Greatness takes a lot more than luck
After Philip Rivers and the feisty Chargers upset the Indianapolis Colts on Monday, the hot-headed quarterback said something shockingly prescient: “I wasn't sure who the Colts were playing this week, all the ads I saw.”
Although he was sticking up for his own squad, Rivers also hit upon one of the early themes of the 2013 NFL season, which is that the Colts are here to stay, a league power once again behind head coach Chuck Pagano and, most of all, quarterback Andrew Luck.
The narrative found its legs when the Colts handed the Seahawks their first loss in Week 5, making them 4-1 and in the driver’s seat of the AFC South.
This flew in the face of expectations, which had it that the Colts were bound to regress, considering that in 2012 Football Outsiders pegged them as the worst 11-5 team in NFL history.
That had to do with the fact that they consistently won close games, at a seemingly unsustainable rate. How unsustainable? Outscored-by-their-opponents-over-the-season unsustainable. (They were the first 11-5 team to be able to claim that).
What people didn’t doubt was that Andrew Luck would continue to improve on his rookie year. Despite the win-loss record, Luck’s season wasn’t dazzling on paper: 54.1 percent completion rating, 23 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 76.5 QB rating, 7.0 yards per attempt.
It was dazzling, however, when you took into account the fact that the team he’d quarterbacked to the playoffs had gone 2-14 the year before. In a league that still places value on winning games above all else in terms of establishing your stock, Luck looked like a diamond.
And when the team continued to win in 2013, Luck received the lion’s share of the credit. Not that he didn’t deserve it: by the end of the Seahawks game, he’d thrown 7 TDs and only 2 INTs, and his completion rating was up above 60 percent, a colossal improvement on the most glaring statistic of his rookie season.
So the hype machine geared into overdrive, buoyed by the fact that Peyton Manning, the man the Colts cut to replace with Luck, is having arguably the greatest season by a quarterback in NFL history. With a matchup between the two looming in Week 7, and the Broncos undefeated, football had its Perfect Storm.
Then Luck and the Colts lost to this mediocre Chargers team, with Luck throwing no touchdowns and an interception. Indy only managed nine points. Reality set in. And this isn’t a bad thing for Luck.
There’s nothing the NFL loves more than a quarterback who distinguishes himself, and those that do are generally treated like gods, or at least gods in training.
Robert Griffin III was the case study last year: despite the remarkable success of Luck and his fellow rookie Russell Wilson, RGIII became the gold standard of young passers thanks to his spectacular style of play, even more spectacular stats, and the resurgence of Washington, one of the league’s marquee franchises. Griffin’s star overwhelmed that of Luck’s and Wilson’s; those guys both became household names as well, but their ubiquity didn’t even touch that of Griffin’s.
You could say this has to do with RGIII’s personality, but that’s not it. Wilson played for one of the league’s all-around best teams, and his success was, while appreciated, also viewed as a part of a larger whole. Luck’s numbers paled in comparison to those of Wilson’s and Griffin’s, despite being impressive in isolation — particularly the record. RGIII stood alone as the perfect package of NFL heroism: a quarterback who played theatrically, made few mistakes, boosted his team, and looked good doing it.
This year, Griffin and his team are struggling. And so it became Luck’s turn to be crowned the heir apparent. His lack of success last week doesn’t change that. He’s still having a terrific season. But one bump of a game — happens to even the league’s best passers — helps deflate the idea that Luck, only 24 years old, only in his second NFL season, has somehow become the total quarterback, or that he doesn’t have growing left to do.
Letting expectations inflate too fast and too large can ultimately be problematic for a young player. It’s wrong to say that this game helps Luck, but it does ground his growing legend a bit. That is, until Week 7, when, if he can beat Peyton’s Broncos, he’ll be set right back into ascendancy.
Meanwhile, Russell Wilson — with his 61.4 percent completion rating, 8 TDs, 4 INTs, and 7.9 yards per attempt, and 50 rushing yards per game — once again makes a strong, quiet argument for being the best of the three. He still has the best supporting cast. But as good as Luck is, and as good as RGIII could be, Wilson’s right there.