Why Andrew Luck's Year 2 Improvement Was Even Better Than You Thought

Andrew Luck has attempted nearly 1,300 drop backs in his first two seasons, but is the volume helpful or hurtful for young quarterbacks?

The NFL is ripe with young, superstar quarterbacks. Cam Newton's perfect smile, Colin Kaepernick's swagger, Matthew Stafford's backwards-hat dudeness, and Russell Wilson's coolness, among others, promise to keep the tradition of recognizable and successful NFL quarterbacks for the next decade.

Few of these new franchise quarterbacks, though, have taken on a burden as big as the one Andrew Luck has had to carry during his first two seasons playing for the Indianapolis Colts.

Obviously, the departure of Colts legend Peyton Manning to make way for Luck ensured that he would be scrutinized if he failed, but the Colts used Luck heavily in order to fill the void in the offense. Luck has, for the most part, answered the Colts' call, helping Indy reach the playoffs twice, all while racking up 1,271 drop backs - not just attempts - during his first two seasons.

This type of volume is uncommon for a young quarterback, but it's also rare for quarterbacks in general. In the 13 NFL seasons from 2000 to 2012, quarterbacks have attempted 600 drop backs only 40 times. On average, 3.08 quarterbacks per season resort to this many drop backs. In this past season alone, 11 quarterbacks crossed the 600-drop back threshold, a 357% increase over the historical average in the prior 13 seasons. All in all, 51 seasons of at least 600 drop backs have occurred in the past 14 seasons.

Luck has been a member of this group in both of his first two seasons, dropping back to pass 667 times in his rookie season and 604 this past season. This presents an interesting combination of youth and volume. Of the 49 other qualifying seasons (excluding Luck's two years), only 15 have come during a player's first five seasons in the league, meaning most of these high-volume years have come from established quarterbacks with years of experience.

Even still, comparing Luck's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) and related metrics to the entire group helps contextualize his first two years as a Colt in terms of his actual production on the field for his team. Net Expected Points measures the productivity of a player based on his performance on the field and equates it to actual points provided to his team throughout the season.

Player (Season)Drop BacksPassing NEPPassing NEP Per PassPass Success RateTotal NEP
Luck (2012)66736.380.0543.78%72.35
Luck (2013)60441.730.0746.19%77.81
49 QBs (2000-2013)641.5375.160.1249.22%78.30

At first glance, it's obvious that Luck's passing marks don't stack up to this peer group quite yet. Just remember that this group includes standout years like Manning's 2013 when he had a Passing NEP of 278.52, Drew Brees' 2011 when he had a Passing NEP of 235.48, and Tom Brady's 2011 when he had a Passing NEP of 213.43. Still, too few of his passes lead to positive points for his team, evidenced by his Pass Success Rate.

Even with these outliers in passing excellence, Luck's Total NEP marks are close to the historical average for quarterbacks with such voluminous seasons. This is due, in large part, to his outstanding ability to run the ball as a quarterback. Luck's numbers are impressive compared to the rushing quarterbacks in the league, but his numbers compared to the 600-drop back club, unsurprisingly, are nearly off the charts.

Player (Season)RushesRushing NEPRushing NEP Per RushRush Success Rate
Luck (2012)6235.670.5851.61%
Luck (2013)4836.080.7572.92%
49 QBs (2000-13)28.763.250.0539.63%

Compared to the rest of the subset, Luck is absolutely elite in terms of running the football. I know you don't need numbers to tell you that Luck is a better running quarterback than guys like Brees, but over the past 14 seasons, only one quarterback has attempted 600 drop backs and posted a better Rushing NEP season than Luck: Donovan McNabb in 2000. This means that Luck has the two highest Rushing NEP seasons for these quarterbacks in the past 13 seasons. Amazingly, the fourth best Rushing NEP season from a 600-drop back quarterback came this year: a distant 19.83 Rushing NEP by none other than Joe Flacco.

To this point, it's become evident that Luck has been a below-average passer in terms of Passing NEP, but it's also evident that his production on the ground is so much greater than that of the typical high-volume quarterback that his Total NEP has been roughly equivalent to this quarterback subset. Plus, Luck's volume and usage comes not only from drop backs, but also from non-quarterback kneel rushes.

Scaling down the sample size to quarterbacks within their first five seasons in the NFL provides a closer look at what Luck has accomplished thus far in his career. Refining the group to players in their first five seasons, the 600-drop back club, as noted, includes only 15 seasons (13 excluding Luck's 2012 and 2013 seasons). By no surprise, Luck is closer to the par of this younger group than when he's compared to the entire 49 seasons.

Player (Year)PassesPassing NEPPassing NEP Per PassPass Success Rate
Luck (2012)66736.680.0543.78%
Luck (2013)60441.730.0746.19%
13 QBs (2000-13)643.8549.890.0847.26%

Luck has already shown an improved efficiency considering his improved metrics across the board while doing so on fewer pass attempts than in his rookie season. Luck stacks up much better compared to this list that includes Aaron Brooks (2001), Andy Dalton (2013), McNabb (2000), Jay Cutler (2008), Marc Bulger (2006), Matt Ryan (2012), Matthew Stafford (2011, 2012, 2013), Peyton Manning (2002), Ryan Tannehill (2013), Sam Bradford (2010), and Brady (2002).

This is an intriguing list for sure. For proof, 379 passers have recorded at least 300 drop backs since 2000. Of the group above, Brady, Manning, and Ryan have accounted for 14 of the 25 best Passing NEP seasons (and 7 of the top 10).

A few others, though, account for some of the worst Passing NEP seasons to date. For instance, Bulger owns the 364th-best season with a Passing NEP of -85.77 (in 2008). Bradford's -70.05 Passing NEP in 2011 ranks 355th. Bradford's abysmal 2011 campaign, during which he played 10 games and tallied 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, directly followed the 600-drop back season that qualified him for the subset.

It's fair, then, to ask whether this type of drop off is typical for these young quarterbacks who are forced into a high volume of drop backs.

The answer is...sort of, yeah.

There's a noticeable drop among these young passers from the initial 600 drop-back season ("Year 1") to the subsequent year ("Year 2"). Naturally, this table excludes the four seasons achieved in 2013 by Dalton, Luck, Stafford, and Tannehill since future comparisons are not available.

YearPassesPassing NEPPassing NEP Per PassPass Success Rate
Year 1645.0053.610.0847.56
Year 2574.3019.040.0244.77

The combination of youth and volume doesn't necessarily equate to improved production straightaway. Removing the four 600-drop back seasons from 2013, 11 seasons are available for analysis. Of these 11 seasons, only five show an improvement in Passing NEP following the initial 600-plus drop back season. Manning increased his Passing NEP by 70.72. The other improvements are far less drastic: Stafford (19.94) in 2013, Brady (15.38), Brooks (10.14), and Luck (5.05).

The players whose Passing NEP declined, though, suffered drastically. On average, the six other players posted -76.99 fewer Passing NEP in their year following the high-volume season (or -91.63 if you exclude McNabb's relatively modest decline of -3.78). The biggest drop off belongs to Cutler, whose Passing NEP declined by 131.95 from 2008 to 2009. Similarly, Ryan's drop by 106.68 this season and Stafford's decline of 72.02 the season prior makes Luck's meager 5.05 improvement in Passing NEP look amazing.

Although Luck didn't become a dynamite passer in his sophomore season after his high volume in his rookie season, he's shown modest improvement after it, which is impressive compared to the tendency for young quarterbacks to fall off the statistical cliff after the heavy workload. Because it's uncommon for these quarterbacks to improve their Passing NEP drastically, an incremental improvement in his passing metrics in addition to his stellar running production is probably the best-case scenario for Luck given his historical peer group. That's not a bad thing at all, considering his fledgling numbers look more like Manning's and Brady's than he does like Bradford's and Bulger's.

If Luck improves his passing metrics gradually while, at least, keeping his rushing volume and success consistent, he'll be able to join the elite tier of passers soon enough. As it stands now, he's still the most efficient running quarterback in the league and has staved off the regression to which other high-volume quarterbacks have succumbed, meaning he's showing the promise of becoming truly elite in all facets of his game.