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INDIANAPOLIS – Andrew Luck's greatest trait as a quarterback is being unimpressed with his own play.
He doesn't look in the mirror and see perfection, or near-perfection, or a polished product. Luck, like great players before him, including a certain former Indianapolis Colts quarterback, is always looking for ways to improve. On the field or in the film room, he's forever seeking an edge.
Those improvements can be specific, such as more third-down success. They can be more intangible, such as better leadership on the field.
It's the fact that he's always searching for the next advantage that should make Colts fans happy to have him at the helm of their team.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano refrains from placing expectations on how Luck might be improved from a year ago.
“We'll evaluate when the season's over just how big a step he took and how big a step we took as a team,” Pagano said. “Were we able to take the next step and advance and all those things? But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Just be Andrew, you know? Just be a little bit better version than you were last year.”
What might a better version of Luck look like in his third season?
Three areas come straight to the forefront:
1. He'll be more comfortable in the Pep Hamilton offense.
2. He'll be more effective in third-down situations.
3. He'll find ways for the offense to set the tone, rather than sling for a comeback.
Each of those areas comes down to that age-old favorite coaches' word: Execution. If Luck can find a way to improve in his execution of each aspect of the Colts offense, he'll be a better quarterback. If he's a better quarterback, the Colts are a better team. That's NFL 101.
Here's a look at those areas:
It was a big swing when Luck went from playing in the Bruce Arians wing it and sling it style of offense to the more deliberate, conservative Hamilton style. Arians loved to pass and go for the big play and it led to some risk-taking interceptions for Luck. Some of that was Arians' offense, some of it was the rookie Luck trying to make plays that weren't necessarily there. Peyton Manning said many times it's important to know when to throw the ball away or take a sack and live for the next play.
Luck played for Hamilton at Stanford University and the chance to play a second pro season in the same offense is immeasurably beneficial. It could be the biggest impetus to improvement this season.
Tight end Dwayne Allen said he expects the Colts offense to be more “exotic” this season, with the team delving deeper into the playbook.
“I know Pep did not hold back at all last year and was deep in the playbook, so 'deeper' might be a misnomer,” Luck said. “But I do think guys on the whole are more comfortable and you can tell. They're playing faster and moving around and making plays. It's fun, but it really is fun when you feel like everybody is on the same page.”
Luck will have more freedom, perhaps, in calling plays, especially if the team increases its use of the no-huddle offense.
“He had a ton of responsibility at the line of scrimmage last year, and that hasn't changed,” Hamilton said. “Even when he was in college, he had a ton of responsibility at the line of scrimmage.”
One test of any quarterback is his ability to help his team convert big third-down plays and keep drives moving. That became particularly challenging for Luck last season after wide receiver Reggie Wayne went down with a knee injury. Wayne was a security blanket, as sure of a completion on third down as anyone in the game.
The Colts converted on 37.6 percent of their third downs, which almost exactly matched their opponents' third-down conversion success rate. But consider one of the optimum offenses – Manning's Denver Broncos – who converted 46.3 percent of their third downs.
There are obviously more points to be scored, more minutes for the Colts defense to rest, if Luck and friends keep drives moving longer.
“I think we should be a better situational team now that we have the likes of Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen back, as well as the guys that we already had working in our receiving corps and tight end corps,” Hamilton said. “In those situations, it's all about matchups, putting guys in a position to make a play and letting our playmakers do what they do best.”
One of the keys to Luck's improvement on third down, then, is the presence of more playmakers to help convert those plays. The trio of receivers of Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Hakeem Nicks should be Luck's best yet, with Nicks an upgrade over previous wide receivers Donnie Avery and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Griff Whalen, Luck's former Stanford teammate, remains in the mix along with rookie Donte Moncrief and returning player Da'Rick Rogers.
No quarterback has been more successful at staging comebacks the last two seasons than Luck. Within that statement are two truths: One, he's calm under pressure and, two, the Colts spend too much time behind in games.
In two seasons, Luck has led the Colts to 11 fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives. The last game the Colts won – against the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of last year's playoffs – was an epic come-from-behind game. The Colts trailed 38-10 early in the second half.
Common sense says some of Luck's comebacks had a dose of comeback luck, and that could end up evening out over the long haul.
Fast starts and leads would go a long way toward the Colts being able to dictate what happens on both sides of the ball. Luck has to find a way to utilize his offensive talent and build leads rather than scramble back with time dwindling away.
“There are a bunch of special guys out there on the field,” Luck said. “If we can keep getting them in different situations and create good match-ups, I think it works in our favor.”
Luck spends a significant time every day, in season or out, figuring out what he can do to be a better quarterback and push the Colts to a new level of success. Satisfaction and perfection remain elusive, but the Colts benefit from Luck's chase.