At 9:28 pm last Saturday night, the Indianapolis Colts suffered an abrupt, season-altering loss. But it wasn't the kind of loss that fans dread but expect at this time of year: that of a key starter due to an injury suffered in some relatively meaningless exhibition bout; the kind of loss upon which the team curses their bad fortune and recites the now well-worn battle cry “next man up.” This particular loss and its many ramifications doesn't just emphatically change the outlook of the 2019 season for the Colts, it also completely alters the future path of the franchise — a path cast in the same mold as their rivals' in New England; one that would have almost certainly otherwise led to a bright, winning future.
Late that night, while the Colts were hosting the Chicago Bears in a preseason contest at Lucas Oil Stadium, the television crew panned over to the Colts' once-in-a-lifetime franchise quarterback on the sideline and flashed the graphic that not a single soul expected to see that night: “Andrew Luck: retiring from the NFL.”
Remembering the Andrew Luck era
ESPN's Adam Schefter was the first to report Luck’s decision, stating that the eighth-year the signal-caller was “mentally worn down” and would be checking out. Later, in an impromptu press conference, Luck made it official.
“I’ve been stuck in this process,” said Luck, who's suffered through a debilitating shoulder injury, fractured ribs, a lacerated kidney and now a mysterious calf/ankle issue, leading him to miss 1,776 of his team's offensive snaps since he was selected with the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. “For the last four years, I’ve been in a cycle of injury, pain, rehab. And it’s been unceasing and unrelenting both in season and offseason. I’ve felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken the joy out of this game.”
As flawless a draft prospect as there likely ever will be, Luck entered the league with the hopes of the city strapped to his back, but years behind a faltering offensive line took their toll. From 2012 to 2016, 22 different players played meaningful snaps trying to keep their franchise signal-caller upright, but only nine of those players ended a single season with an overall grade above 70.0, and only Anthony Castonzo, Joe Reitz and Jack Mewhort managed to top the 80.0 mark.
In Luck’s first five seasons in the NFL, the Colts managed team pass-blocking grades of just 65.5, 77.8, 78.0, 77.6 and 67.1, which ranked 31st, 22nd, 16th, 11th and 28th among teams, respectively. When we tally up their collective efforts over that period, their cumulative pass-blocking grade of 74.5 was the seventh-worst mark among offensive lines in that span, while their team pass-blocking efficiency of 81.7 and their average of 3.01 snaps per pressure allowed both ranked 30th among the NFL's 32 outfits.
Adding to the poor blocking in front of him was Luck's trademark all-or-nothing playing style and an offensive scheme that left him open to take the kind of relentless pounding that Colts fans will look back on with regret. In his first five years in the NFL, Luck was tasked with a five- or seven-step dropback on 60.8% of his total dropbacks, and in addition to taking those deep drops, Luck also invited pressure with his propensity to hold on to the ball for too long. In those five years, Luck's average time to throw (snap to pass/sack/scramble) clocked in at 2.83 seconds — 26th among the 34 quarterbacks who logged at least 1,000 snaps in that time frame — peaking at 2.88 seconds in 2016, a year in which he faced pressure on a league-high 44.4% of his dropbacks and took a combined 111 sacks plus hits, second to only Carson Palmer (118) that season.
The deafening five-year symphony of colliding helmets accompanied by the too-familiar sight of No. 12 being repeatedly driven into the turf (before passing the odd compliment to the offending pass-rusher) ended with Luck having been hit as he threw a league-leading 50 times over that five-year stretch. Over that same span, he was either sacked or hit in the pocket a staggering 528 times, which was 34 more times than the next closest quarterback from 2012-16. In the PFF era, only six quarterbacks have been sacked or hit 115 or more times throughout a single, regular season, but Andrew Luck suffered this fate for three consecutive years from 2012-14. No thanks to this constant and unrelenting harassment in the pocket, Luck to stumbled to sub-80.0 overall grades in each of his first five seasons, never truly living up to his draft hype.
Despite facing pressure at such a high rate, the 2016 season was the first chance Indianapolis got to see Andrew Luck at his game-changing best. Playing in 15 games from Week 1 to Week 17, Luck completed 346 of his 545 passes for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, ending the season with a 2:1 ratio of big-time throws to turnover-worthy plays. And while he was good — not great — against the pressure that was, in fact, unrelenting (his 67.8 pressured-passing grade and his 72.0 passer rating under pressure ranked seventh and 13th, respectively, among 29 qualifying signal-callers), it was his work from those rare clean pockets that reminded everyone why the Colts had chosen him, not Robert Griffin III, to lead Indy through the post-Peyton landscape.
All told, Luck completed 71.2% of his pass attempts from a clean pocket, second to only Tom Brady (75.4%) that year. He racked up 2,841 yards, 20 touchdowns and just six interceptions in the process. His passer rating from a clean pocket (112.0) and his clean-pocket passing grade (93.5) both rang in as career-high marks and ranked fifth and second, respectively, among the league's qualifying quarterbacks.
Then came the start of the unraveling. After reportedly playing through the majority of that stellar 2016 season with a painful shoulder injury, Luck underwent surgery prior to the 2017 season, which eventually caused him to miss the entire campaign.
In the empty space between the conclusion of the 2017 season — one which saw the Colts finish 4-12 — and the start of the 2018 season, there was a legitimate concern as to whether Luck would ever play football again, let alone play to the level that had been on display in 2016. But the arrival of head coach Frank Reich and his quarterback-friendly offensive philosophy helped ease Andrew Luck back into the MVP conversation.
Reich's scheme saw Luck cut his time to throw down from his career average of 2.88 seconds to 2.54 seconds in 2018, tied for the ninth-quickest time among signal-callers. Reich also dialed up three or fewer-step dropbacks on 21.6% of his snaps while calling a five- or seven-step dropback just 78.4% of the time — both of which were Luck's best figures since 2013 (24.5% and 75.5%, respectively).
Gently easing Luck away from his tendency to seek the home-run ball, Reich also cut Luck's average depth from his career average of 9.5 yards downfield to just 8.1 yards downfield, while reining in his deep-pass percentage from his career figure of 14.0% to just 11.0% in 2018. Further mitigating the opposing pass-rush, Reich called play-action on 20.4% of Luck's total dropbacks on the year, yet another career-high figure for the former Stanford star.
And when all that offensive architecture was united with a vastly improved offensive line that went on to finish the season with the league's 10th-best team pass-blocking grade, Luck ended the regular season having faced pressure on just 29.5% of his dropbacks, another career-best figure and a 15% decrease from his 2016 season.
Better line play + an emphasis on the quick passing game + more play-action = more clean pockets to throw from. Andrew Luck + an abundance of clean pockets = legitimate MVP candidate. Football is a simple game, isn't it?
The result of Reich's system and Luck's game-changing ability to carve up any defense from a clean pocket indeed put him in contention for MVP honors, and it deservedly earned Comeback Player of the Year Award from both PFF and the Associated Press. He completed 365-of-519 clean-pocket pass attempts on the year, totaling 3,856 yards, a league-second 34 clean-pocket touchdowns and a league-tied-for-second 29 big-time clean-pocket throws, capping off an incredible campaign with a positively graded clean-pocket throw rate of 28.2% (3rd) and a big-time clean-pocket throw rate of 5.4% (6th). His 108.0 passer rating from a clean pocket ranked 12th among quarterbacks, his 115.7 passer rating on play-action passes ranked sixth and his 105.6 passer rating on throws that took less than 2.5s from snap to pass ranked eighth.
Luck finished the 2018 season with a career-high overall grade of 91.2 and a WAR (wins above replacement) figure that both ranked third behind only Drew Brees (94.0) and Patrick Mahomes (92.9), and he likely would have taken home league MVP honors if not for the sheer brilliance of those two. In this new scheme, one that would have done a much better job of keeping him healthy, Luck would have been a bonafide top-five quarterback in any given year going forward, so his loss for the Colts — and really all football fans — can't truly be overstated.
Is Jacoby Brissett a viable, long-term option at quarterback?
Now the dust has settled from Luck's shock announcement, it's time to evaluate the Colts' latest quarterback question marks: Is Jacoby Brissett the right man to lead them down the pre-built path to success? Or is he a guy that's just good enough to keep them enough draft spots away from drafting the guy who can? Most importantly, what does he need to do to avoid a repeat performance of the Colts' 4-12 season of 2017?
Brissett has always graded on the conservative end of the scale, meaning that he's done a relatively good job of limiting the turnover-worthy and negatively graded plays, but he hasn't particularly shown the ability to make big-time throws on a scale that's in any way comparable to Andrew Luck. Among the 39 signal-callers who've dropped back to pass at least 500 times since 2016, Brissett's big-time throw percentage of 3.0% ranks 35th, while his turnover-worthy play percentage of 2.7% ranks ninth — paling in comparison to Luck's respective marks of 5.1% and 2.8%, both of which are tied for 10th among the 39 quarterbacks over that period.
Among those same quarterbacks, only Sam Bradford (6.69), Drew Brees (7.44), Alex Smith (7.69), Joe Flacco (7.85) and Eli Manning (7.90) have a lower average depth of target than Jacoby Brissett's mark of 7.92 — a full two-thirds of a yard shy of Andrew Luck's average over that span — and none of those 39 quarterbacks saw more of their yards come after the catch — as opposed to through the air — than Jacoby Brissett (54.3% of total passing yards).
It's the kind of playing style that keeps you in games, not wins you games, so the first area of improvement for Brissett will be to look closer to the all-important intermediate and deep ranges of the field, a throw range that accounted for just 27.1% of his attempts in 2017, a mark that ranked just 26th among 29 qualifying quarterbacks that year.
Brissett, much like Luck last season, will also have to significantly cut down his time to throw, as the North Carolina State product held onto the ball for far too long in his lone season as the Colts' starter. From Week 1 to Week 17, Brissett took an average of 2.97 seconds to throw in 2017, the fifth-highest rate among all quarterbacks. But unlike 2016 Luck, who ranked second in touchdown passes (19) but third in sacks taken (32) on dropbacks that took 2.6s or longer, Brissett was unable to make many good things happen as he stood in the pocket. In 2017, Brissett led the league in sacks taken from dropbacks of 2.6s or longer, with 47, and he managed to find the end zone just six times on those long-developing passes. Altogether, Brissett managed a 24th-ranked 52.5% completion percentage on those long-developing plays compared to Luck's seventh-ranked 59.7% completion percentage on the same in 2016.
The propensity for holding the ball cost the Colts big in key, high-leverage areas that year: He and the Colts took 16 third-down sacks, tied for seventh among quarterbacks in 2017, while his 23.3% red-zone sack rate (sacks/red-zone dropbacks) is still the worst mark ever recorded by a quarterback who has managed at least 50 red-zone dropbacks over the course of a regular season.
Reich will once again have to engineer an offensive scheme that helps his quarterback get the ball out quickly, but he'll at least have some positives to work from, as Brissett has performed much better on those quick throws (2.5s or less) than on his long-developing throws (2.6s or longer) over the course of his career. On those quick throws, Brissett has earned a 64.6 passing grade off the back of a 77.6 adjusted completion percentage, a 5:7 big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio and an 85.3 passer rating. On those longer-developing throws, which Reich will hope to avoid in 2019, Brissett has earned a 57.1 passing grade off the back of a 68.3 adjusted completion percentage, an 11:7 big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio and a 78.3 passer rating.
With Luck coming off a season in which he utilized a career-high play-action percentage, it stands to reason that Frank Reich is going to orchestrate more of the same for Brissett. And this is another reason for Colts fans to hold on to hope, at least for the minute, as the 26-year-old signal-caller, as all quarterbacks do, has also shown increased efficiency on his play-action dropbacks compared to his standard dropbacks.
On his 132 play-action dropbacks since 2016, Brissett has produced a 65.8 passing grade, a 101.8 passer rating and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt; he's thrown an accurate pass on 53.7% of his play-action passes and put the ball in the “perfect” spot on 14.7% of those passes, all while maintaining an average depth of target of 11.3 yards downfield. On standard dropbacks, his passing grade falls to 59.0, his passer rating drops to 76.6 and his yards-per-attempt average plummets to 6.2. And while his accuracy numbers are better on standard dropbacks, in the form of a 58.2 accurate-pass percentage and a perfect-placement percentage of 15.2%, it's by an indiscriminate amount, despite having an average depth of target of just 7.0 yards down the field on standard passes — a four-and-a-bit yard difference from his play-action pass number.
Is he Andrew Luck? No. But then again, there a few who can run a passing offense as well as Luck could at his best. But before the jerseys are set alight and the season tickets are thrown out of the window, fans should give Brissett, and probably more importantly, Franch Reich, a chance to show what they can accomplish in this quarterback-friendly system, because the chances are that the result will be better than the first time around.
What does the switch really mean for the Indianapolis Colts?
The shockwave of Luck's announcement has rippled through the Colts' entire 2019 outlook. They've gone from PFF's projected AFC South winners (44.2% at taking the division) to projected last-place finishers (just a 16.1% chance of taking the division), and their projected win total has dipped from 9.0 with Luck, to just 7.1 without him, per PFF's Greenline projections.
And unfortunately, while Reich's scheme has the potential to elevate Brissett's standard of play and avoid the dreaded 4-12 record that the side hobbled to on the first go around, there's no way around reality is that the dropoff in quarterback play will be immense. From career clean-pocket grade (92.2 to 72.9) to career clean-pocket passer rating (101.2 to 91.3) to accurate-pass rate (64.1% to 57.2%) to yards per attempt (7.2 to 6.6) to career success rate (48.2% to 40.5%) — the Colts will be going from one of the best signal-callers in the game to a middle-of-pack/bottom-third quarterback in Brissett.
It will likely mean that wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, coming off a career year in terms of receiving grade (87.0), yards per route run (2.47), passer rating when targeted (109.4) and catchable-target percentage (71.6%) will take a step back as he returns to a quarterback that threw him a catchable pass on 67.4% of his targets while targeting him on just 18.4% of his routes in 2017, a single-season low. Hilton limped to just a 69.2 receiving grade, an average of just 1.74 yards per route run and an 84.8 passer rating when targeted in 2017 as a result.
Though tight end Jack Doyle could stand to gain with Brissett under center, as the North Carolina State product targeted Doyle on a career-high 22.5% of his routes in 2017, notching career-high marks in targets (102), receptions (80) and receiving yards (690), all while generating a passer rating of 103.8. Rookie wideout Parris Campbell also figures to be a prominent fixture of Brissett's passing offense, given Brissett's short average depth of target and the fact that Campbell ranked second among the 2019 NFL Draft class in receiving grade from short targets (from behind the line of scrimmage up to nine yards downfield) at 89.3, catching 78-of-90 such passes for 849 receiving yards, 37 combined first downs and touchdowns, 15 plays of 15 or more yards, 4.66 yards per route run and a 131.9 passer rating when targeted — all of which ranked first among the wide receivers in the 2019 class.
Brissett, now in a contract year, will now be given the almost thankless task of stepping into Andrew Luck's shoes, once again asked to lead what is now his team out into the Stadium that Peyton Manning built. And with the roster otherwise built to succeed, Brissett not only has to avoid a losing season, but he will also be well aware that the last thing the team needs — or wants — is a .500 quarterback, capable only of keeping pace in tight games and getting them close but not quite all the way. A middle of the pack quarterback won't do it this year — it's all or nothing for Brissett, Ballard and the Colts.
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