The NFL narrative machine has been unusually busy in 2018, churning out headline fodder at a blistering pace. Whether it’s been the emergence of uber-cool gunslinger Patrick Mahomes, Le’Veon Bell’s ongoing contract saga (which now includes a chapter devoted to L.A. Fitness) or Eli Manning’s somber New York swan song, the season’s first two months have offered NFL diehards no shortage of compelling plotlines.
These are top-shelf story arcs, riveting page-turners flush with drama and intrigue. Next-man-up James Conner is the underdog in all of us while Mahomes is a gift from football heaven, a limitless prodigy worthy of our utmost attention. But those topics have been covered ad nauseam, to the point where there isn’t much new light to shed on them. That’s why, at least for the length of this article, I’d like to divert your attention to a story I feel has been grossly underreported. It’s been said that America loves a comeback story but if that’s true, why aren’t we buying what Andrew Luck is selling?
A year ago, Luck was Andy Dufresne crawling through a sewer pipe. Now he’s in the midst of his magnum opus, painting weekly masterpieces with his right arm. Seeing Luck perform at a high level is nothing new. He’s been a maestro since the Colts tapped him as Peyton Manning’s successor all the way back in 2012. Given the impossible task of filling Manning’s shoes, the Stanford alum came through with flying colors, guiding the Colts to a postseason appearance in his debut season. That was a Herculean feat considering Indy won just two games the year prior. Luck really came out of his shell in 2014, torpedoing his way to a league-high 40 touchdown throws while leading the Colts to within a game of Super Bowl XLIX (the Deflategate game would be their undoing). But the next year Luck faltered, malfunctioning to the tune of 12 interceptions in only seven games before succumbing to a season-ending shoulder injury.
That’s when it all began to unravel for the former first overall pick. Luck soldiered through the 2016 campaign, producing his usual gaudy numbers (31 touchdowns, career-high 7.78 yards per attempt) while operating at far less than 100 percent. The three-time Pro Bowler went under the knife shortly after the season in hopes of being ready for Week 1. Questions percolated as the quarterback’s absence stretched into the regular season. The Colts continued to tease his return, declining to stash Luck on injured reserve despite his lack of progress. Jacoby Brissett, acquired from New England on the eve of the regular season, was just a Band-Aid, the Colts insisted. Despite league-wide skepticism, the Colts stood firm in their belief that at some point, the training wheels would come off for the talented 29-year-old.
But it never happened. Luck’s throne remained vacant all year as the Colts eventually gave up the ghost, removing Brissett’s interim label and sending Luck where he belonged from Day 1: injured reserve. The season went predictably haywire from there as Indy finished with its worst record since 2011 when Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery. Whether the Colts deceived their fan base about Luck in order to sell tickets during a lost season remains up for debate. But back in 2017, the only discussion we were having was whether Luck would ever step foot on an NFL field again. Even the relentlessly upbeat Luck wasn’t sure if a comeback was in the cards. When it became clear that he was coming back, a conclusion reached after months of pain-staking rehab, there was still no guarantee that Luck would ever make it back to his pre-injury heights. And that’s proven true to this point. Luck hasn’t equaled his past success—he’s exceeded it.
Even with last week’s bye, Luck ranks second in the league in touchdown passes with 23. Luck’s completion percentage (65.8) is well above his career mark of 60.0 while his 96.2 quarterback rating is only a few ticks below his high-water mark of 96.5 set during his electric 2014 campaign. Those are holy-smoke-stop-the-presses type stats, the kind of showy numbers you’d expect from a younger, chest-thumping signal-caller high off his own swagger, not a literature-loving poindexter coming off three years of injury hell.
Remarkably, most of Luck’s exploits this year have come without the help of his usual supporting pieces. A perennial 1,000-yard receiver during Luck’s pre-injury heyday, T.Y. Hilton has been a relative nonfactor for the fighting horseshoes, producing a meager (by his standards) 58.8 receiving yards per game while struggling with chest and hamstring ailments. Injuries have also taken a toll on safety net Jack Doyle, who has only competed in three of the Colts’ first eight games. Luck has to ride lesser steeds this year, but he’s made it work nonetheless, coaxing career-best performances out of reclamation project Eric Ebron, Redskins castoff Ryan Grant and undrafted Grambling alum Chester Rogers.
And isn’t that what the great ones do? Quarterback in the modern NFL is nothing but an elaborate exercise in improvisation. Tom Brady has won Super Bowls throwing to David Patten and Troy Brown. Peyton made a career out of propping up no-names like Austin Collie and Jacob Tamme. Adaptability is the brush all quarterbacks must paint with and this year’s rash of injuries in the Hoosier State has forced Luck to dig deep. He’s been MacGyver in shoulder pads, diffusing bombs much to the delight of his fantasy owners, the bold adventurers who believed in Luck when others doubted.
The Colts aren’t anyone’s idea of a good team—they enter the second half with a paltry 3-5 record—which may explain Luck’s relative lack of fanfare. How quickly the football masses have forgotten just how bleak Luck’s future was just a few short months ago. As recently as June, Luck hadn’t even advanced to throwing a full-sized football yet. The reports out of training camp were just as worrying. Stephen Holder, a beat reporter for The Athletic, noted in August that Luck didn’t have his signature “fastball,” struggling to regain the velocity and timing that made him such an explosive weapon at the beginning of his career.
Early in the year, Luck’s rust was evident. The Houston native looked noticeably tentative in his first three games, compiling a sluggish 5.34 yards per attempt with nearly as many turnovers (three) as touchdowns (five). Luck hadn’t let it rip yet, contributing a long gain of 29 yards during that early stretch. But like Popeye, the stud signal-caller eventually found his spinach, feeding his jubilant fantasy owners with a decadent buffet of touchdowns and yards. Luck’s heroics included 11 touchdown throws to six different receivers (talk about spreading the wealth) and 1,130 passing yards (376.7 yards per contest) over a torrid three-game stretch between Weeks 4-6. It was an exhilarating display and more importantly, a reminder that even with his injury baggage and a suspect supporting cast, the seven-year vet could still bring it.
Luck truthers have been quick to dismiss the quarterback’s impressive first half, citing his immense volume as the reason for his gaudy numbers. And while that may seem like an attempt to needlessly pollute a feel-good story, it’s actually a valid criticism. Luck has seen an exhausting workload this year, leading the league with 42.8 pass attempts per game. His most demanding stretch happened between Weeks 4-6 when Luck slung it a ludicrous 164 times (54.7 attempts per game). And though that three-week run would amount to a net positive for Luck, it did have its low moments. Chief among them was an erratic Week 6 performance against the Jets, a rollercoaster outing that saw Luck complete just 53.5 percent of his passes (23-for-43) while committing a season-high three interceptions.
Presented with that three-game snapshot and nothing else, the general public would probably assume Luck was suffering from a severe case of Kobe Bryant syndrome. Bryant, of course, was the quintessential volume scorer, an annual threat to score the most points, not because of his shooting prowess but because, quite simply, he was putting up more shots than anyone else on the planet. Obviously, this site is catered to fantasy players, many of whom will tune out this discussion entirely because well, frankly it doesn’t matter. What do we care if Luck throws 60 times a game? In the fantasy realm, points are points.
Of course, these ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It is indeed possible for Luck to be both a high-volume passer, which he very much is, and a dominant performer worthy of our admiration (or at least a 2,000-word profile on Rotoworld.com). The Kobe comparison is also an outdated narrative as Luck has averaged a far more reasonable 27 attempts over his last two games, both of which were smashing successes in the real-life and fantasy arenas. He’s been masterful during that stretch, connecting on 72.2 percent of his throws with seven touchdowns and no interceptions while assuming a Mahomes-ian 132.3 quarterback rating. And here’s the kicker—Indianapolis won both games, outscoring their two opponents (Buffalo and Oakland) by an overwhelming 79-33 margin.
So what’s changed for Luck and the suddenly-surging Colts? Well besides beating up on a pair of hapless, wildly unqualified opponents (overpaid retread Jon Gruden has authored a truly inspiring comedy of errors in Oakland this year while Buffalo’s quest for rock bottom has also gone quite swimmingly), the Colts have quietly reversed a trend that’s followed them for much of the past decade. Indianapolis is finally running the ball with purpose thanks to the emergence of second-year USF alum Marlon Mack, who has quickly risen to RB1 status in fantasy leagues. The Colts adopted a committee backfield early on but have since abandoned it, allowing Mack free reign with the occasional sprinkle of Nyheim Hines. Since returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him most of the first month, Mack has been extraordinary, amassing 401 yards from scrimmage along with four touchdowns, three of them of the rushing variety.
Maybe Mack always had it in him, or maybe he’s simply benefited from a substantially improved offensive line. Hyped first-rounder Quenton Nelson has been an immediate standout, performing superbly at left guard while garnering league-wide recognition as October’s Rookie of the Month. He’s actually the second Colt to receive that honor this year, following September recipient Darius Leonard. The second-round linebacker who goes by Maniac has been a master disruptor, leading the league in tackles with 88.
With an influx of young talent and promising first-year head coach Frank Reich (who was hired only after scared-to-leave-New-England Josh McDaniels memorably left them at the altar) calling the shots, not to mention a healthy and motivated Luck, the Colts might be onto something. It will surely take more than a year to undo Chuck Pagano’s many wrongs, but for the first time in a while, there’s a real sense of optimism in Indy.
What’s the fantasy rub?
Luck should be feeling refreshed coming off last week’s bye. The Colts will return to a home matchup against the Jaguars, losers of four straight. A year ago, this would have been a stay-away matchup for Luck, but Jacksonville’s defense has scuffled recently, allowing big games to Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes throughout their losing streak. Injuries have played a role in their recent failures and the Jags will again be without All-Pro cornerback A.J. Bouye (calf) in Week 10.
With Mack commanding touches as the Colts’ newly-installed bell-cow, Luck’s absurd volume will inevitably shrink. That’s not what fantasy owners want to hear, though it’s probably the best bet for Luck’s long-term health—an oft-injured quarterback coming off his millionth shoulder surgery probably shouldn’t be slinging 700 passes in his first year back. Maybe he won’t throw for 400 yards, but this is not the week to fade Luck, not when he’s playing at home coming off a bye. Leave the overthinking to someone else and start Luck with confidence.