It seemed just a matter of time Monday night at Qualcomm Stadium. The Indianapolis Colts trailed the San Diego Chargers for most of the evening, but with Andrew Luck at quarterback, we all know that no lead is safe.
Luck's teammates let him down on this occasion, dropping four passes to mute several comeback attempts. But amid discussion of this week's marquee matchup between the Colts and Denver Broncos, it's worth looking more closely at Luck's penchant for late-game magic -- and to identify an unlikely source for his success.
If you've watched any of Luck's first 22 NFL starts, you're aware of not only his fourth-quarter poise but also his ability to make plays outside the pocket that belies his 240-pound frame. You might be surprised, however, to know that the two are directly related -- and that together they provide the most succinct snapshot of Luck's early-career success for the Indianapolis Colts.
What has stood out in these special fourth quarters is not razor-sharp passes, but instead key third-down conversions Luck has made on the ground. (A hat tip goes out to colleague Mike Sando for noting the connection during a conversation we had earlier this week.)
First, the basics:
Of Luck's 15 victories as the Colts' starter, nine have required a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. The most recent was a 70-yard march in Week 5 that sparked a 34-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
But a closer inspection of that QBR, provided through the ESPN Stats & Information database, reveals where its strength originates. When you strip scrambles from the analysis, Luck's QBR drops to 50.5. (Remember, 50 is average on the QBR scale.) That lines up with Luck's fourth-quarter passer rating of 67.4, which is also an average mark in this stat that measures only passing performance.
What does that mean? Luck's scrambles (and the very occasional designed run) raise his fourth-quarter performance from average to elite via QBR. In the fourth quarter during his career, in fact, Luck has run 41 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Of his total yardage, 55 yards have come after first contact -- the best mark in the NFL among QBs after the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton -- and Luck has converted nearly 60 percent of third-down rushes into first downs.
So it's clear that Luck's scrambles are not only highly efficient and productive but also the product of breaking tackles and/or getting more yardage than is initially available to him, via yards after contact. That seems to me the definition of "making plays."
There are any number of examples that illustrate how critical these runs have been.
In Week 1 this season, Luck weaved his way through the Oakland Raiders' defense on his way to a 19-yard touchdown run. The play came on third down and accounted for the winning points in a 21-17 victory.
In Week 2, he converted a critical third-and-11 with an 11-yard run, a play in which his first contact with the Miami Dolphins' defense came 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
In Week 5 last season, the Colts' dramatic winning drive against the Green Bay Packers might have fallen short if it hadn't been for Luck's 7-yard scramble on third-and-7 at the Packers' 11-yard line with 47 seconds remaining. The final 2 yards came after contact.
Your lasting memory of that game might be Luck's 4-yard scoring pass to receiver Reggie Wayne. And surely you remember his 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Donnie Avery on the final play of last season's victory over the Detroit Lions. To be clear, I don't want to suggest that Luck hasn't thrown the ball well at times in the fourth quarters of these games, or that he doesn't have the makeup to be an elite passer independent of his success in the running game.
But when 60 percent of your victories come via a similar path, patterns inevitably emerge. Plays that appear modest in the big picture of a game prove critical upon further analysis. In 22 career starts, Andrew Luck -- smart, tall and strong-armed -- has made many of his most important plays with the ball tucked under his arm in the open field. So it goes.