Lessons from 2018: The AFC South and the Resurgence of Andrew Luck

After a 13-3 finish and an AFC Championship appearance, the South was supposed to belong to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018. Instead, quarterback Blake Bortles floundered back to his pre-2017, sub-mediocre levels, and the defense didn’t force turnovers close to the rate it had the prior year. While they were favorites, I doubt this result surprised many; while forcing turnovers does require skill, they occur at seemingly random intervals and with little year-to-year correlation. As the turnovers eluded Jacksonville, so did victory, and the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts positioned themselves to fill the void on top. The Texans improvement from 2017 can largely be attributed to the health of their young quarterback Deshaun Watson; the Colts, however, got better in far more interesting ways.

Las Vegas gave Indy about a 23.5% chance of making the playoffs in 2018 (+325 odds) in June, and much of that was wrapped up in the health of wunderkind Stanford product Andrew Luck. With Luck, the Colts had been perennial playoff contenders; with backup Jacoby Brissett, they had finished 2017 just 4-12. Luck had been mired in a controversy regarding a mysterious injury to his throwing shoulder that had kept him out of action through the entire 2017 season. Reports of a skiing accident and Luck’s natural laissez-faire attitude help stoke those flames further, and the Colts were all but counted out before the 2018 season even began.

Their issues seemed to run deeper than just Luck’s questionable health, though. The Colts thought they had replaced Chuck Pagano, who had far outstayed his welcome, with New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels hired a full staff before reneging on his word and returning to his hero, Bill Belichick, and his choice for OC, Frank Reich, took his place. Reich was left with, let’s say, an uninspired roster. Behind speedy WR1 T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis’s corps of skill players left much to be desired. Their number two receiver was the undrafted third-year Chester Rogers, and their supposed starting running back, Marlon Mack, hurt himself during the preseason. Despite all of this, and a catastrophic 1-5 start to the season, the seeds of success had already been sown.

. . .

A classic NFL Draft trope is when evaluators say something along the lines of “he’s one of the best I’ve ever scouted at the position.” These evaluators tend to amp up the hyperbole to maximize draft interest; still, usually those players turn into quality professionals. Luck himself was one of them. And, in the days leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, there was one player who frequently was the subject of this kind of statement. He just happened to play the “boring” position of offensive guard. His name was Quenton Nelson, and the Indianapolis Colts took him with the sixth overall pick.

The fundamental difference between the 2018 Colts and their predecessors was new GM Chris Ballard’s commitment to rebuilding his offensive line and protecting his star QB. From 2012, when Andrew Luck was drafted, to 2017, Andrew Luck and other Colts quarterbacks had been sacked an average of 39.8 times per season. In 2018, that number dropped to 18. The Colts went from the most sacked team of 2017 to the least sacked of 2018—it literally can’t get better than that. Only left tackle Anthony Costanzo had carried over from the previous team, since their 2016 first rounder, center Ryan Kelly, had been injured for most of 2017. Ballard used his first-round pick on Nelson, his second-rounder on right tackle Braden Smith, and claimed right guard Ryan Glowinski off of waivers from Seattle. That refurbished corps was one of the most valuable O-Lines in the NFL, and by nabbing Smith, Nelson, and Glowinski all in one offseason, the group should be easy to keep together for several years.

Frank Reich received the memo from Chris Ballard about protecting Andrew Luck, too. Under Chuck Pagano, in both 2016 and 2017, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Indianapolis quarterbacks took the fourth longest time to release the football, implying a lot of slowly-developing plays with an untalented receiving corps. Meanwhile, in 2018, Luck had the ninth-quickest release time in the NFL, marking another drastic turnaround in style, very similar to the changes the Browns made that I discussed last week.

Fundamentally, the key to a good offense in the NFL is a) having a good quarterback, and b) putting him in a position for success. Of course, it’s easy to say and difficult to do—there are only so many quality quarterbacks in the NFL, and few of them are able to make those around him better as Andrew Luck does. Putting Luck in a position to succeed does not necessarily mean surrounding him with strong skill players (although it certainly couldn’t hurt). All Luck was lacking in prior years is the time to throw, and Chris Ballard blazed a trail for the rest of the NFL to follow. One big overhaul of the offensive line has led to a sustainably cheap and quality group, meaning the Indianapolis Colts should be the class of the AFC South for the foreseeable future.

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