Dougherty: Colts' Luck not waning

Pete Dougherty
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What have you heard about the highly regarded NFL quarterback who’s been having a rough time going back to last year?

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, right, talks with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers prior to the Hall of Fame Game.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, right, talks with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers prior to the Hall of Fame Game.

No, not Aaron Rodgers. Andrew Luck.

Luck, who will play at Lambeau Field for the first time Sunday, is 5-10 with the Indianapolis Colts over the last two seasons. Rodgers' 8-9 record going back to last November holds up by comparison.

So with all the scrutiny of Rodgers this year, the Green Bay Packers' match-up with the Colts this week left me wondering what’s going on with Luck, who was on his way to becoming the NFL’s next great quarterback and looked ready to take his team to a Super Bowl title any season now. That’s surely what Colts owner Jim Irsay thought when in June he made Luck the NFL’s highest-paid player at an average of $23.3 million a season.

Because generally speaking, the very best quarterbacks usually elevate their teams to decent seasons even under bad circumstances. Rodgers last year had the lowest passer rating of his career as a starter, yet the Packers still went 10-6 in the regular season, and then in the playoffs won a wild-card game and went into overtime in the divisional round. And despite his uneven play play this year, the Packers are 4-3.

So Luck’s 5-10 record in 2014 and ’15 combined raised questions: Were his struggles last season (2-5 record, 74.9 rating) more than just injuries? Are his offensive line and other supporting cast really as bad as recent reports say, or are his high sack totals (a league-worst 31 this season) more indicative of a problem with him? And is he still the NFL’s next great quarterback?

For an expert opinion, I called a scout I talk to regularly and whose team recently played the Colts. His take: Luck remains one of the game's best quarterbacks and gets the benefit of the doubt because he's caught in unusually bad circumstances.

“I think he’s a talented guy that’s not surrounded by very much support,” the scout said. “Individual talent – I think his football IQ is really good. I think he’s got excellent arm talent, can make every throw in the book. When he’s not beat up he moves pretty well, can scramble, can get a lot of yardage in that regard.

“Ultra-competitive. You can put the ball in his hands and he can take over a game. I’ve got a pretty high opinion of him. I just think he doesn’t have very much around him.”

When I think of Luck, I think of two things: The Colts’ record before and after they drafted him, and the one time I’ve seen him live, in 2012 against the Packers.

In 2010, the Colts with Peyton Manning at quarterback went 10-6 and to the playoffs for the ninth straight season. In ’11, Manning didn’t play because of a neck injury, and Indianapolis went 2-14, which put them in position to draft Luck at No. 1 overall. Then in ’12, with Luck as their rookie quarterback, they went 11-5 and were back in the playoffs.

That’s the definition of a great quarterback. Just like Manning, without him his team was bad; with him, it’s in the playoffs. The Colts went 11-5 in ’13 and ’14 as well.

I saw Luck live in his fifth game in the NFL, when the Packers went to Indianapolis. For much of that day he played OK at best. His 81.0 passer rating pretty much reflects his overall performance that afternoon.

And yet, he kept the Colts in the game after they’d fallen behind by 18 points. And twice when he got back the ball in the fourth quarter needing a touchdown to take the lead, he led touchdown drives of 75 and 80 yards.

The play I remember most was a third-and-12 on the final drive. Luck had Clay Matthews hanging all over him, but at 6-4 and 240 pounds he stood tall and muscled a stunning 15-yard pass to Reggie Wayne that kept the drive going.

That’s what the best quarterbacks do. Even if they muddle through a game, they often find a way to win.

So the big question I had was whether Luck’s struggles were because he was holding the ball too long. His 31 sacks this season are five more than the No. 2, Andy Dalton, and he’s on pace for 62 for the season, which would tie for fifth-most in league history.

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Big sacks numbers often are attributed to offensive lines, but they’re actually more often the product of the quarterback.

When you look at the list of quarterbacks sacked most in an NFL season, the top 10 is a who’s who of journeymen and busts: David Carr (23-56 record as a starter), Jon Kitna (50-74), Steve Beuerlein (47-55), Ken O’Brien (50-59-1), Neil Lomax (47-52), Tony Eason (28-23) and Jeff George (46-78).

The only quarterback in the top 10 with a good record is Randall Cunningham (82-52- 1). The others are there because they didn’t get the ball out quickly enough, and their teams often lost because of it. Cunningham might have had some issues there too, but he’s an exception as spectacular scrambler whose sacks numbers were inflated because never saw a rusher he didn’t think he could escape.

Manning, on the other hand, was as immobile as they come and never played behind good offensive lines – the Colts spent most of their salary cap on him and the skill position players around him. Yet in his 13 seasons as their starter he never was sacked even 30 times. In 11 of those years it was fewer than 20.

So it’s hard to dismiss out of hand Luck’s sacks numbers through eight games.  But the aforementioned scout largely absolved him because of two factors: an uncommonly bad line, and the Colts’ downfield-oriented passing scheme.

The scout ticked through the Colts' starting line one by one with a brief evaluation: left tackle Anthony Castonzo, a first-round pick in 2011, is “grossly overrated;” left guard Jack Mewhort is their best blocker and is “very good” but was ruled out for Sunday because of a triceps injury; rookie center Ryan Kelly, a first-round pick, is a promising talent but nothing “special right now;” as for right guard Denzelle Good “it’s tough to make a case for him being an NFL player at this point;” and right tackle Joe Haeg is “a journeyman offensive lineman at best who’s playing with a bad back and multiple other injuries.”

“It’s tough when you have a guy that’s that talented,” the scout said of Luck, “and he’s the guy that’s going to win or lose games for you, and you can’t protect him.”

Then there’s the Colts’ offense. Coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who’s in his first season with the Colts, favors a vertical passing game, and that means Luck has to wait for patterns to develop.

In Luck’s first three seasons he saw his sacks totals drop from 41 to 32 to 27. Last year it was 15 in seven games, which put him on pace for 34 for the season. This year that’s exploded to 31 already.

Remember Rodgers in 2009? Through nine games he was on pace to be sacked 73 times, which would have ranked second all-time behind only Carr’s 76 in 2002. Then coach Mike McCarthy tweaked his play calling to quicker-hitting throws and emphasized the need to get the ball out fast, and his quarterback was sacked only nine times in the final seven games. Game plans and emphasis matter.

“(The Colts) will run T.Y. Hilton on those deep corner routes or deep posts, so (Luck) has got to hold the ball,” the scout said. “… And if you’re going to hold it you have to make sure you have better protection up front so he can step up and throw it.”

The best quarterback rankings I’ve come across are by’s Mike Sando, who before the last three seasons has surveyed coaches and scouts around the league to get as close as you’ll see to a consensus about how NFL quarterbacks stack up. Sando asks them to place the quarterbacks in one of five tiers, then tabulates the results.

In ’15, the 32 coaches and scouts Sando consulted collectively ranked Rodgers and New England's Tom Brady as tied for first, with Luck next. Going into this season, Sando talked with 42 coaches and scouts, and Luck finished seventh (Rodgers was second).

The reason Luck dropped was the run of injuries that ultimately ended his ’15 season early. He put up a 2-5 record and 74.9 rating during a season in which he tried to play through torn rib cartilage, a shoulder injury and then a lacerated kidney.

At age 27, Luck is hitting his prime though he’s still young for a franchise quarterback – he could have 10 more years and possibly more as a starter if his health holds. And don’t let his 5-10 record over the last 14 months, and all the sacks this season, fool you: The Packers on Sunday will be facing one of the league's talented and dangerous players.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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