Andrew Luck: The Smartest Rushing Quarterback in the NFL
Andrew Luck entered the NFL with higher expectations than any other quarterback of this generation. I’m not sure where you draw the "this generation" line, but you know what I mean.
Since taking over Peyton Manning’s Colts, he’s already shown signs that he has the potential to be one of the great quarterbacks that the NFL has seen. Though quarterback wins aren't a statistic, it’s tough to not be impressed by the Colts nine-win turnaround when Luck became starter. And just last year, the Colts’ new leader brought the team back from a 21-point halftime deficit in the playoffs to beat a tough Chiefs team. While some of that deficit had to do with Luck’s play, his resilience was sensational.
Over the first two seasons in the league, Luck has certainly performed above expectation. He doesn’t just pass the eye test – everyone knows that he’s a good quarterback – but he does fairly well in terms of our advanced metrics as well. In fact, since the year 2000, Luck’s first two seasons rank 10th-best compared to any other quarterback’s first two campaigns.
We all know he’s good. We all know he can make the players around him better. But one thing I think that goes unnoticed with Andrew Luck is his ability to run with the football. More specifically, his ability to run smart with the football.
What exactly does that mean, you ask? Well, let’s first begin by looking at Luck’s rushing numbers over the last two seasons strictly from a yardage standpoint. To give them some context, I’ve listed his numbers next to the four young, dual-threat passers currently in the league.
|Rushing Yards||Rushing Yards/Game|
|Robert Griffin III||1,234||44.07|
As you can see, despite playing all 32 games, Luck’s far from the best rushing quarterback from a pure yardage standpoint. This has a lot to do with volume, sure, but as you’ll see in a second, volume isn’t as important as you might think.
Regardless, right now I want you to note that Luck’s averaging fewer than 20 rushing yards per game, while the other four quarterbacks are reaching at least 32. And Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick (mind you, his numbers are a little skewed because I only listed his games started) and Cam Newton are doubling Luck’s yardage output per game on the ground.
Being a data person when it comes to sports, I can tell you that these figures really don’t tell you a whole lot. Anyone citing yards per game without any other information provided is doing a disservice. I say this mostly because yardage totals can be misleading, and Andrew Luck is a lot better at running the football than these raw numbers indicate.
Take first downs, for instance. If you break down the number of first downs a player is getting per rushing attempt, you can start to see which players are contributing at the right times for his team.
|Attempts||First Downs||First Down Percentage|
|Robert Griffin III||206||64||31.07%|
Though Luck has the lowest volume of any quarterback listed here, his first down percentage is second-highest among the group, only behind Cam Newton. And Cam Newton’s basically a bulldozer.
Even those numbers can be a little misleading though. What if Luck was just seeing more opportunity, while someone like Colin Kaepernick rarely ran the ball from short distances to convert? What if Andrew Luck only scrambled on short down-and-distance plays? It doesn't tell us the entire story.
What can tell us more is Andrew Luck’s Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) over the first two years of his career. You may already be aware, but NEP is a metric we use here at numberFire that looks at every down and distance and game situation a player is in, and finds the impact that player makes based on expected point values on that play. In other words, it looks at every single play made by a player, and tells you whether that player contributed above or below expectation. To read more about the metric, click here.
Below is a chart depicting the top five quarterbacks in the league over the last two seasons in terms of Rushing Net Expected Points. By no surprise, it's the same quarterbacks I've been talking about above.
|Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Rush|
|Robert Griffin III||66.91||0.34|
First, know that quarterback kneels are omitted from the volume side of things, which can skew data the wrong way. Second, wowza! Aside from volume, and regardless of the fact that Andrew Luck has seen significantly less work on the ground than these other passers, he’s contributed, in sum, more Rushing Net Expected Points over the last two seasons than every quarterback not named Cam Newton.
What’s even more outrageous - and kind of amazing - is that Luck’s per rush average of 0.65 is the absolute best among every quarterback since the start of the 2012 season.
Admittedly, he does have a slight advantage, as some players have seen more planned runs than others. And when there’s a planned run, defenses may treat stopping said run a little differently. And when defenses play the quarterback run a little differently, running can become more difficult.
Even still, I think it should be eye-opening to note a few things here. First, cumulative totals can be deceptive. If you see a chart that cites yardage only without any context, you should start asking deeper questions. After all, Matthew Stafford sees a high yardage total every year, but that doesn’t make him an elite quarterback, right?
Second, and more importantly, efficiency is king. Running the football is inherently less efficient than throwing it – you’re just not gaining as many yards on each play. And while you still need a competent running game to win in the league, it’s not a running game based on yards or volume. It’s one based on efficiency.
That, I think, is a key part to Andrew Luck’s success, and why I stated his running as “smart." He knows when to scramble, he picks up first downs when his team needs to, and it’s all reflected in his Rushing NEP score. And actually, of the 33 quarterbacks with 30 or more rushes over the last two seasons, no quarterback has a higher Success Rate – the percentage of runs that contribute positively towards a player’s NEP – than Luck. In other words, Andrew Luck is doing good, encouraging things on the football field with his legs more consistently than any other signal-caller in the entire league.
So as we approach Luck’s third season in the NFL, it’s important that we don’t just look at his passing skills, but his rushing abilities too. He has plenty of room to grow as a passer given his incredible ceiling, but what could really catapult him into elite stardom is the fact that he’s also the smartest running quarterback in the NFL.