Andrew Luck Is Having Another Pretty Average Season
Praised as one of the best NFL prospects in decades, Luck was simply fulfilling his promise and becoming the game’s -- and Indy’s -- next all-time great passer.
Except he wasn't.
A Little History
As it was happening, in the midst of his 40-touchdown season, we tried telling you Luck wasn’t as good as you thought. When that didn’t go over well -- we were basically mocked in the comments section of this IndyStar article -- we hit you over the head with it again. And we weren't the only analytics-driven site singing the tune.
Still, it didn’t really take, and you know what? I get it.
If a best-prospect-in-years quarterback comes into the league, takes over a two-win team, goes 33-15 in his first three seasons, and makes it to the AFC title game in the third year while edging out Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning for the league lead in touchdown passes, the hype is going to be through the roof.
While it may have been hard to grasp back then, you should be a lot more receptive now. Not only are the wins not there -- the Colts are 6-7 and one of the worst teams in the league, per our numbers -- at 27, Luck is no longer the new kid in town.
His middling play hasn’t progressed, and he hasn’t outgrown his turnover-prone ways.
It may seem like Luck is performing worse than normal this season, especially after a bad game last week in a crushing loss to the Houston Texans, but that’s not entirely true.
What is true is that he’s having another pretty average season in what’s been a pretty average career through five years. It’s just now that the wins have dried up, people -- including the IndyStar -- are starting to rethink their views on Luck.
That’s how quarterbacks are judged by the masses: win and critiques won’t be too harsh; lose and you’re going to get picked apart, even if you’re playing well.
Other than wins, one of the main reasons there used to be a big gap in the consensus view of Luck and our view of him was that a lot of his box score numbers -- typically his fantasy-relevant ones like yards and touchdowns -- usually looked pretty good.
For his career, Luck is averaging 271.9 passing yards per game with 126 touchdowns in 67 games. That's nice, although we’re overlooking a career 59% completion percentage and 65 interceptions.
The problem is that box scores don’t do a great job of telling us how much a player truly impacted the game. Going by the box score, a five-yard completion is a five-yard completion, whether it comes on 3rd-and-4 or 3rd-and-10. Obviously, a five-yard pass play on 3rd-and-4 carries a lot more weight because it keeps a drive alive and increases the chance for scoring points.
Our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP) accounts for that. It allows us to dig deeper into player and team performance, and it gives us a more accurate measure than traditional stats.
Per NEP, Luck has never had a season where he’s been among the league’s best quarterbacks. In fact, he’s only sniffed that territory once. That came in 2014, when he ranked 10th in Passing NEP per drop back among passers with at least 100 drop backs that season, which is the subset we’ll work with throughout this piece.
Here’s Luck’s yearly Passing NEP per drop back throughout his career along with his ranking and the league-average clip for the year, so you have a baseline to compare. We’ll also do the same for his Passing Success Rate, which is the percentage of drop backs that positively impact NEP.
|Year||Passing NEP/Drop Back||League Avg.||Success Rate||League Avg.|
|2012||0.05 (15th)||0.06||43.78% (22nd)||46.55%|
|2013||0.07 (17th)||0.05||49.19% (17th)||45.91%|
|2014||0.17 (10th)||0.08||49.59% (19th)||46.91%|
|2015||0.07 (27th)||0.11||44.40% (20th)||46.87%|
|2016||0.10 (20th)||0.12||46.80% (18th)||46.95%|
Man, that 2014 season sure looks like an outlier -- doesn’t it?
Not only has Luck not been up among the cream of the crop, he’s also been decidedly average in both his Passing NEP per drop back and Success Rate. It's worth mentioning that his 2015 season was shortened to seven games due to injury.
Luck’s Passing NEP per drop back over his five seasons is 0.10, meaning he has added, on average, 0.10 expected points each time he drops back to pass. His Success Rate -- as a reminder, the percentage of drop backs which have positively impacted NEP -- is 46.62%.
For comparison, since 2012, Alex Smith has posted a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.09 with a 47.22% Success Rate, and “game manager” may find its way onto Smith’s tombstone.
Luck takes a lot of sacks -- not all his fault -- and is somewhat reliant on big plays, so his Success Rate isn’t going to sparkle. These metrics, though, paint the picture of a fairly league-average quarterback, not a franchise savior.
Coughing It Up
Really good quarterbacks don’t turn the ball over. It’s as simple as that. All turnovers aren’t created equal, of course, but in general, turnovers are very costly plays.
For Luck, turnovers have been a problem since his rookie year, and they’re a big reason his NEP is so pedestrian -- because they obviously hurt the Colts’ chances to score.
As we touched on earlier, Luck has tossed 65 picks in 67 games. That’s not good. He threw 12 picks in seven games last year and finished with the second-highest interception rate in the league.
Luck has tossed 10 interceptions in 12 games in 2016, with six of those coming in the last five games, including two damaging picks in last week’s loss to Houston.
Luck has also fumbled the ball 37 times in his career, losing 18, for a total of 83 turnovers in 67 games. Yikes.
For comparison, Ryan Tannehill has thrown 66 picks and lost 17 fumbles for 83 turnovers in 77 career games. Luck and Tannehill are dead even with a career interception rate of 2.5% -- although, to be fair, Luck has thrown 20 more touchdowns.
So, statistically, what we have here is basically a quarterback with the throwing efficiency of Alex Smith meshed with a guy who has Ryan Tannehill’s propensity for interceptions. Maybe we should cool it with the prodigy talk.
Luck is going to be the quarterback in Indy for a long time. After all, he just signed a monster six-year, $140 million deal this offseason.
Our metrics show, pretty clearly, that Luck is a rather “meh” quarterback. He’s not bad, but he’s not great. He’s average. Average is better than below average, and teams have won (and won big) with quarterbacks worse than Luck under center -- looking at you, Baltimore Ravens.
To be fair, there are some “yeah, but” comments that are justified.
Luck is certainly not the Colts’ biggest problem. Indy’s brass -- which may get an offseason makeover -- hasn’t put him in a great position to succeed. Offensive line and defense have been an issue for the Colts for some time, yet they’ve spent high draft picks and free-agent dollars on several skill-position players in recent years, including a still-seems-crazy first-round selection of Phillip Dorsett when wide receiver may have been the strongest position group on a team filled with pressing needs.
The Colts never seemed to address the line fully until last spring. Indy spent half of their eight picks in the 2016 NFL Draft on offensive lineman, and it appears to have paid off, as Football Outsiders gives the unit a good rating this season. The Colts have still allowed 109 quarterback hits this year, the second-most in the league, and they’ve been in the top five in quarterback hits allowed in each of Luck’s five seasons.
It feels like the defense hasn’t been good since the Bob Sanders days, and they’re bad again this year, ranking 30th in the league, per our schedule-adjusted metrics. They’ve ranked among the bottom seven defenses, according to our metrics, in four of Luck’s five seasons, with last year’s 19th-ranked defense being the lone exception.
For sure, Luck hasn’t been the team’s only issue, but he has been an issue. Maybe even more paramount, Luck, playing the most impactful position in football, hasn’t been the answer, either.
He’s 27 and finishing up his fifth season, so he isn’t a finished product. With that said, five years is a large sample, and the data tells us that Andrew Luck is an average or slightly above average NFL quarterback.
Wins -- namely the Colts’ dominance of a weak division -- kept that dirty little secret hidden for a while, but now that the curtain is being pulled back, it’s hard to like what we’re seeing.