What Happened to Andrew Luck’s Rushing in 2014?
Andrew Luck does a lot of things well on the football field. We know this. We spend a lot of time talking about it because it’s fun watching Andrew Luck do things well.
One of the things Luck did extraordinarily well over his first two seasons was run the ball. He ran the ball better than any of his Colts teammates and ran better than a majority of group one would think about when using the phrase “running quarterbacks.”
Of course, Luck himself isn’t what many would think of as a “running quarterback,” but he did run and he ran well. Until 2014. Luck didn’t go into some Trent Richardson-like tailspin last season, but he was unremarkable while tucking and running last season. That itself is somewhat remarkable -- Andrew Luck being unremarkable at something.
Our Net Expected Points metric shows the decline from year-to-year. NEP factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels. Take a look at the chart below to see the dropoff in Luck’s production on the ground:
|Year||Rushes||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP/P|
During the 2013, season Luck was the most efficient runner in the league at that volume (Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco had a higher Rushing NEP per attempt but ran the ball just 19 and 15 times, respectively). In 2014, Luck dropped to 11th in Rushing NEP per attempt out of 13 starting quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts. Outside of the usual suspects, Luck was outrushed by the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton and Alex Smith. All athletic in their own way, sure, but never the scrambler Luck has been.
Something clearly went wrong last season, at least unexpectedly enough to change such an underrated aspect of Luck’s game to this point in his career. Let’s try to figure out why.
We’re not breaking any ground to suggest the 2014 Colts weren’t a great running team. They finished 27th in both Adjusted Rushing NEP and Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt. It’s no surprise then Indianapolis’ offense relied heavily on its quarterback’s arm. Luck dropped back 643 times in 2014, which was up from 604 in 2013 but not above his 667 drop backs in his rookie year.
During the 2014 season, Luck set career highs in both completions and sack rate. This suggests Luck made an emphasis on getting the ball out to his receivers quickly, which in turn required less pass blocking from the offensive line. For the health of Luck, that’s a wonderful thing. For the third straight year Luck dropped his sack rate -- almost one percent per season -- though he continues to be one of the most hit quarterbacks in the league.
This effort to get the ball out more can also be shown with just how many times Luck attempted to scramble this season. With 39 more drop backs than he had in 2013, Luck had the same number of attempts on the ground, excluding kneels. The less Luck has to run the better, for both Luck’s body and the Colts’ future.
With Luck having to run less, it could be concluded he was less desperate when the time came to leave the pocket. That’s less true than the logic would indicate. Using Pro-Football-Reference’s Play Index, we can see when Luck ran the ball in 2013, the Colts had an average of 7.46 yards to go for a first down. In 2014 that increased by almost a yard to 8.34.
In 2013 Luck also averaged 8.13 yards per carry, which equates to more than a first down per run given the average needed distance he saw. Not only did he need more yards in 2014, he achieved less, gaining just 5.70 yards per carry. With the success in 2013, Luck picked up a first down on 47.9 percent of his scrambles. In 2014 that dropped down to 40.0 percent. That also shows up in his Success Rate -- the percentage of plays that contribute to a positive NEP. On the ground, Luck had a success rate of 72.92 percent in 2013, but that dropped more than 10 percent to 62.50 percent last season.
Dropping the Ball
Perhaps the biggest difference in Luck’s rushing statistics is not how he ran with the ball, but how many times he dropped it. In 2012 and 2013 Luck was attributed with just one fumble while running the ball in each season. That number does not include strip sacks. In 2014, Luck was credited with six fumbles on rushing attempts, bringing his fumble rate from 2.1 percent in 2013 to 12.0 percent last season.
These were the fumbles credited to Luck, but one, maybe two were really the fault of the quarterback. Of the six fumbles, three were mistakes on the snap and three were failed handoffs. These count as fumbles and carries against Luck because in the boxscore they have to count as something. But here is where we can see how Luck’s Rushing NEP was affected by these fumbles.
When judging by Net Expected Points on a given play, botched snaps and handoffs are essentially a lost cause. Only one of these plays gained yards, a failed handoff to Dwayne Allen as a fullback, picked up by Ahmad Bradshaw and run for a gain of 13 yards on 3rd-and-1. Less often are those plays as fortunate, such as another failed handoff which went to Trent Richardson and was recovered by Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap.
With botched snaps, there’s not much Luck can do. Most times quarterbacks can fall on those loose balls because it happens right in front of them. Though there are sometimes when playing defenders like J.J. Watt when the ball can be picked up and run for a 45-yard touchdown, which is exactly what happened in a Week 6 game against the Houston Texans. Giving up a touchdown on offense isn’t great for Expected Points. Neither is just falling on a loose ball and gaining nothing when the offense is expected to gain at least something.
Andrew Luck wasn’t quite as efficient running the ball in 2014 as he has been in the past, but it’s not something that heeds significant worry. Six fumbles isn’t something to be proud of, but the way those fumbles occurred are much less likely to be something that carries over from year-to-year, especially since that was a non-existent problem in Luck’s last two seasons.
With an improvement in simple center-to-quarterback and quarterback-to-running back exchanges, we can expect Luck to once again put up the type of efficiency numbers on the ground that made him one of the league’s smartest scramblers heading into last season.