As a rookie, Andrew Luck led one of the great N.F.L. turnarounds, taking a Colts team that was 2-14 without him in 2011 to 11-5 with him in 2012. This year, Luck has been even better, and Indianapolis, with a 13-3 record in its last 16 games and with recent victories over San Francisco and Seattle, has become a serious Super Bowl contender.
The No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, Luck will probably never be able to escape the spotlight, but somehow, he is still an underrated quarterback.
Some of Luck’s passing numbers as a rookie were unimpressive. One reason is that he played in a deep-passing offense under Bruce Arians. Luck’s average pass traveled 10.0 yards past the line of scrimmage last season, the farthest in the league.
Partly as a result, he ranked just 31st in completion percentage and 22nd in interception rate. After Arians left to become the Arizona Cardinals’ coach, the Colts brought in Pep Hamilton, Luck’s former offensive coordinator at Stanford, to direct the Indianapolis offense.
Hamilton’s background is in the West Coast offense, and his offensive system requires more high-percentage throws. With Hamilton, a resurgent running game and an improved defense, the Colts have put Luck in an even better position to succeed.
Luck’s completion percentage has jumped to 15th in the league, and his 1.3 percent interception rate is fourth best. But standard numbers do not capture all of the ways Luck has helped turn the Colts into perhaps the second-best team in the A.F.C. (after Denver).
Luck ranks fourth in ESPN’s Total QBR metric, which includes two of the hidden areas where Luck excels: rushing and third-down passing.
Luck has produced the most value on the ground of any quarterback in the league, according to Total QBR, slightly better than Michael Vick of Philadelphia. Luck has scrambled on third down five times in five games, and he has picked up a first down each time. That does not include a designed third-down run for a touchdown to clinch the game in San Francisco.
Luck does not run often — excluding kneel-downs, he has just 15 carries — but he makes the most of them with an average of 9.3 yards a carry. Against Oakland, his 19-yard touchdown on third-and-4 won the game.
Another reason for the Colts’ success is that Luck has played at his best in the biggest situations. According to Albert Larcada from ESPN Stats and Information, Luck has played extremely well, but in some under-the-radar ways, on third down.
His third-down pass attempts have led to six defensive pass interference or defensive holding calls — those are ignored by traditional statistics but help a team just as much as a completion, and no other quarterback has drawn more than four such penalties.
Luck has been sacked just once on 47 dropbacks on third down, another underrated quarterback skill. Add in Luck’s excellent play on third downs generally, and Larcada says that Luck has a league-leading (and near-perfect) 97.6 QBR on third down. To put that in context, Denver’s Peyton Manning is second at 90.2. As a team, Indianapolis has converted 50 percent of its third downs, the second-highest rate in the league behind the Broncos (58.3).
Luck continues to deliver not just on third down, but also in the fourth quarter. Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders noted that Luck set the rookie record in 2012 with seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. Against Seattle in Week 5, Luck led the Colts on another fourth-quarter game-winning drive, the ninth of his career. Luck reached nine game-winning drives faster than any other quarterback, doing so in just 22 games. He is 9 of 13 on game-winning-drive opportunities.
Luck was drafted to save a Colts franchise that looked lost without Manning in 2011. It seems the team with the horseshoe on its helmet will have the good fortune of fielding back-to-back superstar quarterbacks.