- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter
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The gushing can be a little much at times, which is surely a part of why Andrew Luck avoids it.
He’s not particularly interested in what is said about him. Luck will not see this progress report, and that will save him a couple of minutes -- and do nothing for getting this blog known by the division’s headline player.
Nevertheless, we forge ahead.
Six games into his rookie season, Luck has done fine work as the quarterback of the rebuilding Colts. He has just the poise and presence we talked about leading into and out of the draft and training camp. He has command of the offense and the huddle. He quickly understands his mistakes and gets ticked off at himself if he repeats them.
“I’m very impressed,” ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said. “He’s poised. He gets it. All the physical stuff is there. The supporting cast is bad -- he makes it look better than it is -- and he has made his share of rookie mistakes. But I have no doubt that he is all he was cracked up to be.”
While Washington’s Robert Griffin III has been more dynamic and drawn more attention, the case can be made that Luck has played just as well or better. As Chase Stuart points out in a New York Times blog entry, Luck is generally throwing further downfield than Griffin and hardly checks the ball down, which explains a lot about the difference in their respective numbers.
And it’s Luck’s team, not RG3’s, that currently qualifies as a viable playoff contender. It’s not his fault the AFC has so many average teams. Sunday he will lead the Colts into Nashville for a matchup that’s far more important than any of us imagined it could be.
The winner will have four wins. If it’s the Colts, they’ll be 4-3, already doubling last season’s win total in the first year of a rebuild that includes new management, a new coaching staff, new schemes and a new quarterback who was the draft’s top pick.
That’s some accelerated rebounding for a team whose coach, Chuck Pagano, is battling leukemia, and who has an offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, filling in by wearing the big headset. While a lot of people have contributed to the success so far, nothing is more important to the health, direction and vibe of a franchise than its quarterback.
“I think Bruce has done a great job of giving Andrew things he is familiar with and can operate well,” said Bill Polian, who was vice chairman the Colts from 1998 through last year and is now an ESPN analyst. “Andrew has done a terrific job of preparation and study on both opponents and his own people. In addition, like RG3, he has that special ‘something’ that all great ones have. I said in the spring that I believed both were can't-miss, and I still feel that way.”
“You would never think [Luck] is a rookie,” Titans coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Munchak said. “I think he looks very comfortable. He looks like Peyton [Manning] on the play-action stuff. He’s very comfortable in the pocket. He moves around it very nicely. His eyes stay down the field. He’s not looking to run, he’s not looking to throw the quick pass.
“He’s going to give his receivers time to get open. I think he’s done a good job with that. He’s getting rid of the ball. He’s not taking the sack, but he’s taking hits because he’ll hold on to it to make a bigger play. You don’t see many rookies that will do that.”
Luck cites two things when asked about the biggest adjustment from Stanford to the Colts: The speed of the linebackers is so much better, and many more protections are far more complicated because of the vast variety of blitzes he faces.
Where he can improve the most is with more accurate deep balls. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he’s at 51.5 percent on balls thrown from 11 to 20 yards, 39.4 percent on throws more than 21 yards and 12.5 percent (just one of eight) on balls thrown more than 31 yards. Deep-threat receiver Donnie Avery has been targeted 54 times, tied for 17th in the NFL, and should have more than 25 catches and a bigger average than his 12.2.
Luck's response to mistakes is super-healthy and a big part of why his growth curve is so steep.
“I think I realized, you throw an interception, bad deal, but if you have another chance to go out there, you better get rid of that thought on the interception and worry about the next play, or else you’ll be doing your team a bigger disservice,” he said. “That’s sort of the approach I’ve tried to take. It’s worked out all right.”
The Colts’ patchwork offensive line isn’t great at protecting Luck, but some of his 16 sacks are not on the guys in front of him.
“A couple of hits and sacks [against Cleveland] were 100 percent on me, and that is something I hope to get better at, and not repeat the same mistakes twice,” Luck said. “The line has done a great job all year of blocking their butts off. They know that I appreciate what they’re doing. A couple of those are on me.”
Arians has no issue putting Luck and the offense into no-huddle situations, and the quarterback has excelled with it. It’s something that Arians, who was also offensive coordinator for the Colts when Manning started his pro career, didn’t install until Manning’s second year.
At times, Arians has to be conscious of slowing things down for the five other rookies on that side of the ball getting regular playing time.
“I think nothing surprises me with [Luck] anymore,” Arians said. “He’s light-years ahead of where we thought he would be. There’s nothing really left to put in the playbook that we haven’t installed, and he’s been extremely good in clutch situations."
Indianapolis is a team with holes for sure.
The run effort in the win over the Browns was better and set a new standard, but there is no reason yet to expect a consistent run game. While safety Tom Zbikowski is coming off his best game, he has not been consistent. The team is recovering from a slew of injuries along the defensive line and to both of its premier ends turned outside linebackers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
But this whole rebuild that started with general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano is keyed on Luck. Grigson will continue to try to surround his star quarterback with talent that can help him excel. Pagano and Arians will continue to shape schemes that are most favorable to him. The fan base should be thrilled that there is tangible progress in the present, and it should have great optimism about the future.
Already, teams like the Titans know that to beat a team that dissolved into a 2-14 mess a year ago, they’ll have to limit Luck.
“He is unfazed by rushers," Titans defensive end Kamerion Wimbley said. “I think he’s a tough quarterback, he’s taken hits. He’s not going to get panicked or anything like that. He’s making big-time throws. I think he’s faster than a lot of people think. You definitely have to be aware as a rusher of staying in your lanes and making sure you can contain him.”
Finally, how does Luck judge his own progress?
“What I’ve learned in this short time is that it’s hard to get a win,” he said. “Everybody is good. I think as an offense, we’re getting better, improving. We have to get better if we want to start getting wins, and being a winning football team.
“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into this season. I didn’t put up benchmarks of 'I want to have thrown this many yards by this date,' or have limited interceptions to this number by this date. I do think we’re improving, and I’m improving.”
The gushing can be a little much at times, which is surely a part of why Andrew Luck avoids it.He’s not particularly interested in what is said about him.