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Luck and Arians: A Cautionary Tale

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Colts Out of Luck

The great irony is—-now that the Colts have built one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, Andrew Luck, their franchise QB and heir to Peyton Manning, due to mental and physical exhaustion, has retired.

Good for Andrew Luck that he is being honest with himself and the team. As everyone knows, football is a punishing and excruciating sport in which the athletes need to weigh whether the physical safety risks are worth the stardom, the money and the competitive love of the game.

Andrew Luck’s retirement could be the beginning of a new trend in the NFL, especially if teams like the Colts are willing to let their star player retire prematurely and yet still let him keep all of the signing bonus money that was supposed to be spread out over the length of his contract, which in this case is $12.8M.

The Colts are incurring $24.8M in dead cap space regarding Luck’s contract over the next two years.

Luck has made $97.1M in 7 years.

Luck was 53-33 in the regular season and 4-4 in the playoffs.

There is no denying that Andrew Luck was a baller and one of the most talented young QB in the NFL.

But one of the best young talents in the game is leaving without ever having played in or won a Super Bowl—-the ultimate goal that makes the pain more bearable and even worth it.

The QB Fracturer

Anyone who watched Andrew Luck play as a rookie in 2012 knows the physical beating he endured while leading the Colts to an 11-5 record under Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians.

As the story goes, Pagano lured Arians out of retirement to become the Colts’ new OC which would allow Arians’ NFL coaching career to come full circle with the Colts in coaching #1 picks Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.

However, the reason why Arians was not given a new contract by the Steelers was a growing concern in the organization about the short and long term health of QB Ben Roethlisberger. Thus in 2012, the Steelers’ front office arrived at the conclusion that Arians’ offense was putting Roethlisberger at greater injury risk and thus another, more careful approach was needed.

As a rookie, Andrew Luck was sacked 41 times—-and when he escaped the pocket he ran for 255 yards and 5 TDs. Despite being under constant pressure, he threw for 4,374 yards and 54.1% and a td/int ratio of 23/18.

In his third year (2014) Luck had a superb season throwing for 4,761 yards at 61.7% and an outstanding 40/16 td/int ratio. He was only sacked 27 times.

Yet, in 2016, he was sacked 41 times again which led to his shoulder injury which caused him to miss the entire 2017 season.

When he returned last season, Luck turned in his best and most efficient season throwing for 4,593 yards at 67.3% and a 39/15 td/int ratio. He was sacked only 18 times.

But, one has to wonder whether the pounding that Luck took as a rookie jeopardized his longevity. Let’s face it, often a first impression can leave the most lasting one.

Did the Steelers make the right choice in letting Bruce Arians walk?

Well, the fact is—-Ben Roethlisberger is still the Steeler’s franchise QB.

Meanwhile, Bruce Arians’ last two starting QBs, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, both of whom suffered a barrage of painful injuries, are now retired—-

And if you watched Tampa Bay’s pre-season game versus the Browns, the Bucs’ QB Jameis Winston took a vicious pre-season pounding while getting sacked 5 times in one half. Winston was 9/18 (50%) for 88 yards.

After the game, an irate Arians declared that he expects all 5 of his offensive linemen to win their one-on-one battles.

Do NBA coaches expect the same from their 5 defenders?

No.

Because it is absurdly unrealistic, particularly for those who are matched up with a superiorly gifted opponent.

Thus—-as any NBA coach will tell you—-protecting the basket requires a defense predicated on help.

Same goes for pass protection in the NFL.

Cautionary Tale

For teams with young, highly skilled QBs, like the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals, it is of paramount importance for the offensive schemes to be diligently focused on protecting the QB.

Not only is it important for teams to assemble formidable talent on the offensive line, it is equally important for coaches to give the offensive line help, especially when some of the offensive lineman are matched up against superior talent.

How have the Patriots been able to keep Tom Brady healthy all of these years?

For one, the Patriots have leaned on one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL in Dante Scarnecchia—-who game plans as well as any coach and who is adept at developing young starters at a rapid pace.

However, Tom Brady’s health has also been protected by their style of offense which is predicted on a variety of quick passes to the WRs and TEs and an ingenious use of the running backs in both the rushing and passing attacks.

As everyone knows, Tom Brady is not one of the most mobile QBs—-but he is a master of footwork and getting rid of the ball quickly and on time.

In today’s NFL, it certainly helps an offense if the QB is mobile—-as is the case with Kyler Murray. However, the Cardinals, just as any team with a mobile QB, still have to do all they can to keep the QB clean.

The only consistently successful mobile QB in the NFL the past few years has been the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson.

The Seahawks have primarily tried to protect Russell Wilson by pairing him with one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL.

However, since winning the Super Bowl in 2014, the Seahawks have invested more in paying their high profile, defensive stars and RB Marshawn Lynch than they have in building their offensive line and supporting offensive cast.

Plus, their passing game has suffered from Wilson lacking adequate protection and then at times holding onto the ball too long. Wilson is at his best when he is in the 2 minute offense, where he plays faster and makes quicker decisions.

The Cardinals can learn from what happened to Andrew Luck in Indianapolis—-they can learn from what the Patriots do to keep Tom Brady at the top of his game—-and they can learn from the things that have been holding Russell Wilson back in Seattle.

Building the talent on the offensive line is of paramount importance—-but form (scheme) needs to follow function. The right kinds of protections and game planning for specific opponents can go a long way in keeping a healthy and productive QB. One who can actually bounce out of bed on Monday mornings—-and not have to crawl.

While one may argue with the offensive linemen the Cardinals have signed—-they have invested $25M (on the 2019 cap) in the current group: Humphries ($9.6M), Pugh ($7.4M), Gilbert ($4.9M), Sweezy ($4M), Shipley/Cole ($2.2M combined).

The Seahawks this season have also invested $25M in their offensive line: Brown ($10.8M), Britt ($7.9M), Fant ($3M), Iupati ($2.6M),Germain ($2.6M).

The Patriots—-who tend to rely on youth—-have $20M invested in 2019: Mason ($7.3M), Cannon ($4.9M), Andrews ($3.5M), Wynn ($2.6M), Thuney (($2.2M).

The Cardinals might be encouraged by Saturday’s performance of the offensive line—-first time playing together—-and playing against one of the best defenses in the NFL on their home turf—-the Cardinals dominated the time of possession the 1st half in generating 3 long drives and while these PFF grades aren’t spectacular—-they are the best we’ve seen in quite some time: Cole (81.1), Gilbert (69.2), Pugh (68.5), Sweezy (63.2), Shipley (60.3), Humphries (56.7). They generated close to 200 yards and gave up 0 sacks while taking a 9-7 lead into half-time.

It appears that Kyler Murray is not only adept at escaping from pressure, he is very well coached about minimizing contact in the way in which he scoots out of bound and slides to prevent direct hits. That is also encouraging. That and how many of Murray’s passes were thrown on time and in rhythm.

Take a look at these plays—-highlighted by Brian Baldinger (NFL Network):