hoping the Colts clinch a playoff spot either Sunday at Houston or the next Sunday at Kansas City, so Luck can recharge his battery as much as possible and sit down after a series or two in that Dec. 30th season finale at home against the Texans.
Starting with the New England game, here’s why I’m concerned.
– At New England, 27-of-50, 54 percent, 334 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTS, 1 sack taken, 1 lost fumble: The Colts lost 59-24 as Luck threw a pair of pick-sixes. He also lost a fumble on the sack that the Patriots quickly turned into a TD pass. The trip to Foxborough, Mass., is a challenge. It’s not all the QB’s fault. But he struggled after a strong start, when the Colts opened with two long TD scoring drives. The second pick-six was an underthrown ball to the sideline, the same mistake he made at Pittsburgh in a preseason game. The first-pick six, he overthrew the target, adjusting his arm angle under pressure. That second return typically doesn’t turn into a TD, but the Patriots defender weaved through the maze of bodies and came out the other end with six points. We all remember this game got out of hand in all three phases as the defense couldn’t stop QB Tom Brady or TE Rob Gronkowski and special teams gave up two long returns, including a TD. But we’re focusing on Luck in this blog.
– Buffalo, 20-of-37, 54.1 percent, 240 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 4 sacks taken: The Colts won 20-13 because rookie WR T.Y. Hilton returned a punt 75 yards for a score and also caught a TD pass. Luck was hounded at times by the Bills, particularly Mario Williams, who had three sacks. The Bills have one of the NFL’s worst defenses, but the Colts walked away with a sluggish victory, one that shouldn’t have been this close.
– At Detroit, 24-of-54, 44.4 percent, 391 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs, 2 sacks taken, 1 fumble (not lost): Everybody remembers the end, when Luck was at his best in the two-minute offense and drove the Colts to TDs on back-to-back drives, the latter a 14-yard TD pass to WR Donnie Avery on the final play. But before that, Luck and his receivers weren’t on the same page too often. On two of three INTs, rookie WRs admitted they made mistakes on their routes. But there were other missed throws and Luck took 13 hits. That for the most part explains 30 incomplete passes. Some ignore inefficiency because the Colts rallied for a stirring win.
– Tennessee, 16-of-34, 47.1 percent, season-low 196 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 4 sacks taken, 1 fumble (not lost): Yes, the pick-six in the second quarter should have been overturned by booth review because Luck’s knee was clearly down, but it was an ill-advised pass when going down. The Titans aren’t that strong on defense, yet the Colts trailed 20-7 by halftime. Luck missed TE Coby Fleener on a couple of throws. Hilton broke free when the Titans blew a coverage on the Colts’ first possession, but Luck’s throw was too high and outside for the WR to catch it in bounds. If Hilton is hit in stride, that’s a touchdown. On a third-and-short situation in the second half, Luck tried to go deep to WR Reggie Wayne and overthrew him. Luck doesn’t need to be reminded the smart play is to just pick up the first down. Avery dropped a long TD pass after Luck scrambled, but the QB had room to run for a first down. Colts interim coach Bruce Arians encourages his young QB to always take a shot, to “keep slingin’ it,” so Luck is doing what his coach expects, but as Luck has shown when scrambling in the past, sometimes the best play is to get the first down and move the chains.
Total up those games and Luck has completed 87-of-175 passes, 49.7 percent, for an average of 290.3 yards per game, 6.6 yards per attempt, with 8 TDs, 9 INTS (three of them pick-sixes), 11 sacks taken, three fumbles (one lost).
Compare those numbers to his season totals: 296-of-537 passes, 54.9 percent, an average of 291.7 yards per game and 7.1 yards per attempt, with 18 TDs, 18 INTS, 32 sacks taken, 10 fumbles (five lost).
The last four games have shown less passing efficiency with more mistakes and way too many sacks taken.
Once again, in case anyone gets the wrong idea here, there’s nobody I’d rather see the Colts have at QB. Luck is the ideal cornerstone, the kind of player you want to build a franchise around. While I’m not nearly as smart as Colts GM Ryan Grigson, he will undoubtedly look to upgrade the O-line in the offseason. For now, let’s hope the Colts can take care of their QB more consistently so Luck has ample time to make the necessary throws, the sure pass completions, and cut down on the mistakes. That last part is on him sometimes, and he knows it.
I remember when Tony Dungy became Colts coach and stressed the importance to QB Peyton Manning of not taking as many risks and understanding the importance of minimizing turnovers. While it must have sounded crazy at the time, Dungy insisted a punt wasn’t always the worst thing. Manning’s INTs decreased from 23 in coach Jim Mora’s final season in 2001 to 19 with Dungy in 2002, then to 10 the next three seasons and nine in 2006, when the Colts won a Super Bowl.
But Manning also had the best protection in the league most years. Sure, it helped that he had such a quick release. But Luck has saved his O-line several sacks with his mobility, too. There’s a lot of new guys in the Colts locker room these days, guys who probably don’t realize what we came to expect when it came to pass protection. Manning was sacked a career-high 29 times in 2001. Yeah, Luck already has taken three more sacks as a rookie than Manning ever has in one season.
In 2003, Manning was sacked 14 times. In 2006, just 13. In 2010, he took just 10! From 2002 to 2010, Manning averaged just 16 sacks taken per season.
While we’ve enjoyed watching Luck work his magic — the Colts are 8-1 in one-possession games and he has six game-winning drives, most for a rookie QB since the 1970 merger — one can’t help but think there will be even better days ahead when the line is protecting him like it should and we’re no longer worrying about the future of the franchise taking too many hits.