The 2012 NFL season may have given us more impressive performances by first-year starting quarterbacks than any previous season in the league's long history. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick all took their teams at either the start of the season, or at crucial times down the stretch, and redefined their offenses to a historic degree. Luck took the Indianapolis Colts, 2011's worst team, to the playoffs, and he was anything but a "game manager." He attempted more deep passes and took more pressure than any other quarterback. Griffin cost the Washington Redskins first-round draft picks in the next two years, but he proved to be worth that price when he took his team's formerly moribund offense into the vanguard of the NFL's new option attacks.
Russell Wilson wasn't expected to start when he was drafted -- that's what happens to a third-round pick who was dinked by front offices because of his height -- but he had a similarly transformative effect on the Seattle Seahawks' offense, and tied Peyton Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes while bailing out of the pocket more often than anyone else at his position. And Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers took his team to the verge of a Super Bowl win in his 10th professional start, with an offense that turned out to be uniquely and perfectly suited to his strengths.
Four young men who have done the unexpected, and raised the level of expectation for first-year starters (yes, folks, we know that Kaepernick is not technically a rookie) to a ridiculous degree. Now that their performances are in the books, however, all four of them are facing the same tough question: What do you do for an encore? Let's look at those four quarterbacks one at a time, starting with Mr. Luck.
The Chosen One
It was thought that when Andrew Luck was taken with the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft out of Stanford, the Indianapolis Colts might tailor their offense to something like what Luck ran in college -- heavy tight end sets, a lot of motion and play action, and little in the way of long-range risk throws. However, under new offensive coordinator (and interim head coach for most of the season) Bruce Arians, Luck was put under fire and tasked with impact throws to an extreme degree for any rookie. He attempted 101 passes in which the target was 20 or more yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus' metrics, which was 10 more than NFL runner-up Joe Flacco. And according to Football Outsiders' game charting, no quarterback last season faced pressure on more plays -- 187 "pressure plays" in 710 total plays. In the last three seasons, only Tampa Bay's Josh freeman was under fire on more plays (191 "pressure plays" in 2010).
As with just about every quarterback, Luck saw his efficiency go down fairly seriously in these instances -- his DVOA (FO's opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metric) was 28.3% without pressure, and minus -51.9% with pressure. He accounted for 7.4 yards per play when unpressured, and 3.8 yards per play in pressure situations. That's not to say that Luck is unique in balking under pressure -- Tom Brady, for example, fell from an unpressured 76.7% DVOA and 8.2 yards per play to a pressured minus -64.4% DVOA and 1.3 yards per play. How to break this trend? Well, with Arians off to Arizona to coach the Cardinals, new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton should consider rolling Luck out more -- per FO, Luck threw outside the pocket on 112 plays -- just 15.8 percent of the time -- but posted a 33.1% DVOA when he did so, as opposed to a 2.0% DVOA (about league average) in the pocket. I've compared Luck to Steve Young for his ability to make plays out of the pocket, and he has a preternatural ability to create structure on the fly when things break down. Moving the pocket more often may be his best bet, and since Hamilton worked with Luck in 2011 as Stanford's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, there may be a "back to the future" element to the Colts' offense in 2013.
“I’d say it’s about 20 percent new for Andrew. It’s 100 percent new for everyone else, 100 percent,” Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen told the team's official site in May. “The bad news is, with Andrew probably being the smartest guy in the building, he’s the one guy who could learn a new offense very quickly."
Good thing is, he won't have to, and as a result, he could be even more efficient than he was in his rookie year. The Colts went from 2-14 pre-Luck to 11-5 and a playoff berth when the rookie was expected to carry the offense from Day 1, and the most impressive thing about that is the amount of help Luck didn't get from some other position groups. Vick Ballard led the team with 814 rushing yards and finished 27th among all running backs in FO's cumulative efficiency metrics. Rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton led the Colts by finishing 27th in those same metrics for receivers, and though Reggie Wayne had a comeback season for the ages, he also finished with the lowest DVOA since his rookie year of 2001, and had a catch rate of 55 percent. Wayne may beat the odds, but those numbers generally scream "regression" for a guy who's going to be 35 in November.
The Colts' over-reliance on Luck was never more clear than in their wild-card playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Luck threw 54 passes, and none for touchdowns, as the Ravens teed off on him, expecting the pass when a more balanced attack wouldn't work.
But even in that loss, Luck impressed the Ravens with his mobility and toughness.
“He’s amazing. He was keeping plays alive,” Baltimore cornerback Corey Graham said of Luck after the game. “He looked like Big Ben [Roethlisberger] in there. He was keeping a lot of plays alive by throwing it short and running the ball. He was creating a lot of problems for us. Fortunately, we were able to contain him a little bit and make some plays when they really counted.”
Luck does have targets -- Hilton is an up-and-coming speedster, Wayne totally changed his game and became an amazing blocker, and rookie tight end Dwayne Allen (another great pick in general manager Ryan Grigson's first NFL draft) is a potential star who can make plays all along the formation. There are still questions about the Colts' offensive line and running game (though Ballard has a lot of potential), which means that Luck -- perhaps more than any other young quarterback in the NFL -- will have this team on his back. He's ready for that challenge, but he needs help from his teammates, and a coaching staff that understands where his strengths lie.
He also needs to refine his reads -- Luck will throw bunches of picks at times and take risks one would not generally want a young quarterback to take. On the plus side, he showed quickly that his mechanics are just as refined as the hype said -- he can make every required NFL throw from different angles and at different velocities, and he is ready for the complexities of NFL coverages. More good news: Luck, Ballard, Hilton, Allen, and tight end Coby Fleener were all rookies last year, so familiarity should pay serious dividends. Fleener also excelled in Stanford's offense, which is a plus.
In 2012, the Colts replaced Andrew Luck's training wheels with a rocket booster. A 2013 season with a bit more balance, but the explosive elements still intact, should further Luck's possible case as the best quarterback from what may turn out to be the best QB draft class of all time.
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