The Tragedy of Andrew Luck

The Football world is in shock right now. Just this past Saturday, August 24, 2019, shortly after the Colts’ 3rd preseason game and just before starting his 8th year in the NFL (including the 2017 season, which he did not play due to injury, as well as his injury shortened 2015 season), Andrew Luck announced his retirement from Football.

“For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it […] I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” said Luck at his retirement press conference. “Taken the joy out of the game, and after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again. I find myself in a similar situation and the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I’ve been in.” Luck is just 29 years old.

For those outside of Football, it may be hard to understand why this is such a big deal. But make no mistake, this news is about as shocking as it comes. Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated called it, “One of the biggest, most shocking breaking news items of all-time”, and I don’t disagree. When I first saw the news, I was at a bar with my friends, waiting for a dinner reservation. I was seated in good viewing distance of a TV, as the Miami-Florida College Football Kickoff game was on. I was glancing at the TV intermittently, but not really following it. Then I saw the breaking news bar at the bottom of the screen flash red: “Andrew Luck Retires from Football”, it said. I immediately yelled in surprise, and rushed to my phone to confirm the news. Not many news outlets had picked up on it yet (the news would quickly rush across the sports world in the next few hours and over the next day, prompting all sorts of reactions), but there it was on Adam Schefter’s twitter feed: “Filed to ESPN: Andrew Luck has informed the Colts he is retiring from the NFL, per source. There will be a press conference Sunday to make it official, but Luck is mentally worn down, and now checking out.” Then, the following three tweets:

“Andrew Luck already has met with Colts’ owner Jim Irsay to tell him that he is retiring, per source.”

“Jacoby Brissett is Indianapolis’ new starting Quarterback.” (Brissett has been the Colts backup for the last few years; they traded for him after the Patriots drafted him in 2016, during which he played a game and a half for the Pats during Tom Brady’s 4 game deflate-gate suspension. Brissett filled in admirably for Luck in 2017 when Luck was injured, but the Colts still only won 4 games.)

And finally: “Andrew Luck is 29 years old. And ready to move on from the NFL.”

Those tweets, and that breaking news scoop, will go down in NFL history. Luck was planning to announce his retirement Sunday, but with the news out, he had no choice but to do it after the preseason game, of which the news broke in the middle. Surely learning of this news in the middle of the game, the Colts fans would boo Luck off the field as the Colts exited, seemingly reaffirming that Luck had made the right decision.

(Side note, how does Schefter get these scoops so quickly? I seriously wonder how insane his network must be. He’s so tapped in, it’s crazy. ((For those who don’t know, Adam Schefter works for ESPN, and is the league’s best insider, always breaking up to the minute scoops from inside sources. Had the news come from anyone else, it would have been justifiable to doubt, but from Schefter, it’s bound to be true.)))

So anyway, there I was, with my friends at the bar, just learning of this bombshell. One of them is a casual NFL fan, the other not really into Football, as far as I could tell. They humored me for the sake of conversation, but quickly moved on. I would go on to have a fun night with them, but I still could not get the Luck news out of my head for some time. This was insane!!

To be honest, it shouldn’t have been that shocking to especially to me, out of all people. That’s because I remembered when Luck missed the 2017 season, and the events leading up to it. It was not expected, but as the offseason went on and on, you saw more and more news that the injury (unforeseen the previous year) wasn’t progressing, and that Luck wasn’t practicing, until BAM – Luck would miss the season. So he had an injury history, and anyone who’s watched the Colts in Luck’s tenure know he has taken an absolute beating in his first few years, carrying the Colts in a downfield, pass heavy offense behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. It was fair to wonder if that had a permanent effect on him when it came to his body.

And leading up to this season, we started to see the same whispers. First, no one suspected anything. Luck was back after a high level season, and the Colts were set to be the cream of the crop in the AFC. But then came the whispers, even fewer this time, but still there. Luck’s injuries re-emerge. Luck not practicing. It felt like a familiar story. And it slowly but steadily grew the closer we got to the season, even if ever so quietly.

At that point, I considered writing an article (I have lots of article ideas in my head on the regular, but I rarely end up writing them…) saying that if Luck had to miss the 2019 season due to injury, he should consider retirement, for the sake of his body. So I literally, in a way, predicted this! It should not have been at all surprising to me. Yet, it still was. In no world did I expect this to happen even before the season started, and to see it there, was just surreal.

So Luck is done. But why was this such a big deal? Players retire all the time, especially from injury, when it comes to one of the most dangerous sports out there. To answer that, let’s take a look back at Luck’s career, that of a Quarterback who was always special and always overachieved, but whose career has now been cut much shorter than it ever should have been:

Not-So-Humble Beginnings: The Franchise Savior

Luck was drafted with the No 1 overall pick in 2012 by the Indianapolis Colts out of Stanford. He carried with him an enormous amount of hype, perhaps as much since the Quarterback he replaced, another No 1 overall pick: Peyton Manning, drafted in 1998 by the Colts out of Tennessee.

Let’s talk about that Manning fellow: He carries with him as big a legacy as just about anyone who played in this game. He brought the Colts to over a decade of relevance, put up league leading numbers year in and year out, changed the way the Quarterback position is played and prepared for, and is one of the best, if not the best, Quarterback to ever play the game. He was also, for years, more or less the face of the league. Peyton Manning didn’t just play for the Colts; Peyton Manning WAS the Colts.

But after the 2010 season, Manning faced a serious neck injury, and his football future came into doubt. He could barely throw a Football, and many believed he would never play again. (He went on to set all time records with the Denver Broncos and win another Super Bowl, but that’s another story, and just another testament to his greatness…) So in a move somewhat similar in its shockingness to what we’re facing with Luck today, the Colts made the difficult decision to release Peyton Manning. With his Football future in doubt and a sagging roster, they felt it was time to move on to the next era of Colts Football. This happened after Manning missed the entire 2011 season, and the Colts, utterly unprepared for his absence, won just two games. That’s one of the reasons they decided to move on from Manning; they had acquired, via their sheer awfulness, the No 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft–prime position to snag that Luck kid out of Stanford. Manning would forever be a legend in Indianapolis, but this was an opportunity too great to ignore. This was an opportunity to pass the torch from one franchise QB to another, something you rarely see in Football. That’s what every franchise dreams of. This wasn’t about the last decade, it was about the next one, about the future.

Luck’s Rookie Year: Far Beyond What Anyone Could Have Expected

I didn’t follow College Football or College QBs back in 2012 like I’m starting to do now, so I didn’t have a great read on Luck coming out of College. Nonetheless, my general memory is that he was a really good and smart high level game manager for Stanford. He played for Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton, an offense heavily focused on West Coast, short style passing, with a focus on the tight ends. Luck led a lot of comebacks and was responsible for a lot of wins. But it was a controlled and methodical passing game.

Luck always had a great head on his shoulders, and there was never any doubt that he could handle the pressure of the NFL that came with being the first overall pick. He was a valedictorian at Stanford, and he was about as intelligent, polite, and as good a guy as there could be.

Nonetheless, the Colts team that he took over for was an absolute wreck. As I said, they only won two games the prior year. They were in complete and total rebuilding mode. As good a prospect as many saw Luck, NO ONE thought they would compete his first year. 4-6 wins at best were what was expected. Luck took that expectation and blew the door down.

To this day, Luck’s rookie season in 2012 is one of the best and most impressive rookie seasons I have ever seen. I can’t think of any QB that would have been successful on that Colts team. And yet, he singlehandedly took them to the playoffs, a place they had no business being. The smart, methodical, caretaker that Luck was in College? Thrown out the window. In his place, become a gunslinger. With new Head Coach Chuck Pagano facing treatment for cancer and unable to coach, Bruce Arians became the interim head coach. And for anyone who knows Bruce Arians, you know what that means, and you know what kind of offense he likes to run: Spread the field, empty backfield, 5-7 step drop downfield route combinations. When it’s humming, it’s hella fun to watch, but it’s not at all QB friendly, and not just any QB can run it. That year, Luck in that offense was asked to do things that many veteran QBs aren’t asked to do, and that many veteran QBs can’t do. Not only did he do those things, he did them to perfection. The offense was a lot of 5 wide receivers, a lot of downfield shots, a lot of standing in the pocket, and a lot of full field route progressions. For a rookie QB, that’s insane. But the throws he made, were some of the best throws I’ve seen, and he made them regularly, and on a week to week basis. Not only that, but he made them at the most important of times

Luck singlehandedly took that Colts team to the playoffs. Running game wasn’t there. Offensive Line was not good. Defense wasn’t good. Receivers were TY Hilton (before he was a star), an aging Reggie Wayne, Donnie Avery, and LaVon Brazill. He had 7 4th quarter comebacks that season. Here are some highlights:

This was Luck’s second career start. He had 30 seconds to get them in field goal range. He did.

(That’s Luck shrugging off Clay Matthews by the way. On 3rd and 15. Against the Packers. with less than 2 minutes to go.)

Look at the score by the way. The Colts would win that game.

Same game. Needs a touchdown with under a minute and no timeouts. He would get it.

BEAUTY. (On 3rd and 23.)

I’m sure there are many more, but those are the plays I specifically remember from that year.

The Colts overachieved so much that year. All but two of their wins were by one score. But three of their five losses were by three or more scores. (One of their losses, the 17-22 loss to the Jaguars, by the way, was a game where Luck led a late score in the 4th Quarter, only to then lose the lead again with little time left. That happened in Week 3 of Luck’s career. It never happened to Tom Brady until the Super Bowl in his eighth season. (And that was on the Tyree drive.))

This Colts team that was supposed to win 4-6 games went 11-5 and went to the playoffs. They lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens 24-9 in the first round of the playoffs. Luck didn’t play poorly, but he didn’t play great either. They were simply outmatched as a team; it really wasn’t a surprise.

Already, Luck was a star. He got some hype that year, but it was mostly overshadowed by the other two successful rookie QBs that came from that class: Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson.

RG3 won rookie of the year, and most people probably considered him the best rookie QB of that season. He wasn’t. If most people had to rank the 3 rookie QBs that year, they probably would have ranked them 1) RG3 2) Russell Wilson 3) Andrew Luck. They had it backwards. Some people acknowledged Luck, but others just thought he was too interception prone.

The truth was that Luck was far and away the best of the three. It was clear in terms of the throws he was making and the impact he was having on his team. He was thriving on an incredibly high difficulty level. Wilson had a good second half of the year, but was carried by the run game and defense for a lot of it. And RG3 was playing in an incredibly simplified offense–more or less the Baylor offense. It wasn’t sustainable, and that’s why, like Kaepernick, he regressed each of his next few years, before losing his starting role.

And yes, Luck did throw 18 interceptions his rookie year. That’s what happens when you’re playing in the type of aggressive, downfield offense he is, and when the team’s success rests solely on your right ram. Not to mention that about half of his interceptions came when he was down multiple scores late in the game. Of course, people don’t look at this stuff, nor do they care to.

At the end of the day, it can’t be overstated. Luck’s rookie season was phenomenal.

2013-2014: More of the Same

Luck continued to be one of the top QBs in the league during the next few years, and he continued to improve his game each year. No, he wasn’t perfect all the time. His 2013 saw the occasional roadbumps, and Luck wasn’t always as phenomenal as he was under the Arians offense. They again lost 5 games, a few of them blowouts. But Luck showed up for the big time games, cashing in excellent performances in wins against San Francisco (27-7), Seattle (34-28), and Denver (39-33).

But the team holes were still there. Luck was still taking a lot of hits from poor OL play and a scheme that asked him to hold onto the ball for too long, and the defense’s weaknesses were no more evident than in the 38-8 loss to the Rams. (Or the 11-40 loss to the Cardinals. Or the 42-28 loss to the Bengals.)

But the Colts went to the playoffs, and Luck once again proved that he is a damn special player, capable of doing things others couldn’t dream of. In the Wild Card round, the Colts started the game especially poorly, as the Chiefs came out with a 38-10 lead. Luck went on to win the game 45-44, throwing for 443 yards and 4 TD. The 28 point comeback is the second largest in playoff history. He also threw 3 INT, but none of those came early in the game to put the Colts down. This became common in the Luck era Colts: During big time deficits, the Colts would dig themselves into a hole very quickly, and rarely did it have to do with Luck. This was rather unique to Luck. It happens to everyone occasionally, but it didn’t happen to anyone as commonly as Luck. Think about it: Do the Patriots ever fall into huge deficits early in the game when Brady is playing well? Almost never.

Despite Luck’s prowess, this team clearly wasn’t built to compete with the big boys, and it showed the following week. The Colts lost 43-22 to the Patriots. They gave up 166 yards on the ground and 4 TDs to LeGarrette Blount. Luck threw for 331 yards and 2 TDs, but also for 4 interceptions. But again, most of them came late in the game facing a big deficit. See the pattern? Interceptions thrown when you’re already down by a few scores simply aren’t the same as those that take your team out of the game, and Luck rarely threw the latter kind. That didn’t stop the criticism from coming.

Once again,  Luck had exceeded expectations and done spectacular things playing for an average at best Colts team. But you know how it goes: Great players get hyped a lot, and end up having to do more for lesser teams. Despite that, because of the hype, people expect too much of them, and hold them to unreasonable standards, not praising them for keeping the teams competitive, but instead faulting them for not being able to have better team outcomes. All that stuff Luck did, didn’t matter. He lost to the Patriots, and he throws a lot of interceptions. Where’s the Super Bowl? It’s over simplistic and and bad analysis, but it’s easy, and it’s how people view the games. For years, we saw the same thing with Peyton Manning. It didn’t matter that he took so many Colts teams to the playoffs that had no business being there. He took 8 years to win his first Super Bowl, and for many people, that was all that mattered. We saw the same narrative beginning to develop with Luck, except his teams were even worse than Peyton’s! Would the Colts ever get him an oline and a defense?

Luck’s next season in 2014 was definitely one of the more underrated seasons you’ll see from a Quarterback. He threw for over 4700 yards and 40 touchdowns. It was a great QB year overall for sure, with Aaron Rodgers winning his second MVP award, Tony Romo having a career year (he had a good case for MVP over Rodgers), and Brady ultimately going onto win his 4th Super Bowl. Nonetheless, Luck was a top QB that year. The Colts offense was clicking on all eight cylinders, and Luck continued to absolutely flush some throws. He really looked like he was coming into his own. For everything he had done up to that point, Luck had again taken it to a new level. And he was again making high level of difficulty, deep throws with precision. But were the Colts getting better around him? The offense had some more weapons, certainly. But the defense gave up 500 yards and 6 TD to Ben Roethlisberger in a loss, gave up 201 yards rushing to Jonas Gray on the ground in a 42-20 loss to the Patriots (Jonas Gray was never heard from again), and, in a perfect example of one of those “the game is over before Luck gets a chance to do antyhing” games, lost 42-7 to the Cowboys.

But Luck’s prowess mostly covered it up. And he also continued his trend of going further in the playoffs than the year before. The Colts had a comfortable Wild Card win against the Bengals, where Andrew Luck made one of the best throws you will ever see. The next week, he went to Denver and beat out the man he replaced, Peyton Manning. Luck was just a game away from the Super Bowl at this point, but he once again had to face the Patriots. But surely the Colts had learned how to play some run defense after getting gashed on the ground the last two games they played the Pats, right? Wrong. Blount rushed for 138 yards and 3 TDs, and the Colts got blown out, 45-7. But this time, Luck didn’t play quite as well, and that would a harbinger of issues to come.

2015-2017: Injuries and Attrition

2015 is when the issues began for Luck. The Colts began the season 0-2, with Luck throwing multiple interceptions in each game. The interception bug continued to bite for Luck as the season went on, and pundits were more than ready to dig Luck’s grave, something they had clearly been ready to do for years. Luck rallied the Colts to wins in weeks 3-5, and he still continued to be able to make impressive throws…  but something was off. They lost their next 3 from weeks 6-8. Week 6 was a Patriots loss, with more Pats success on the ground. But it also became famous for the Colts attempting one of the worst trick plays you’ll ever see, an attempted fake punt with the entire punt team shifting to the right of the field, leaving just the center, the football, and one player to take the snap on the left side of the field. There was literally no other protection other than the center. The Pats put two defenders over the center, he snapped it anyway for some reason, and the Colts WR was quickly tackled by the two Patriots. It became a nice microcosm for how bad this Colts coaching staff during the Luck era was.

The next two games, the Colts offense did nothing for most of the game, and then led almost-comebacks that were too little too late. It was revealed that Luck was battling an injury and he would be eventually shut down for the season, but even injury-addled Luck, in his worst season, still had some great performances left in him. We saw that in Week 9, Luck’s last game before being shut down. He led a 27-24 win against the then-undefeated Broncos (the best defense in the league that would go on to win the Super Bowl).

The aging veteran QB (almost 40 at the time) Matt Hasselbeck would take over for Luck (before getting hurt himself). He led the Colts to victories over the Falcons and Bucs in his first two weeks taking over for Luck. This led to some pundits to claim that Hasselbeck was a better fit for the Colts than Luck. That lasted until the next two weeks, when the Colts lost 45-10 to the Steelers and 51-16 to the Jaguars. That about shut down those takes.

Luck came back for 2016, and he had a really good year, continuing to play at a high level and make impressive  throws. But the Colts missed the playoffs at 8-8. 5 of the losses were one score games. It was a nice bounceback year for Luck, but with a bad season followed by no playoffs, no one really cared. They were ready to write Luck off.

Yet, it was clear to anyone that had been following Luck’s career that Luck was not to blame for the Colts struggles. Year in and year out he was asked to throw down the field behind a poor oline with bad coaching and no defense. People wondered if those constant hits he took behind that line would catch up to him, and it turns out they did.

During 2017, Andrew Luck sat out the entire year to rehab an injury. Despite Jacoby Brissett filling in admirably, the Colts went 4-12.

This was Luck’s sixth year in the league, but it felt like a lot of it had been wasted. With the severity of his injuries, people started to wonder if this was it for Luck.

2018: Seemingly New Beginnings

Finally, the Colts started to recognize their mistakes, and do what they should have been doing his whole career: Putting a competent team and coaching staff behind Luck that he could thrive under. And to our surprise, it actually worked! The Colts cleaned shop of the Irsay and Pagano era, and hired Frank Reich as their new Head Coach, Chris Ballard as their General Manager, and Matt Eberflus as their defensive coordinator. Of course, these three couldn’t rehaul the roster overnight, but they worked the draft well, and made best with what they had, covering up personnel weaknesses with scheme. Luck maintained the ability to throw absurd downfield passes when needed, but under the new scheme, he embraced more of a quick passing game, increasing his efficiency and protecting his body from unnecessary hits. The result was a career high in completion percentage. The oline and defense both improved. Though Luck had been in the league for seven years, this felt like a new beginning. The organization was finally on the right track, and could finally give us the Luck we had all been hoping for: One that could compete with the AFC heavyweights without being dragged down by his team. Luck was a top QB in the league last year. He won comeback player of the year, and added another playoff win to his resume before falling to the Chiefs on the road. But the future truly looked bright.

2019: The End

That’s what makes this all so shocking. Luck was one of the best in the league last year. This team owned their division, and looked to be a Super Bowl contender. Luck claimed in his retirement press conference that the injuries took away his ability to enjoy the game. With that, you will surely have pundits engaging in revisionist history, asking if Luck ever really was a Football guy at heart. But I can assure you, that’s BS. He was always all-in with the game and with his teammates.

Luck’s retirement announcement came late, just before the season, angering many outsiders (because, you know, athletes are slaves for our entertainment,  it’s not like they have their own life to worry about..). But from what I can gather, the process was similar to what happened before the 2017 season that Luck ultimately missed. He was on track to play, then he started to face an injury that, as time went on, proved to be more and more severe, until it was ultimately apparent that this would be a much bigger deal than anyone suspected.

The Tragedy of Andrew Luck

Let me start by saying this: Luck did the right thing in retiring. He said that he promised himself  he would never go through what he did in 2017 while rehabbing, and he had to be true to himself. He said that because of the injury, he didn’t love the game as much as he used to. And when that happens, you have to get out. The game is simply too brutal to play if you’re not all in. Luck knows there’s more to life than Football, and he wants to experience those things before it’s too late, like it has been for so many others whose bodies were destroyed playing Football. When your body tells you it’s time, that’s when you know. On some level, Luck didn’t have a choice. He didn’t have anything more to give, and you have to listen to your body. After all, the kid has been through hell and back:

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.28.40 PM

The mere fact that we (myself included) look at this as sad shows the problem with fandom and how we view sports and athletes, the discrepancy between the false spectacle it creates and the stories of the actual people behind it all. Football is not real; it’s a game. Life, and people, they are real. Luck’s retirement really should be something to be celebrated. Luck is making the right choice, and now he will get to live his life (hopefully) free of pain. I’m happy for him, and wish him nothing but the best.

But at the end of the day, however flawed, I am a fan, and I can’t help but see it from a fan’s perspective. And from a fan’s perspective, we were just robbed of someone that could have, that should have, been an all time great. There aren’t that many people that you can say that about. Luck was one of them. The fact that he didn’t get the opportunity to live up his potential, just doesn’t seem right.

Look, there are a lot of factors that went into this. I don’t intend to blame any one person or thing. This was Luck’s decision, first and foremost. And there’s always risk of injury when you play Football. Having said that, it’s hard not to see this as a massive failure on the part of the Colts organization.

Luck did spectacular things on the Football field. But from day one, he was never given the support he was needed to not only be successful, but to protect himself.

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.35.26 PM.png

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.59.35 PM.png

Luck took too many hits from the beginning, and it was never corrected. Yes, it’s part of the sport, but you can’t say these things don’t have an effect, and this was preventable. Over the days, weeks, years, those hits take a toll, and despite his ability to continuously play at a high level, it clearly permanently damaged Luck, to the point where he had to cut his career short. I have no doubt that if Luck was drafted by a different team, he would still be playing.

Andrew Luck gave us an amazing career of Football. He was put in situations other QBs would not succeed in, and he consistently went above and beyond to thrive. When it comes to 4th Quarter Prowess, ability to win high scoring games, deep passing ability, and ability to put the team on on his back, Luck was as good as anyone. His skillset was truly unique: The big playmaking ability and escapability of Ben Roethlisberger, with the accuracy and field general ability of Peyton Manning.


Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.42.08 PM

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.42.00 PM

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.41.28 PM

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.41.19 PM

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 7.41.38 PM

Put simply, this is now how it should have ended. Luck could have played 15-20 seasons in the NFL with a chance at the Hall of Fame. He should have been battling it out with Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes for AFC Supremacy year in and year out for the next decade. Instead, he was forced to retire.

When it comes to missed opportunity, it doesn’t get much worse than that.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Click here for Archives

How does the 2017 Patriots Offense compare to the 2012 team?

The Patriots followed up their Superbowl comeback for the ages with a fantastic offseason, and many are already penciling them in as Superbowl favorites yet again. The offense has found a way to become even more talented, and while this unit will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2007 team, I’m not sure that’s a valid comparison. People try to make that comparison pretty much every year, but that was a special team in a unique set of circumstances. That was the year the Patriots acquired Randy Moss, one of this game’s few truly transcendental players, capable of escalating the play of and changing the identity of an offense regardless of where he plays and who he plays with–not to mention how the defense approaches you. He was a guy who was, at his peak, unstoppable. Even if he was well covered, he would often still find a way to make the play, simply because of his sheer unmatched physical talent. The Patriots had to change a lot of their passing concepts to incorporate Randy Moss into the game plan, and they haven’t really been the same kind of downfield passing offense since. Throw in the fact that that Patriots offense in many ways revolutionized the way the game is played; they were the first offense to use shotgun formation more than 50% of the time (the NFL average in 2006, the year before, was 19%, while the NFL average this previous season was 68%). They were also unique in just how pass heavy they were in certain games, often not even trying to run the football (although I don’t have the numbers for that). They still do that more than a lot of teams, but it truly was unusual and relatively unseen in 2007 when they rolled out that record setting offense. Throw in the fact that Tom Brady, at least in the regular season, had arguably the best season of his career, that the Patriots secondary WR’s of Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney were more traditional downfield receivers than they’ve had since, and that the league just wasn’t ready for the way the Patriots planned to use Wes Welker (the small, shifty, dink and dunk slot guy in a primary role), and 2007 was a unique year for the Pats in that they really were ahead of defenses, and that the offense they ran, in virtue of all the factors I just mentioned, was a unique one, even for the Tom Brady/BB era.

I thought a better / more interesting comparison would be to compare the 2016 Patriots Offense with that of 2012. 2012 isn’t really looked at as that special a year for the Patriots, but looking back on that roster on offense, they were pretty stacked at just about every position, and pretty balanced in terms of run/pass as well. I thought it would be useful to compare this year’s Patriots with that unit, and maybe in doing so, we can decide if all the Patriots offseason hype is justified.

Quarterback: Tom Brady (2017) vs Tom Brady (2012)


Brady is a better QB now than he was in 2012. I was not super impressed with Brady’s 2012 and viewed it as a step down from his spectacular 2011 season (and spectacular 2010 season, for that matter). The numbers were still good, and it was still a good season overall, but I thought his pocket presence was lacking and had taken a step back, and I viewed most of the good numbers as a result of the system as well as a relatively weak schedule. And although the overall numbers were good, there were signs of decline: his yards per attempt and completion percentage were the lowest they’d been since 2006. This decline spilled into the 2013 season–where he struggled significantly, especially for the first half of the season, and his numbers were notably worse–after he lost essentially all of his receivers in the offseason.

What I did not predict was the degree to which Brady would bounce back. He’s won two Superbowls in the past three years. This past year, 2016, was especially impressive. Not only did he fix his pocket presence, but he’s actually become a much better functional mover than he was before. It’s evident watching him that he’s a LOT more comfortable making plays late in the down and moving when he has to get off his base. It’s pretty impressive. He’s still improving his game even at this age, and he’s no longer just a quick rhythm passer. He’ll move around and make improvisational plays if you need him to. Even more impressive is that last year, he made a notable improvement to his deep ball and throwing to the outside–general areas of weakness for him throughout his career with the exception of the 2007 season, and especially after his ACL injury in 2008. These were notable areas of weakness I saw for Brady in 2012 (playing late in the down, pocket presence, and throwing deep and to the outside), and that he’s essentially corrected them is a testament to how great he is.

At Tom Brady’s age, the decline could essentially come at any time. History has not been kind to 40+ year old Quarterbacks. But assuming he keeps up the level of play he showed last year, the Patriots are in very good shape.

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Julian Edelman (2017) vs Wes Welker (2012)


Julian Edelman 2016: 98 Rec, 1106 Yards, 11.3 Y/R, 3 TD
Wes Welker 2012: 118 Rec, 1354 Yards, 11.5 Y/R, 6 TD

You’re more or less talking about the same guy here. I was a big Welker fan, did not like how the Pats treated him after the 2012 season, and was skeptical that Edelman could replicate his production. But he has, and he’s arguably a more versatile player, with the ability to play on the outside, get deep, and return kicks. Welker could do all those things too, but Edelman probably does them better. As a pure slot WR, Welker is still the gold standard: Very few have his lateral agility, football IQ, change of direction, twitch, toughness, motor, and start/stop ability. Still, we’re essentially splitting hairs.

Welker was on the back end in 2012 (he started to have some issues with drops), but his production didn’t show it. Edelman is probably more in the prime of his career now than Welker was in 2012, but at some point, all the hits he’s taking are going to pay a toll. Again, Edelman is probably the more versatile player, and that along with what he likely has left in the tank, should merit me ranking him above Welker. Still, considering the respect I have for Welker, as well as how reliable was and well he played his role in 2012, I’m not sure I can put him below Edelman.

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)


2016: 25 Rec, 540 Yards, 21.6 Y/R, 3 TD
2012: 55 Rec, 790 Yards, 14.4 Y/R, 11 TD

No one does a better job of filling the “just as you’re ready to call him the greatest tight end ever, he gets hurt again” role better than Gronkowski. I was actually surprised at how low his 2016 numbers were, but again, that has more to do with availability than anything else. It’s also shocking that the Patriots completed that comeback in the Superbowl without him, as his loss is usually what sinks them in the playoffs.

Still, when Gronk’s healthy, it’s pretty clear what he offers and what a dominant and unstoppable force he is. It’s pretty self-evident, everyone knows it, and there’s not much else to be said. His play speaks for itself. It’s even more a testament to his greatness that he’s been able to be this productive after Aaron Hernandez left, showing that he and he alone truly is the difference maker.

It is fair to wonder how much Gronk has left in the tank after yet another injury. But when you have a player as good as he has been, I’ll have to see it with my own eyes before I write him off.

Advantage: Gronk

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)


Hernandez gets the easy edge here. He was a pretty special player before his poor choices (putting it lightly) off the field caught up to him. He wasn’t a great blocker, but he was a really good receiver. He was in many ways a movable chess piece. He could line up as an inline tight end, could run routes from the slot (where he was arguably most valuable), and even would line up in the backfield on occasion. He was a very smooth athlete, more of a hybrid player than a true tight end.

Dwayne Allen is a nice player and a talented player, but he never really lived up to expectations in Indy. They gave him that gronk-like megadeal around 2014, essentially betting on his potential to become a big tight end. That never really happened, and he was released this past offseason after being outplayed by Jack Doyle. He’s more of an inline tight end than a guy that’s going to split out or line up in the slot like Hernandez did. Expectations should be fairly low for NE, although you never know with them.

Advantage: Hernandez

Runningback: Mike Gillislee (2017) vs Stevan Ridley


Gillislee (2016, Buffalo): 101 carries, 577 yards, 5.7 y/c, 8 TD
Ridley: 290 carries, 1263 yards, 4.4 y/c, 12 TD

Ridley had a really nice year in 2012 and revitalized the running game for the Patriots. I always viewed him as a solid back, but his fumbling issues in New England, along with the second coming of Blount, made him expendable, and he never really rebounded after leaving NE.

Gillislee is a nice pickup, another nobody from Buffalo who is likely to have a big year in New England (last year it was Chris Hogan). He was backing up LeSean McCoy in Buffalo last year, so his yards per carry numbers likely won’t be as high if he’s the primary this year.

Ridley gets the edge only because Gillislee is somewhat of an unknown, but there’s no reason he can’t be just as valuable, even if the volume numbers aren’t quite as high.

Advantage: Ridley

Receiving Backs: Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead (2017) vs Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen (2012)


The pats have never been a team to be lacking in backs, and they will likely run a committee this year, as they usually do.

James White really came on last year, especially in the Superbowl with 14 receptions (Vereen had 11 receptions in their 2014 sb win), and I expect the Patriots to continue utilizing the backs in the passing game. They really showed how valuable the mismatches a receiving back creates can be, especially when you split them out wide and get them on a linebacker. This continued utilization of backs in the passing game is likely where the NFL is headed; we saw a similar dominance with Atlanta, the other team in the SB, often using Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on the field at the same time, and having Coleman run routes out wide against linebackers, as can be seen with Coleman’s receiving TD in the Denver game.

The Patriots added another great fit for their system in Rex Burkhead, who, if it works out, would likely play a Danny Woodhead type role. There’s no doubt the Pats are loaded at this position.

I did go back and forth on this one. If Burkhead works out this is a pretty scary trio. But he’s still an unknown. I think Woodhead and Vereen are a slightly more talented pairing. Keep in mind Dion Lewis has had injury issues, and Woodhead and Vereen could both run the ball, while White isn’t much of a runner. This is a close one. Similar to what I said about Gillislee and Ridley, I think these three could absolutely prove equal or greater worth to the 2012 group, but for now I’m going to put the 2012 group ahead as I see them as a slightly more talented group with greater production.

Advantage: Woodhead and Vereen

Outside Receivers: Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell (2017) vs Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch (2012)


Chris Hogan: 38 Rec, 680 Yards, 17.9 Y/R, 4 TD
Malcolm Mitchell: 32 Rec, 401 Yards, 12.5 Y/R, 4 TD

Brandon Lloyd: 74 Rec, 911 Yards, 12.3 Y/R, 4 TD
Deion Branch: 16 Rec, 145 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 0 TD

The Patriots have gotten themselves a talented pair of receivers here, and Tom Brady’s newly emerged outside/deep passing abilities certainly don’t hurt the situation. Chris Hogan is the Patriots latest rags to riches project, as who would have guessed he would have become such an effective deep threat? Malcolm Mitchell is an intriguing young athlete as well, and it seems like BB finally may have broken his curse of not being able to draft WRs.

Branch was a reliable possession guy and savvy route runner for Tom Brady (he was a deep threat earlier in his career, but that was all but gone after his Seattle days), but as you can see by these numbers, he was pretty much done in 2012. Brandon Lloyd is an underrated receiver and had respectable numbers with Brady, but that connection never really blossomed with Brady as he was never really a great fit for their offense. He was more of a deep threat/spectacular catch guy than a timing and rhythm quick-strike guy.

Hogan and Mitchell both exceeded expectations and they both had big games in the Superbowl. If Brady can maintain his success throwing outside the numbers, expect them to continue to contribute.

Advantage: Hogan and Mitchell

Second Slot WR: Brandin Cooks (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)


Brandin Cooks (2016 Saints): 78 Rec, 1173 Yards, 15 Y/R, 8 TD
Aaron Hernandez: 51 Rec, 483 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 5 TD

This is the offseason acquisition everyone is talking about. Cooks was a playmaker in New Orleans. He was also mostly a deep threat in New Orleans, and he’s likely to be more of a quick option route typical slot WR in NE. However, smart football minds / film gurus like Andy Benoit and Greg Cosell are confident that he’s capable of doing that, even though that’s not how they used him in New Orleans. I’m also assuming he’ll play in the slot, but who really knows. The Pats always seem to have almost entirely slot guys on their WR core and just end up putting some on the outside (Amendola, Edelman, Welker). Don’t expect Cooks’s numbers to look like they did in New Orleans after moving away from Drew Brees, but he’s still likely to be an asset. Although WR in New England has historically been a question mark, especially when it comes to free agents coming in and learning the system, Cooks is too good a player to not contribute.

I doubled up on Hernandez here because as I mentioned, they essentially did treat him as a WR, often splitting him out wide. I was going to put Edelman here too, but if I remember correctly they mostly used him on the outside rather than the slot in 2012 since they already had Welker, and he didn’t get much playing time on offense anyway.

Advantage: Cooks

WR4: Danny Amendola (2016) vs Julian Edelman (2012)


Danny Amendola (2016): 23 Rec, 243 Yards, 10.6 Y/R, 4 TD
Julian Edelman (2012): 21 Rec, 235 Yards, 11.2 Y/R, 3 TD

This just shows you how deep the 2017 Patriots depth chart is. Amendola is a guy that is perfectly capable of playing a primary role (he was essentially Welker in the slot in St. Louis), but they just have so many bodies that he doesn’t get the chance. Yet he always ends up making some crucial plays in the postseason after you forget about him in the regular season. And he keeps coming back for less and less money each year.

It’s not that Amendola is a better player than Edelman (he’s not), but that the 2012 Patriots just didn’t go this deep. Edelman was mainly a special teamer for them, while Amendola contributed greatly to the 2014 and 2016 postseason runs.

Advantage: Amendola



QB: Brady (2017) vs Brady (2012)

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Edelman (2017) vs Welker (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Hernandez (2012)

Runningback: Gillisslee (2017) vs Ridley (2012)

Advantage: Ridley (2012)

Receiving Backs: Lewis, White, Burkhead (2017) vs Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Advantage: Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Outside WR: Hogan/Mitchell (2017) vs Lloyd/Branch (2012)

Advantage: Hogan/Mitchell (2017)

Second Slot WR: Cooks (2017) vs Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Cooks (2017)

WR4: Amendola (2017) vs Edelman (2012)

Advantage: Amendola (2017)

Point Summary:

2017 Team: 4 Points
2012 Team: 3 Points




As you can see, these are both very talented offenses that matchup very well to each other. The 2017 team has to get the advantage because of their ridiculous depth (especially at WR), an improved Brady, and a better defense. I also feel very good about how they will use their backs in the passing game, especially if Gronk gets hurt again.

Back to the Superbowl for the Patriots?


Now that we’ve looked at the offense from top to bottom, and compared it to one of their more talented and balanced squads from the past (the 2012 Patriots lost in the AFC Championship to Baltimore, 28-13), let’s revisit our initial driving question: Is this Patriots team good enough to get back to the Superbowl, just as all the pundits are predicting?

Perhaps I didn’t phrase that well enough. The answer is yes, of course they are talented enough to get back and win it again. A better question is, will they?

The Patriots absolutely deserve the benefit of the doubt after last year’s Superbowl. The 25 point Superbowl comeback was unprecedented (the previous largest comeback in the Superbowl was 10 points, also set by the Patriots), and essentially forced ESPN and all the stats guys to rewrite their win probability models (many of which had the Falcons at close to 100% probability of winning at many points in the game). As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders wrote after the win, the Patriots have become the NFL’s toughest kill. And with that comeback granting Belichick and Brady a fifth ring in this decade, you have to give them credit, even if they were assisted by what I believe was an epic chokejob from the Falcons.

Furthermore, what was alarming about the SB win is that it’s allowing the Patriots to game the system even more. Belichick is an excellent businessman, and they’ve always been great at working the draft as well as picking up players that may not be the most talented but are smart and fit their system, players that are often overlooked and because of that come really cheap. And if one of their guys is up for a new contract and there’s any doubt about the future, they won’t overpay him. Coaching absolutely plays a role in their success too, and these factors combined, in addition to having a HOF QB (and playing in a weak division), have allowed the Patriots to remain consistently competitive in a salary cap era that is supposed to lead to parity.

But to me, what this offseason showed is that, the Patriots have gotten so good that players are willing to come to the Patriots and not be paid that much, if only to get a shot at winning a ring. That should be very alarming for the rest of the league, as it allows the Patriots to get good players for a fraction of their worth.

I also think the AFC Landscape is ripe right now for more rings for the Patriots simply because of the competition level. Let’s take a look at who the Patriots have lost to since 2005 in years that they haven’t been winning rings:

2006: Colts (Peyton Manning)
2007: Giants (Superbowl)
2008: No Brady
2009: Ravens
2010: Jets
2011: Giants (Superbowl)
2012: Ravens
2013: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2014: Ring (Beat Ravens, Colts, Seahawks)
2015: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2016: Ring (Beat Texans, Steelers, Falcons)

See a theme here? When the Patriots haven’t been getting to the Superbowl, outside of the Jets loss (back when they had that dominant 2 year stretch under Rex), it’s been either the Ravens (twice), or a Peyton Manning led team (3 times) stopping Brady. When they do get to the Superbowl, only the Giants have been able to stop them, although the Seahawks and Falcons came painfully close (as did the Rams and Panthers, really…).

But Peyton Manning is retired. Brady struggles against that Broncos D, but they’re unlikely to make it back to the Playoffs anytime soon without Peyton Manning. The Ravens era of dominance has been seemingly over too, ever since they paid Flacco. They’ve only made the playoffs once since then, and that was when Gary Kubiak (who won the SB with Denver in 2015) was their OC. To be fair, they did lose to the Patriots that year that they did make the playoffs, but they still played them really well, as the Pats had to come back from down 14 twice in that game. It’s also worth mentioning that the Patriots beat the Ravens in the 2011 postseason, but the Ravens really had that game in their grasp and some very good luck helped the Patriots (who had struggled on offense that day) secure the win: Lee Evans dropped what would have been Flacco’s game winning touchdown pass to put the Ravens up 4 with 27 seconds left, and then Billy Cundiff, rushing onto the field thanks to some scoreboard shenanigans (coincidence???), rushed his kick, and missed the 32 yard chip shot. (Not to worry though, in addition to getting their Superbowl the following year, the Ravens would sign Justin Tucker, who is not only on his way to being the greatest kicker of all time, but also the most swag kicker of all the time). So not only did the Ravens end 2 of the Patriots postseason runs, but they also almost beat them two more times.

So who does that leave in the AFC Landscape to challenge the Patriots? The two main contendors, in my view, are the Steelers and the Chiefs, and I don’t see either of them beating the Patriots because of lackluster coaching. Andy Reid is a good coach, but he always seems to screw up clock management in the playoffs. We saw it with the Eagles lack of urgency down 24-14 in Superbowl 39, with Alex Smith’s intentional grounding on a screen pass against the Colts in 2013 during the Chiefs’ final drive, and with, again, a drive that was way too slow against the Patriots in 2014, down 2 scores late in the 4th. The chiefs continued to huddle up (just like they did in Superbowl 39), failed to score before the 2 minute warming, and had to try an onside kick. It’s really amazing how these issues keep coming up for Reid.

Then you have the Steelers, who no matter who’s on the team, continue to play like crap against the Patriots. This has been the case for over a decade. You continue to see blown coverages, zones that are way too soft, falling for play action fakes and trick plays, and just a general lack of preparedness to play the Patriots high speed offense. Last years AFC Championship game was embarrassing. The number of receivers New England had running free, in a game of that magnitude, is inexcusable. As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders once said on Twitter, Tom Brady could come out of retirement at 45 (assuming he’s not still playing then) and still put up 300+ on the PIT defense. I blame coaching for this. PIT is too good a team to consistently underwhelm like this. (Side Note: Let’s not forget they also lost to Tim Tebow in the 2011 playoffs, who had 31.6 yards per completion in that game…)

If New England were to go to Kansas or Pittsburgh in the playoffs, I think we could have  the potential for a really good game. But with home field advantage, they’re basically a lock for the Superbowl. And we know PIT is going to blow some game to a team that ends up going 1-15, as Mike Tomlin for years has been playing down to the competition. Those games make a difference in playoff seeding. Many people have been hyping up the Raiders this offseason, but a general rule for teams that are perennial losers is that, until you see them stop losing, continue to expect them to lose.

Bottom line is, on paper, it all looks good for the Patriots this coming year. They deserve the benefit of the doubt to get back to the Superbowl after their historic comeback against the Falcons, and they’ve capped it off with a tremendous offseason. They have the best coach in the league, one of the most talented rosters in the league, are in a weak division and conference, and their QB is seemingly timeless.

Having said all that, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s really hard to win two Superbowls in a row in this league. The Patriots only did it once under Belichick and Brady, and that was back in 03-04. With the single elimination format the NFL uses in the playoffs, all it takes is one off day from Brady and the offense. Even if you have all the talent in the world, it’s still tough to show up and score points each and every week. Can the Patriots do it again? Only time will tell.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Click here for Archives

What is the Value of a Quarterback?

It seems like everytime a Quarterback not named Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is handed a new contract, criticism is rampant. For years on end now, it seems like Quarterbacks have been given massive contracts that tend to eat up most of the salary cap. Many people often think that these players are not worth this type of money, as it used to be reserved for top-notch starters like Peyton Manning, Quarterbacks who were good enough that they could compensate for other areas of the team that were weak. This supposed jump in Quarterback salary likely started with Joe Flacco’s Superbowl XLVII run in 2012. At the start of that season, the Ravens chose not to offer Joe Flacco a new deal but instead let him play out the season. This was an understandable move in some respects as Joe Flacco had been a decent, but inconsistent starter up to that point, and the Ravens were a team built on running the football and playing strong defense.

That season, Joe Flacco essentially  bet on himself and won. He got hot at the right time and led the Ravens to a Superbowl victory, earning Superbowl MVP in the process. He had a tremendous postseason, throwing for 1140 yards, 9 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, and a passer rating of 117.2. At the end of the season, he knew he had the Ravens in a bind. He asked for big time money, and of course, they paid up. It was likely either that or let Joe Flacco hit the market. Letting Joe Flacco go after a Superbowl win would be a PR nightmare. Plus, they wouldn’t have a Quarterback.

It could be argued that that point changed the market for Quarterbacks as Flacco’s salary essentially became the asking price/market price for your average starter. It gave Quarterbacks and agents leverage. So since that point, we’ve seen a lot of non-elite Quarterbacks been given big time contracts. (Assuming “elite guys” are the top 3-5 guys, ie Brady, Rodgers, and Brees, that can win no matter who you put around them.) Some of these “non-elite” starters that have been given big money–and often criticized in the process–include Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, and I believe since then the Ravens even gave Joe Flacco a second big contract.

Now, it is worth saying that a lot of these contract numbers are misleading. NFL contracts are almost never guaranteed and players almost never play out the entire deal. A lot of people just look at the raw number and assume that’s what the player is getting paid, and this is rarely the case. And there are a lot of people that have a problem with athletes getting paid so much money, or asking for so much money. (There are even some people who think that even when only looking at the guaranteed money, that Quarterbacks are still getting paid too much.) I would disagree with this stance, A) because NFL players are at risk of suffering severe, debilitating lifelong injuries, and B) because what players get paid is negligible compared to the money the owners make.

But that’s a conversation for another day. Putting aside the question of whether Quarterbacks, or even players in general, deserve to be paid this kind of money from an ethical standpoint, the issue I’m focusing on for this article is whether it makes sense from an NFL/business standpoint for Quarterbacks to be making the kind of big money that they often do.

As I’ve said, it seems that everytime a big new QB deal comes out, there is criticism all over the place. “They overpaid!”, “he’s not worth it!”, etc etc etc. Now, it’s easy to offer this kind of critique from at home sitting on your couch. But at the end of the day, teams need a Quarterback. It’s the most important position on the team, outside of kicker. (Kidding, kidding. But seriously, I do love Kickers.) The search for a QB drives coaches and franchises crazy. Too often, letting a serviceable guy go is just too big a risk to take, because QBs aren’t a dime a dozen. No one wants to be the Browns, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, etc.

At the end of the day, if the market demands a certain price for a QB, the team has two choices: either pay that guy, or let him walk and not have a Quarterback. It’s easy for us to sit on our couches and say it’s not worth it, but we’re not the ones who have to put a product on the field to start the season. Someone’s gotta play. If it’s not the guy you currently have, who is it gonna be?

In the same sense, a lot of people will make the argument that paying for an average QB is paying to go 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7 and miss the playoffs, and that if you’re going to pay that much money to do that, then you might as well go 5-11 and get a high draft pick and draft a Quarterback. Again, this makes sense in theory, but no coach thinks like that. Coaches are being paid to win games. As are players. Most coaches’ jobs are on the line every single year. We know how quickly coaches get fired in this league. Their job is to create a winning product. No coach is going to tank/purposely lose games for any reason.

Most Quarterbacks that are getting paid big-time money aren’t guys that are going to single-handedly be carrying their teams to the playoffs. There aren’t that many Tom Bradys in the world. In fact, there’s only one. Yet a lot of these Quarterbacks are held to Brady-esque standards when pundits are criticizing these contracts. Ideally, should a Quarterback be paid his value proportionally to where he stands among the QB hierarchy of the rest of the league? Sure, but the league, and the market, don’t work like that.

Coaches would love to have Tom Brady, but they have to work with what they have. And outside of that group of about 3-5 elite QBs who can be successful in almost every situation, most QBs are situation dependent. I was once listening to a podcast where someone said–I don’t remember who, might have been Chris Burke or Doug Farrar, but not sure–that when it comes to QBs, there are a group of guys at the top who are going to have success no matter what situation they’re in, there are a group of guys at the bottom who are going to be bad and bring the team down no matter what situation they’re in, and the rest of the guys are dependent on situation. That rings true to me. I think when teams pay a non-elite QB big time money, they think (or are hoping) that if they can get enough team around him, he can win them a Superbowl or at least get to the playoffs, a la Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton.

This brings us back to the initial problem though: If a QB is dependent on team to be successful, why would you pay him so much money that you don’t have enough to build up the rest of the team? This is a tough question and you could argue it even applies to the elite guys–Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have been good enough to keep their teams in the playoff mix, but they all had more success winning rings on their earlier contracts. It’s just the case that early QB contracts are more conducive to team success, which is why it’s crucial to win a ring (or multiple ones, if you can) when you have a big time QB on his first contract. It’s going to be hard for the Seahawks to keep this defensive core together now that Russell Wilson has been extended. If I remember correctly, his first contract was incredibly team friendly, seeing how he wasn’t even expected to be the starter when he was drafted.

None of this is meant to defend any particular QB contract, nor is it meant to defend the signing of supposed “non-elite” QBs to big time contracts either. It is simply meant to point out that the criticism we hear regarding such contracts is often naive and fails to recognize the reality of the situations many of these teams are in and the options that they actually face. It’s always easy to criticize “after-the-fact”. But how many of these teams would have been criticized just as much had they cutoff ties with their QB and went into the season without a QB?

For years, teams have paid the QB, because they see it as the only viable option. For years, teams have been criticized for paying the QB because people see it as the wrong option. Could we now be starting to see a change in things? There are some situations that seem to suggest that, yes, teams may not be as willing to pay the QB going forward.

The Washington Redskins with Kirk Cousins and the New York Jets with Ryan Fitzpatrick both opted to give their QBs one year, “prove-it” deals rather than long term contracts. Both QBs had good years, statistically at least, and their teams were successful–the Redskins made it to the playoffs and the Jets were one game away–but these are guys you might hold your breath signing to long term deals. At least, that’s what the Jets and Redskins thought. Neither has a long track record of success, and neither is exceptionally physically gifted. Both played in well designed offensive schemes with talent at the skill positions. The Jets, especially, took a surprisingly long amount of time to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, much longer than people expected. They did eventually get him signed, but they played hardball, and for a while it looked like they were ready to go into the season with Geno Smith as their starter.

Then you have Sam Bradford, who, not wanting to be a placeholder for a younger QB, decided to test the market after the Eagles drafted Carson Wentz. It turns out no one wanted him, and he eventually reported to training camp with the Eagles. Teams may have been turned off by the fact that he likely wanted to be guaranteed a starting position, and wanted big time money to do so. And I know he doesn’t have a track record of success in this league, and is injury prone, but it’s still a little surprising that a former No 1 overall pick who is likely more talented throwing the football than maybe half the QBs in this league wouldn’t garner any attention, especially this day in age when so many teams are looking for Quarterbacks.

Lastly, you have the most glaring example: The Denver Broncos. Last year, Brock Osweiler stepped in midseason for an injured Peyton Manning and played pretty well, going 4-2 in his absence. I was actually surprised that they gave the job back to Peyton, to be honest. But they did, and Brock had to sit back on the bench and watch while Peyton went on to be part of the Superbowl winning team.

Osweiler was drafted by the Broncos in 2012, and everyone assumed he’d be Peyton Manning’s replacement once Manning retired. Outside of that brief period last year, Osweiler didn’t get to see the field as a starter in those four years. Yes, Osweiler was drafted under a different coaching staff than the one currently in place (although Elway had still been there, and he seems to be making the decisions with this club), but it was still surprising, to say the least, when the Broncos decided so casually to not pay Osweiler and let him seek out a trade. (Not sure if he was traded or just released and then signed, but basically Denver made a conscious decision to move on.)

What happened was Osweiler wanted a certain amount of money and Denver didn’t want to give it to him. Osweiler likely felt disrespect from a team that had him sit on the bench for four years, and then bench him again and make him watch the Superbowl from the sidelines after he thought the job was his. Elway likely watched his team win a Superbowl off the heels of a dominant defense–after a regular season during which his Quarterback, Peyton Manning, was borderline atrocious–and thought that he had a formula for success (play good defense) that he didn’t want to mess with by paying a Quarterback money that, in his eyes, he didn’t deserve based on the caliber of player he was. In theory, it makes sense for both sides, but at the end of the day, Elway is going into the season with either Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, or Paxton Lynch as the starter (still to be determined). He essentially doesn’t have a Quarterback right now. That’s a bold move to make, but Elway’s never been afraid of doing things his way.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Houston Texans. They represent the opposite philosophy, the “pay the QB” philosophy. They gave Osweiler the money he wanted, despite going 9-7 the previous two years with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer at QB, respectively. Those QBs played okay, and Houston even got into the playoffs last year, although Hoyer imploded in the playoff game. But they saw Osweiler as an upgrade at the most important position on the field, so they gave him the money he wanted.

Both moves make sense in some respects and are questionable in others. Ultimately, only time will tell who made the best move.

The point is, it’s always easy to say from an outside perspective, not to pay the QB. But the alternative means going into the season with an unknown at QB, which could be just as dangerous, if not more. It seems that now some teams are finally beginning to take this option. It will be interesting to see what this means moving forward, as pundits who have always criticized teams for paying the QB will now get to see what the alternative looks like, and will have the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Click here for Archives

Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson: Offseason Thoughts

I’ve been meaning to update the blog for a while now, but I’ve been somewhat unsure of what to write about. Not only do posts tend to take a while, but in the dry offseason sometimes it can be hard to find things to talk about– short of another QB Rankings, which I have considered, but doing that for all 32 teams can be rough.

Having said that, the offseason generally is a time for QB analysis, if only because there’s nothing else going on or nothing better to do or talk about. And given some of the recent news that’s come out, I thought I’d focus on two things in this post that should end up tying in nicely to each other:

  1. Cam Newton’s Number One ranking on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2015 List, where his accomplishments lie as of now, and what we can expect from him going forward.
  2. Andrew Luck’s massive new contract, and whether it’s justified.

If other topics find their way into this post or I end up straying off topic, then so be it.

Let’s start with Cam. Cam Newton was ranked the No 1 player in the NFL on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2015 list–a list that historically has been advertised as being selected by the players, but in reality this claim is dubious at best, as rarely have we ever seen or heard players talking about having voted for the list. Nonetheless, Cam came in at No 1, a spot that is frustrating but not entirely surprising, considering the type of season Cam had, the hype he was getting all season long, and the fact that Cam Newton won 48 of 50 MVP votes, which is absurd given the season that Carson Palmer had.

Cam’s personality irked me big time during the 2015 season, but after watching some more tape of him over the past few months, there’s no doubt that he was really good, perhaps even better than I was giving him credit for. Yes, the raw numbers were pretty great, but he showed noticeable improvement in almost all facets of his game. I specifically noticed a greater ability to read and decipher coverage–football IQ, which is what separates the best quarterbacks from the scrubs. I specifically saw this with his eye manipulation: he was really good, especially in the redzone, at impacting coverage by using pump fakes and looking people off, then coming back to the other side where he knew he had favorable matchups. This resulted in a much better improvement in Carolina’s intermediate to deep passing game, something that hadn’t really been that good during Cam’s previous years. And while he still wasn’t and may never be a precision passer, per se, he was definitely more accurate than he’d been in the past. He also was better in 4th quarter comeback/game winning drive situations than he had been in the past. By all accounts, Cam had a good year. And while his Super Bowl gaffe can’t be ignored, he was playing a really tough defense. You can’t knock him too much for losing that game–even if you can knock him for other things about that game

I still don’t think Cam should have been the No 1 player on the list, however. But I think what this placement speaks to is his personality, and his popularity as an image. Right now, the NFL is embracing and selling the image of Cam Newton. It seems like in some ways, they’re trying to make him the face of the NFL. Or at least one of the faces. We sort of saw this with Brady around 04 and 05, where the image of him as the clutch, sexy, super bowl winning, and flawless superstar was larger than his actual performance as a quarterback–even though his performance was very good. This is all understandable, and if you’re the NFL, why not hop on board the Cam train? He’s a marvel to watch, as he’s big, he’s fast, he’s powerful, and he has a huge arm. But on top of all that, he’s young, he has personality, he’s passionate, he shows his emotions, and he has fun while he’s playing the game. And look, I’m not a fan of the dancing, the dabbing, the showboating, and all that. But I get why people would be. Even if you’re not that into football or don’t know that much about it, you can have fun watching Cam and dabbing with your friends. People know who Cam Newton is. You can also turn on the TV, see Cam trucking over defenders or firing absolute frozen ropes, and even if you don’t know football that well, you’ll still likely be impressed.

Then there’s the fact of how he plays the position. Cam Newton is a dual threat QB, and the Panthers take full advantage of this. They built the offense around his strengths and incorporated him fully into their run game. For some reason, the NFL has always loved QBs that can run. The pocket passer has always been associated with “old”, “boring” while the mobile QB is “new” and “exciting”, “the next big thing” and “transforming the quarterback position” / “changing the way the game has played”. For some reason, when you talk about the prototypical attributes of a pocket passer, people make it an emotional thing and act like you are somehow being closed-minded and stubborn. What this totally ignores is the reasons why these attributes are important. But, that’s a conversation for another day. The point is that people like and always have liked dual threat QBs. Whenever there’s a new one they always jump on the train about how this will be the one that “changes the Quarterback position”. So when there is one that’s actually had the level of success that Cam has had, of course it’s going to be emphasized.

There have always been players that have drawn fascination by the NFL more for who they are than the product they offer on the field. Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel are two examples that come to mind. Now, don’t get me wrong here. With Cam, I do think it’s both. He had a great year and he more than deserves to be praised for that. And people totally recognize that and respect that. People don’t like him just because of his personality. I want to make that very clear, because that’s not what I’m saying. His play matters. However, people also are attracted to him as a spectacle. And I think that’s what this No 1 ranking is indicative, more than anything: his ascending status as arguably the NFL’s hottest superstar–whether that’s indeed what he is right now, or whether that’s what the media wants to make him out as.

But now I would like to discuss Cam’s actual play and just where his career lies as of now. Because recency bias and hype is strong in the NFL, and it seems like because of the Super Bowl run he had last year (and I’ve been seeing the same sort of sentiments recently with the Top 100 ranking), people are getting the hall of fame busts ready for this guy. We’re seeing very strong rhetoric, such as “could be the type of player we’ve never seen before”, “will change the way the game is played”, “will be the best for the next generation”, etc. This offseason puffery is often meaningless and pointless. The narrative has been brewing for a while now–the hype was there since day one of his rookie season, and people were declaring him MVP through the midway point last season–and since Cam finally played up to his potential last year, people were more than ready to tee off on this narrative. Is the hype warranted, and can Cam maintain this level of play going forward?

Let’s be very clear about what Cam is and isn’t right now:

  • Cam did have a really strong 2015 season, aided of course by a strong supporting cast and an excellent offensive scheme. (Don’t tell me he didn’t have receivers: He had a top 5 tight end, great runningbacks, a great offensive line, a great defense, and a scheme that helps give receivers favorable matchups.)
  • Cam is also the Quarterback that came into 2015 with a losing record as a starter, 2 playoff appearances, 1 playoff win, and that win came in a season where the Panthers got in as a 7-8-1 wildcard.
  • Cam is the Quarterback who owns a career 59.6 completion percentage and a career passer rating of 88.3

“But you’re just being a hater!” No. I’m just stating facts actually.

Can Cam maintain the level of success he showed us last year? No season is going to be as easy as a 15-1 season. Those are the types of seasons where everything is going right. Cam will have to overcome adversity more than he did last year. As I said, he did show notable improvement and if I had to guess, I don’t think he’ll go back to his 2011-2014 self, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was in 2015. But as of right now, how he will play is still a question. To say he’s going to be the NFL’s best quarterback for years to come or that he’s going to be even better just because he had one good year is silly and unjustified.

This brings me into the next quarterback I want to discuss for this piece.

Andrew Luck: The Real Cam Newton

When the media talks about what makes Cam so great, when trying to justify their claims that Cam is going to be “unlike anything ever seen before”, “the best quarterback for generations”, or any similar exaggerated rhetoric, a common theme you see come up (if you can indeed find an argument in these pieces) is that Cam’s unique and grand set of skills makes his ceiling ridiculously high. Such skills include, as I’ve previously mentioned, the big arm, the big body, and his dual ability as a passer and a runner. Now, none of this is necessarily wrong. Cam is a freakish athlete and does have a really unique skillset. That’s why he was the No 1 pick in the draft back in 2011. However, as I’ve mentioned, to take any of this and turn it into some claim that Cam is going to be some demigod at the position is just meaningless editorialism and speculation.

However, in reading some of this meaningless editorialism recently, something interesting struck me that’s kind of ironic. When people talk about the ridiculous skillset and ceiling that Cam has, who they’re really talking about, even though they may not realize it, is Andrew Luck.

Again, here’s a not-so-smooth transition into the Luck situation. It seems public opinion is pretty low on luck after his poor 2015. It also seems to me that Luck is a guy that has set expectations so high that people are always going to be waiting to knock him down. But anyway, after his poor 2015 season, one might wonder about the Colts giving him the biggest contract in NFL history. Is Luck deserving of this contract? Or have the Colts made a huge mistake?

First of all, it’s worth mentioning the following: Andrew Luck will inextricably be forever linked with Peyton Manning because of obvious reasons (draft status, team, quality of supporting cast, skillset and demeanor, etc), and I did some research and found that, surprisingly, Peyton too suffered a drop in his 4th season in the league, albeit not as bad as Luck’s.

Peyton Manning 2000: 4413 yards passing, 33 TDs, 15 INTs, Passer Rating 94.7
Peyton Manning 2001: 4131 yards passing, 26 TDs, 23 INTs, Passer Rating 84.1

He threw 27 TDs/19 INTs in 2002, then threw 10 or less until 2007, and never again would throw more than 17.

Now, that’s not to say Luck is going to follow the exact same career path. He may always toss a few more interceptions because he is a bit of a gunslinger and that’s his style of play. But the point is, down years happen. It’s not the end of the world. Drew Brees is an example of a guy who tends to have a down year here and there, but always seems to bounce back the next year. Luck may have been especially bad this year, but it was also a perfect storm of lots of factors–injuries but also especially supporting cast. I don’t mean to make excuses, but that stuff matters. Just because you’ve overcome a weakness in the past doesn’t mean you’ll be able to forever. And offensive line is arguably the most important/underrated position for the quarterback, and the Colts have been bad there for just about Luck’s entire career, as he’s been hit as much as just about any quarterback in the past four years. (I don’t have the official numbers on that, but I’m fairly certain he actually has led the league in hits taken in that time span. But again, not positive.)

While it might be fair to argue that Luck was somewhat overly praised in the sense that many (including myself at times) basically took it as a given that he would be a hall of famer and expected him to consistently play at a high level–in other words, the nature of some of the praise might have been a tad premature–the bottom line is what Luck showed us he’s capable of in 2012-2014 (and even in flashes last year) can’t be ignored, and more than justified him receiving the contract he did.

I want to return to and expand on the point I was beginning to make earlier about Luck being the guy that people see Cam Newton as being or capable of becoming. I believe that Luck is the guy with the truly transcendent and incredibly wide-ranging skillset. Although people might not look at him like this–perhaps because the Colts don’t use Luck as a featured part of the running game like the Panthers do–Luck can do everything that Cam can (big body, strong, speed, elusiveness, huge arm), and then some. In addition to what Cam can do, Luck,

  • Has the ability to throw with pace and tempo, and can essentially throw the ball at any speed which the play demands
  • Throws with tremendous anticipation
  • Has superb pocket movement and functional mobility
  • Is an excellent progression reader and has shown the ability to command incredibly sophisticated passing offenses

Luck’s given us big time results in his first four years as a starter. We all know how bad that Colts team was before he came (see 2011). He’s already shown us the ability to carry incredibly flawed teams. None of the teams around him have been that good since he came into the league. Yet, the Colts had 3 straight playoff appearances with him at the helm, and got one step further in the playoffs each year. Not to mention some of the incredible numbers he’s put up, and his ability to deliver in the clutch. With Luck, we don’t have to speculate about what he could do, because he’s already shown us what he can. That, more than anything, is why Luck is being paid the number that he is.

When people criticize Luck, they like to pick on the interceptions. And while interceptions aren’t necessarily good, they need context. Just looking solely at interceptions is a very narrow way of looking at things. First of all, Luck’s never had a great defense, so he’s never been afforded the luxury of being able to go out there and be a caretaker. Instead, he knows he has to be aggressive and go out there and score on every drive. As I mentioned earlier, as cliche as it is, Luck is a gunslinger. He’s going to thread the needle and he’s going to push the ball down the field. This is not an excuse, per se. It’s just a fact that that playing style will result in more turnovers. But it’s a risk reward thing. Luck will also make plays and throws that no one else will make. Just like Brett Favre used to. The point is, some people have this perception that interceptions are just inherently bad and you should avoid them at all costs. And while you shouldn’t necessarily try to throw interceptions, the NFL game is about being aggressive, threading the needle, and turning it loose. It’s what the great ones do. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films always says, the willingness to “pull the trigger” and “turn it loose” to “make stick throws into tight windows” is a positive when evaluating quarterbacks in the NFL, not a negative.

Playing style does matter, and context matters. Brady is not going to turn it over as much as Favre, because Brady plays in a dink and dunk offense. That’s not a knock on him, that’s just the reality. If you take more chances, some of those are going to go the other way. And to say that isn’t to make excuses; it’s providing context rather than just stating a number. Now of course this doesn’t mean that every pick isn’t Luck’s fault and that he should be throwing tons of interceptions every year, or even that his interception numbers have been acceptable. But it is one reason why his interception count may always be a little higher than average.

The other thing is that a majority of Luck’s picks over his career have come when he’s been down by multiple scores in the fourth quarter. The Grigson/Pagano Colts have a terrible habit of digging themselves huge holes multiple times each year. When you’re down multiple scores with not a lot of time left, you can be overly aggressive to try to make plays, or you can dink and dunk to have a good but meaningless stat sheet. People really don’t realize how many of Luck’s picks over his career have come in these desperate situations, and those picks should essentially be tossed out.

Now, none of this is to say Luck is perfect. Of course he has things to work on. Last year proved that much. I think most important is knowing when to give up on a play. Knowing when the play isn’t there, when you have to throw the ball away or take your checkdown. There were a lot of times where it was evident the play wasn’t there and Luck tried to keep it alive or force it anyway. But Luck’s still young and he’s still learning. There’s little reason to think he won’t keep improving as he has in the past.

Also, if you don’t buy what I’m selling and you really think Luck isn’t that good, ask yourself, why have the Colts been winning so much? As I said, they had three straight playoff years and got a step further each year. What part of their team is responsible for winning if it isn’t Luck? It’d be hard to identify a team strength that has explained the Colts success over the past few years if you really think Luck isn’t at least partially responsible.

Now, I don’t know the specifics of Luck’s contract, but it is somewhat concerning that he’s been given this megadeal that is sure to eat up cap space and that the Colts have so many holes in their roster. If they weren’t able to patch them in the past, how are they going to do it now that Luck’s entering his second contract, which is that much bigger? How are they going to fix the defense and the offensive line? It definitely is a tad worrisome. However, this is all irrelevant when looking at Luck’s value as a player. Because ultimately, that’s what the contract should be judged upon when asking if Luck is worth it. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Luck is deserving of this contract when it comes to player value. Now you might argue that Luck had a bad 2015, so why not at least wait until he rebounds before paying him. However, given what Luck has done for the Colts, his skillset, his draft status, etc, he was bound to get paid at some point. He’s a franchise player, and you pay your franchise players. If it was going to happen eventually, why not do it now?

Last but not least: Don’t forget about Russell Wilson.

It’s only fitting to talk about Wilson (hopefully briefly, because I’m getting tired) because he too was drafted in 2012 (Cam was 2011, but same general time period), and he too is immensely talented, has had great success in his early career years, and should be mentioned along with this newer generation of talented young QBs.

Make no mistake: Russell Wilson has been really good since 2012. Yes, he’s benefitted from the defense and running game at times. But he’s also shown more than enough to prove that he is a special player at the Quarterback position. He’s had pretty good numbers throughout his career, he’s shown steady improvement, and he’s had tons of postseason success. At the end of last year he really started to take it to the next level. Now that Lynch has retired, we’re seeing the passing of the torch to Russell Wilson and the passing game in Seattle. And with all the Cam hype last year, I think what Russell Wilson did down the stretch was truly lost in the fray.

I’m going to give you two sets of Quarterback statistics from 2015. See if you can tell me which one is Cam and which one is Russell Wilson.

Quarterback A:

4024 Yards Passing
68.1 Completion Percentage
8.3 Yards per attempt
34 Touchdowns to 8 Interceptions
110.1 Passer Rating
25 Touchdowns to 2 Interceptions in the last 7 games
553 Yards Rushing (5.4 y/a)

Quarterback B:

3837 Yards Passing
59.8 Completion Percentage
7.8 Yards per attempt
35 Touchdowns to 10 Interceptions
99.4 Passer Rating
20 Touchdowns to 1 Interception in the last 7 games
636 Yards Rushing (4.8 y/a)

Figured it out yet? I’ll tell you. Quarterback A is Russell Wilson and Quarterback B is Cam Newton. Surprised? I didn’t include rushing touchdowns because that would have given it away. Cam had 10 to Wilson’s 1. But outside of that, the numbers are somewhat similar, yet Wilson’s actually pretty much superior in every category–despite getting close to no attention while Cam was basically unanimously considered the MVP. Yes, Wilson had a slow start to the season, but so did Cam. It just showed more for the Seahawks in the win/loss column. Also, Wilson’s production late in the season was more evenly distributed. In those last seven games, he had two 5 touchdown games and threw at least 2 touchdowns in every other game. Cam on the other hand, in his last 7, had three 5 touchdown games, but two where he threw for none.

In the playoffs, Wilson was rusty against the Vikings, and the Seahawks had one of their patented, “shouldn’t have really won that playoff game but won it anyway” games. The karma seemed to come back to them the following week as they looked nothing like Seattle and fell into a 17-0 hole early. Russell Wilson had a tough start, with pressure rushing him and causing two bad interceptions. He bounced back and rallied late, but it wasn’t enough and the Seahawks lost 31-24 to the Panthers. But make no mistake about it: Russell Wilson was playing as well as any Quarterback in the league late in the season, arguably better than Cam Newton, and not against a bad stretch of defenses either. The Seahawks were spreading it out and Wilson was in serious rhythm. All the spectacular traits he’s showed over the years, such as anticipation, accuracy, and really good arm strength were coming together, but more often than not now he was doing it from the pocket, hitting his back foot and getting rid of the ball, often at the intermediate and deeper levels. When he plays like that, like he’s capable of, from the pocket, there’s no telling what he can do. I expect him to continue to improve and really blossom as we move forward. His late season surge should not be overlooked. He’s also a guy who, since being drafted, has led the Seahawks to the following results:

2012: Lost in the divisional round by 2 points (not Wilson’s fault)
2013: Won the Superbowl by 35 points
2014: Lost the Superbowl by 4 points (arguably not Wilson’s fault)
2015: Lost in the divisional round by 7 points (somewhat Wilson’s fault, but still kept it close at the end like he always does)

Wilson’s had a lot of big time play in big time moments. The Seahawks in the Wilson era are arguably the best example of how random the playoffs are, and how playoff wins and losses are often not indicative of quarterback play. There have been multiple games where he’s played poorly and they’ve won, and multiple games where he’s played well and they’ve lost. It all really balances out in Wilson’s case. The bottom line is he’s had them in contention consistently and there have been results to show for it.

Because the Seattle offense is often inconsistent and because Wilson hasn’t always shown that advanced a level of pocket play, I’d rank his career slightly below Luck’s. If I were to rank the careers of these 3 talented young quarterbacks from 2012-2015 (and 2011-2015 in Cam’s case), I would do so in the following order:

  1. Andrew Luck
  2. Russell Wilson
  3. Cam Newton

But regardless of how you rank them, these guys are the future, and it will be exciting to see what they can produce going forward.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Click here for Archives