Just a few months ago, it was reasonable to wonder whether Andrew Luck would ever play football again. A year ago, the rumblings about Luck’s future had reached a fever pitch, and as recently as this summer, there were still lingering doubts about the mysterious injury to his throwing shoulder that caused the former no. 1 overall pick to miss the entire 2017 campaign. In September, comments about his snowboarding accident became national news.
Now, as the Colts barrel into the second half of the 2018 season, that sky-is-falling rhetoric seems trite. Based on his numbers over the first nine games this year, Luck is on pace to throw for 4,395 yards with an astonishing 46 touchdown passes. His 7.0 touchdown percentage and 66.3 percent completion rate are both the highest marks of his career, and Indianapolis is scoring 28.9 points per game, the sixth-best figure in the league. After a year of missed games and panicked narratives, Luck has reclaimed his place as one of the best quarterbacks in football.
It’s how he’s done it, though, that’s made this season particularly fascinating. During the first five years of Luck’s career, the Colts employed a rotating cast of offensive coordinators, each one favoring schemes that heavily incorporated slow-developing downfield passing plays. Playing in a system like that in 2016, behind a porous offensive line, Luck was pressured on 278 dropbacks — the highest total in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He was also knocked down 126 times, the second-highest mark in the league that year, as tracked by Sports Info Solutions. Prior to this season, we’d only seen Colts offenses that put Luck in harm’s way. Combine that with a quarterback who doesn’t exactly shy away from punishment, and it’s not all that surprising that the team’s franchise player sat out an entire season and went to Europe for experimental medical procedures (and knowing Luck, probably to check out some of the local architecture).
The arrival of first-year head coach Frank Reich has changed all that. Reich’s play-calling is designed to ease the physical toll Luck takes over the course of the season, and potentially beyond. The Colts’ aim is to get the ball out of Luck’s hand as quickly as possible, and so far it’s worked wonders. Two years after leading the league in pressured dropbacks, Luck now ranks tied for 11th (116, according to PFF). He hasn’t been sacked in over a month.
Luck is only 29, but he’s already gone from being Indianapolis’s QB second coming to an injured afterthought all the way back to one of the league’s top passers. And playing under this new system, with all of its protections in place, Luck is positioned to do more than just stay in that elite tier — he can surpass anything he accomplished in his first five seasons.
The Colts’ offensive philosophy during Luck’s early years with Indianapolis led to plenty of thrilling moments. With a speedy receiver like T.Y. Hilton streaking through opposing secondaries, it was normal to see plays in which Luck launched 45-yard heat-seeking missiles on a line. In 2014 alone, Luck tossed 40 touchdown passes and threw for more than 4,700 yards for a team that went 11-5. Pep Hamilton’s tenure had its moments.
But an approach built on deep passes also had its drawbacks. In 2016, after Hamilton had been replaced as the team’s offensive coordinator by Rob Chudzinski, Luck’s average completion traveled 7.7 yards in the air, tied for the fifth-highest mark in football. His release time was 2.88 seconds, which was tied for the 35th-fastest time among 39 qualified quarterbacks. The Colts were built to throw deep, but they were also built to get their star QB sacked 41 times that season.
Even in down-and-distance situations that didn’t necessitate it, the Colts would look for chunk plays first and easy completions second. Take this second-and-10 play from a Week 11 win over the Titans in 2016. Indianapolis was winning this game 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, with two downs to get 10 yards and sustain the drive. So naturally, the Colts motioned to an empty set, left five players in to block the Titans’ front, and got Luck sacked before any of his receivers could even turn their heads. Hilton ran a 6-yard out, but because it was toward the sideline, it would have been about a 30-yard throw for Luck to make under almost immediate pressure. For Luck’s first five seasons, the Colts’ schemes routinely failed to use the middle of the field and made his life much harder in the process.
Compare that to the results from this season, and Luck looks like a much different quarterback. Under the old regime, Luck was often criticized for holding onto the ball too long. There was concern that patting the ball and looking for the big play were in his DNA as a passer, and that, while Indy’s offensive line lacked talent, Luck’s mind-set compounded the problem. This year, Luck’s average time to throw is 2.61 seconds. That ranks tied for fifth in the league, which is in the vicinity of quick-release artists like Tom Brady (2.61) and Drew Brees (2.57). It’s clear now that Luck was always capable of adapting his style — he just needed to be in a system that prioritized getting the ball out quickly.
Luck’s average completion distance has fallen this year, down to 5.7 air yards, which is 2 yards shorter than his 2016 figure. Early in the season, that dink-and-dunk approach was seen as a sign that Luck’s shoulder may not be fully healthy. But watching the Colts offense over the past month, concerns about Luck getting pulled for Hail Marys are a distant memory. It’s clear Luck can still put plenty of sauce on throws when he needs to. It’s just that instead of relying on Luck’s rocket arm to drive the offense, Reich has been able to successfully scheme receivers open and pick his spots.
Take this 53-yard touchdown pass to Eric Ebron last week, for example. All of the action happens in an instant. Before the play even starts, Hilton cuts down his split and gains a tiny advantage that helps him draw linebacker Telvin Smith’s attention and pull cornerback Jalen Ramsey away from his deep-third responsibilities. Running back Nyheim Hines streaks toward the flat behind Hilton, which would normally create a natural rub with Ramsey and flat defender Barry Church. But on this play, the Jaguars are so discombobulated that the pick isn’t even necessary. Jacksonville’s defense is so turned around by the design that Ebron is free to coast into the secondary and haul in an easy reception for a score. This throw travels about 30 yards in the air, but it’s out of Luck’s hand in less than 2.5 seconds. Reich hasn’t been trying to make the Colts less aggressive overall this season — he’s just been trying to lessen Luck’s burden when Indy does decide to take a shot.
Another example comes on this deep completion to Hilton, also from Sunday’s 29-26 win over the Jags. In some ways, the play is reminiscent of the old Colts offenses. It’s a slow-developing design with a deep drop that’s intended to create an explosive play down the field. But there are a few key differences. Rather than asking Luck to find Hilton in a tight window up the sideline, Reich uses a play fake and Hilton’s speed to open up space between the numbers. Also, check out the protection. The Colts keep a whopping seven players in to block, ensuring that Luck has plenty of time to find his man. It’s another instance of this offense’s well-timed and well-executed aggression that lets a protected Luck air it out and find his man.
Reich has proved this season that he’s a master play designer, but all the max protection in the world wouldn’t matter if the Colts weren’t vastly improved along the offensive line. General manager Chris Ballard spent the sixth overall pick last spring on Notre Dame prodigy Quenton Nelson, and the rookie has solidified the Colts’ left guard position and the interior of their offensive line. Ballard also snagged Auburn product Braden Smith in the second round. Smith was projected as a future guard by many, but he’s held down the Colts’ right-tackle job beautifully for most of this season.
Having a solid offensive line and a GM who stockpiles draft capital rather than dealing it away for a running back are both foreign concepts to Luck since his arrival in Indy in 2012. And more importantly, so is having a play-caller who can both insulate the quarterback and help him grow as a passer. As star QBs around the league found coaches they could pair with for extended stretches (Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels in New England; Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans; Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley in Pittsburgh), the Colts’ offensive play-caller position became a revolving door, with Luck playing for three different ones in his first five seasons. Reich’s arrival changes that, and it may also change the outlook for both Luck and the Colts moving forward.
Luck’s future looked bleak a year ago, but under Reich’s scheme, he’s now in a position to thrive in a way he never has before. Sitting at 4-5, Indy has a tough road to a wild-card berth this season. Yet with a healthy Luck back in place, the Colts are poised to become annual playoff contenders sooner than anyone could have predicted. And if Reich continues to scheme easy throws, the line keeps up its level of protection, and Luck progresses the way he has this year, the second half of the quarterback’s career could be even better than the first.