It All Starts With Luck

The two best quarterbacks of 2013 square off Sunday when Indianapolis hosts Denver. While all attention will be on Peyton Manning's homecoming, don't lose focus on the Colts' new franchise QB and his transcendent improvisational skills

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·
Because of his athleticism, Andrew Luck is able to keep plays alive in the face of rushing defenders and find room to use his arm strength to finish the job. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Because of his athleticism, Andrew Luck is able to keep plays alive in the face of rushing defenders and find enough room to then use his superior arm strength to finish the job. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

You’ll probably encounter more than a few articles about Peyton Manning returning to Indianapolis this week. It’s a great story, especially given that the 37-year-old has been the NFL’s best quarterback in 2013. But this column is about the guy Manning is facing—the guy who replaced him—and why he is the NFL’s second best quarterback in 2013.

Back in July, the Colts 2013 preview here on The MMQB said of Luck: 

Here’s what makes Luck special: his toughness and awareness in the pocket; his understanding of the synchronized timing between route combinations, protections and dropbacks; his sense for identifying defensive looks before the snap; his sense for confirming or rethinking defensive looks after the snap; his command for the subtle body-language mechanics that quarterbacks use to manipulate defenders (think Tom Brady’s shoulder flinches or Drew Brees’ hesitation fakes); an arm that is not super strong but powerful enough to always get the ball there on time; his accuracy, both off a plant-and-drive or on the move; his ability to extend plays in and out of the pocket; and, finally, killer good looks (okay, just kidding).

These are skills the 24-year-old has shown, but not yet mastered.

Six games into his sophomore season, Luck still has not “mastered” anything, but he’s startlingly close in a lot of areas. He doesn’t begin to have the stats that his Week 7 counterpart has (Luck ranks just 20th in yards and 17th in touchdowns). But, like Manning, he is overwhelmingly the main reason his club sits atop its division.

In this day of finesse spread passing games and illusory read-option rushing attacks, Indianapolis’s offense is something of a relic. It features a power running game and a deep-drop passing game that leans heavily on play-action. With today’s increasingly sophisticated defensive schemes and athletes, few offenses can still play this way.

The Colts can because of Luck, which is remarkable given that the pieces around him are fairly ho-hum. Aside from burgeoning star Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, the offensive line lacks athleticism. Through four games, running back Trent Richardson has looked as mundane in blue and white as he did in brown and orange. Richardson does not have the initial quickness or lateral agility to consistently create his own space. Indy’s receiving corps is good but not great. The venerable Reggie Wayne can still get open, and second-year pros T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener are ascending. But neither has fully arrived. This, and iffy depth, keeps this group from being in the upper echelons.

Fortunately, Luck is capable of spinning mediocrity into greatness. There are two significant factors behind his alchemy. First, Luck has a great feel for the intricacies of new coordinator Pep Hamilton’s system, which has helped him improve in the presnap phase. (More on this in a moment.) Secondly, Luck is unbelievable in the way he extends plays.

That’s what all great NFL quarterbacks do—extend plays. There are two types of play-extending quarterbacks. One: the cerebral, fundamentally sharp quarterbacks who are poised in the pocket and able to consistently work deep into progressions (think Manning, Brady, Brees). The other: the creative, more dynamic quarterbacks who have exceptional physical gifts that enable them to make something out of nothing (think Roethlisberger, Romo, Kaepernick). Luck is the rare blend of both types. In fact, he might be the purest blend ever seen.

Obviously, these “types” are not black and white. Great pocket quarterbacks can also make athletic, improvised plays. Great improvisational quarterbacks, though inherently less consistent, can also play smart and sound from the pocket. And we’ve seen immensely talented quarterbacks before who can consistently be either type (Aaron Rodgers comes to mind). But Luck is not just “either” type; he’s “both” types. This is to say, he’s not just brilliant in the pocket on one down and brilliant in sandlot on the next down; he’s brilliant in both ways simultaneously.

Luck has an extraordinary knack for maintaining the structure of a play when improvising. He does not create magic when things break down; he creates magic by not letting things break down. Here are some examples:

Graphic A1

Graphic A2

Graphic B1

Graphic B2

Luck makes these sorts of plays every week. Thrilling as they are, they’re not what he and the Colts prefer. Truly great offenses do not just react well to the game’s various circumstances; they control the circumstances. This is done through presnap diagnostics and adjustments. Obviously, Manning is the king of this. Luck is not yet near that level, but he’s rapidly climbing. We saw a great example of this a few weeks ago.

Graphic C1

Graphic C2

Sunday night will be a fantastic showcase not just for the past and future of elite quarterbacking, but for the present. The two best quarterbacks of 2013 will be on the field.

Continue to Page 2 for my Cardinals-Seahawks Thursday night preview.

THURSDAY NIGHT GAME

Richard Sherman (center) and the Seahawks defense were able to keep Larry Fitzgerald in check last season, allowing only five catches for 65 yards and no touchdowns in two games. (Christian Pedersen/Getty Images)
Richard Sherman (center) and the Seahawks defense were able to keep Larry Fitzgerald in check last season, allowing only five catches for 65 yards and no touchdowns in two games. (Christian Pedersen/Getty Images)

Cardinals offense vs. Seahawks defense

Richard Sherman would probably love the challenge of shadowing Larry Fitzgerald on a national stage. But since Brandon Browner returned a few weeks ago, the Seahawks mostly have kept their corners in their usual spots: Sherman along the left boundary, Browner the right boundary and Walter Thurmond inside.

Seattle’s Week 5 opponent, Indianapolis, often overloaded wide receivers to the same side of the field in order to either create mismatches against ancillary pass defenders or force a cornerback to play somewhere he’s not accustomed to playing. Expect Arizona to use the same overload tactics. Bruce Arians already has a lot of these concepts built into his passing attack.

If the Cards go with more trips formations, it would make sense for Sherman to follow Fitzgerald (especially when you consider that Browner has struggled with man concepts the past two weeks and would not thrive in this matchup). It might not matter who guards Fitzgerald anyway; it’s hard to envision Arizona’s O-line keeping Seattle’s increasingly fearsome pass-rush at bay.

Seahawks offense vs. Cardinals defense

Richard Sherman has been the best cornerback in football this season; Patrick Peterson is not far behind him. Whoever Peterson shadows should effectively be removed from this game, as none of Seattle’s wideouts are particularly dynamic. That’s true about the entire passing attack, actually. Russell Wilson has not been awful, but he has not been as sharp as he was at the end of last season.

The Seahawks have overcome aerial mediocrity so far because they’ve committed to a ground-oriented approach. According to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks have run the ball on 53.9 percent of their first-down snaps, second only to the Bills. And they’ve utilized play-action on 35.4 percent of their passes, most in the NFL.

As long as Marshawn Lynch is healthy, Seattle always has a chance to be productive on the ground. Lynch will have to keep creating a lot of his own yards, as this front five is still without starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini. Quietly, Arizona’s defensive front is one of the best in the league against the run. It should show why Thursday night, even if stud defensive end Calais Campbell is out (he spent last Sunday night in the hospital after a neck scare but hopes to play). Darnell Dockett, in particular, is a monstrous penetrator against zone-blocking, thanks to his superb initial quickness and violent hands.

More from The MMQB
31 comments
diybk
diybk

Nice fake title. It's pretty clear you don't even believe it yourself.  He's nowhere near.

AVL
AVL

Too early for all of this speculation. I do admire Luck for keeping it real with all scraping and bowing going on to his rear.

LuckFan
LuckFan

Anthony Castanzo is at best BARELY SERVICEABLE, he only looks decent to this writer b/c the other OL are MORE PUTRID than him (this writer really needs to do more film study of how Castbozo looks going up against good defenders & whether he makes his fellow OL better or not) . He regularly gets beaten by superior defenders.  Was ranked by CBS 26th/32 LTs last year and had a putrid game vs. Seahawks. San Diego has putrid D, but looked great against Colts b/c the coaching staff made terrible decisions.  Anyone can look good surrounded by much worse players in comparison.  If you're 4'11 surrounded by midgets (sorry no offense to anyone), you're going to look like a giant.

Divinewind
Divinewind

What he is talking about I noticed last year and was telling people to forget about his young peers, they are not in the same stratosphere with him. Let's face it there is a reason why scouts and people that truly know football were saying he is the greatest QB prospect and a can't miss to come out since Elway. He is a freak of nature and has the "it: factor. None of his young peers have it. Imagine him on Seattle or SF with their great defenses (for better field position), top offensive lines and great running games. SB winners with him at the helm.

ToddMcLean
ToddMcLean

I am a big Andrew Luck fan, but no way in the world is he the second best QB this year. No possible way! And Pep Hamilton, he is not a good offensive coordinator and that will probably be found out over the course of this year. Andrew Luck might be in the top two in the next three years or so....but are saying you would take him over Brady, Brees, and Rodgers right now?  Serious? I wouldn't take him over Rivers. They hype around Andrew Luck needs to calm down a little bit. He is good, but not close to great right now. And Colin Cowherd....please end your ridiculous man crush on this guy. My goodness!

Baconpizza
Baconpizza

I'd say he's in the top 6 right now but he'll be #1 in about 3 years, possibly sooner.   His combination of football IQ, leadership, and physical talent make him the heir apparent to the Brady, Brees, Peyton, and Rodgers club, and people shouldn't be surprised when he puts it all together because he undoubtedly will. 

hungtnguyen
hungtnguyen

Great joke you added in the title there, Andy. Particularly when the stats mentioned are that Luck, as one of top two QBs in the league, is 20th in yards & 17th in TDs. But, kudos to you since I clicked on the story to read further, in case there was some newly discovered analysis that would bear that point out.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

THIS SEASON ONLY, not how they are all time right now or will be...

 #1  Peyton

 #2  Phillip Rivers  (2nd highest completion % at over 72 % & a QB rating of over 108)

 #3  Drew Brees

 #4  Aaron Rodgers

 #5  Tony Romo

 #6  Matt Ryan

 #7  Jay Cutler  (over 65% completion % and QB rating over 95)

 #8  Matt Stafford (I'm not a fan but 62.8% completion % and over a 95 QB rating)

 #9  Russell Wilson (his stats and Luck's are about equal but his are a tad better, so...)

#10 Andrew Luck


I don't want to hear from Pats or Brady fans as his completion percentage is below 57% and his QB rating is below 80.

Like I said, this is for how they've done so far this season.  Obviously Tom is one of the best to ever play and if I needed a QB for one game this yr he'd be much higher up this list but his stats for the first 6 games are what they are.

If I could pick a QB to start a team going forward I would take Luck based on his age and his skills.

PackChick
PackChick

Andrew Luck has been the 2nd best QB of the year.  Russell Wilson has "not been awful".

QB Ratings: Wilson 92.7 (#11),   Luck 89.6 (#15)

Wow, somebody's on the take from NBC Sports.

so
so

There is no statistical argument to be made that Andrew Luck is the second best QB, or even a top 5 one at that. He has half the touchdowns as Drew Brees and his team has a worse record. Not saying he isn't good, but that's some serious hyperbole to generate interest in Sunday night's game.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

THIS SEASON ONLY mind you, not where they currently rank or will rank all time obviously. 

#1  Peyton

#2  Phillip Rivers  (2nd highest completion % at over 72% and over 108 QB rating)

 #3  Drew Brees

 #4  Aaron Rodgers

 #5  Tony Romo

 #6  Matt Ryan

 #7  Jay Cutler  (65.9% completion % and over 95 QB rating so far)

 #8  Matt Stafford (I'm not a fan of his, but 62.8% completion % and over 95 QB rating so far)

 #9  Russell Wilson (his and Luck's stats are about equal but Russell's are a tad better so)

#10 Andrew Luck 


I don't want to hear from Pats fans or Brady fans as Tom Brady is well below 60% completion % so far this season and below 80 for QB rating so far this season.  


j7apple
j7apple

Andy, Andy ,Andy  you lose your credibility as a sports writer with articles like this. Luck number 2?  Really?

DoctoreOenomaus
DoctoreOenomaus

As a Colts fan I find it absurd that you think Luck is the 2nd best QB in the game. Peyton is tops definitely, but I think several QBs are playing better than Luck is namely: Brees, Romo and Rivers. And just out of sheer respect I'd put Brady and Rodgers ahead of him right now. He is definitely already a top 10 QB thus far. But what he is doing more than any QB this year is making subtle little WOW plays. Google "Andrew Luck Houdini moments".

turbulator20
turbulator20

Someday, in the next few years, Andrew Luck will begin a string of All-Pro selections. However, to proclaim him as one of the top two quarterbacks in 2013 is highly presumptuous...........guessing writer wants to be first in "I told you so" game..........

Allthings18
Allthings18

If anyone thinks Luck is in 2nd best QB in the game then they are clueless.  12-15 Would be a good spot for him.

marksocoby
marksocoby

Second-best QB in the NFL? And MMQB is letting you write articles? What an absolute joke.

mnico213
mnico213

 "The two best quarterbacks of 2013 will be on the field."  Obviously, Peyton is a given, but shouldn't you try and back it up with statistics if you are going to make the statement that Luck is one of the two best QBs of 2013 or is he just the best because you say so?  I think Luck absolutely has the talent to be the best QB in the league eventually, but he's not there (or second best) yet.

Jon8
Jon8

@ToddMcLean

I would take him over Rivers in a heartbeat!

Firstly he is much younger and has a much longer career ahead!

Secondly, he has never displayed the extreme highs and lows of Rivers and his slumps!

Luck is steady as a rock!

While he is not the 2nd best QB in the game, he is The best, of the younger crop!!!

Divinewind
Divinewind

@ToddMcLean I am not too fond of Pep either but I think Coach Pagano is behind some of the offensive strategies. Hype? Heck he received little hype last year while taking a 2 win team to 11 with a really bad O-line, average run game and below average defense. He is a freak of nature and now is starting to get his just due.

Baconpizza
Baconpizza

@ToddMcLean  

You wouldn't take him over Rivers?  The writer is talking real football, not fantasy.

Divinewind
Divinewind

@hungtnguyen The old saying is statistics are for losers....what he does doesn't show up on stat sheets. Have you been watching him at all or understand the article? He is not playing behind the Niner or Seahawk O-lines you know or New England's either.

Divinewind
Divinewind

@Sportsfan18 The Seattle QB isn't in the same stratosphere as Luck. You know nothing of NFL football. But here I will explain something to you. Wilson plays behind an excellent O-line with a top flight running back and a great defense which makes for better field position. Luck has a bad O-line, below average running game and a average at best defense. Seattle would be the odds on favorite to win it all with Luck as it's QB.

Divinewind
Divinewind

@PackChick Once again a know nothing about NFL football. Seattle top flight defense for better field position. One of the best RB's in the game and a excellent O-line. Colts terrible O-line, below average running game and average D at best. Seattle would trade anything to the Colts for Luck and Seattle would be odds on favorite to win SB with him.

Divinewind
Divinewind

@so There is an old saying....statistics are for losers.

Divinewind
Divinewind

@Allthings18 You are the clueless one and know nothing of NFL football....every team in the league would want him right now (and offer anything the Colts wanted) except maybe Green Bay. Yes Peyton, Brees and Brady are ahead of him but they are at the end of their careers.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@Divinewind @Sportsfan18   Luck IS a better QB than Wilson in my opinion and who I would take if I could pick ANY QB going forward.  I'm NOT talking about potential, but I am ONLY talking about their stats through the first 6 games this season, that IS all.

Again, as I previously stated my rankings above were based on PLAY so far this yr.

Wilson  QB rating 92.7

Luck QB rating 89.6

Wilson  yards per attempt  7.9

Luck yards per attempt  7.2

Wilson  8 TD's 4 picks

Luck 7 TD's 3 picks

Wilson rushing yards this season  294 yards with a 5.9 yard average per rush

Luck rushing yards this season  154 yards with a 6.4 yard average per rush


Like I said, their stats (again THEIR stats for just the first 6 games this yr are about identical and as I said, I wasn't ranking them based on where they'll end up or who I'd pick first but ONLY on their stats for the first 6 games this season).

fisherdr
fisherdr

@Divinewind @PackChick You keep ramming it down everyone's throats that Seattle has a great offensive line, but their OL has been decimated this year. Russel Wilson is playing very good football while running for his life and deserves credit for being right on the same level as Luck this year. And this is from a Colts fan.

Allthings18
Allthings18

Genius, if I wanted my own comeback I'd wipe it off your purty mouth. Add originality to the list of things you don't know anything about. Put it at #2 right behind football. 

Newsletter