|Can the Colts draw inspriation from what other team's have done with young QBs? (US PRESSWIRE)|
By Ryan Wilson
The Colts and Peyton Manning are done. Which means that the Andrew Luck era began unofficially Wednesday afternoon (assuming, of course, Robert Griffin III doesn't surge to the top of Indy's draft board in the coming weeks). The knee-jerk reaction is to think that a post-Manning Indianapolis will look like something out of "The Book of Eli" -- an apocalyptic NFL wasteland with no hope of salvation anytime soon. Except that there are recent examples from around the league that should give the Colts and their fans hope. (We talked about it in the most recent Pick-6 Podcast, embedded below for your convenience.)
At its most basic, success with a young quarterback comes down to some combination of: a) a good defense, b) a strong special teams, c) a reliable running game, and, oh, it doesn't hurt if said young quarterback is d) mature -- both mentally and physically -- beyond his years.
As it stands, the Colts, should they draft Luck, will have d). It's up to owner Jim Irsay, new GM Ryan Grigson, and new head coach Chuck Pagano to take care of a)-c). It's a tall order, for sure, but not impossible. Here are five examples that should give the Colts and Luck hope in 2012:
1. Baltimore RavensPagano comes to Indy after serving as the Ravens' defensive coordinator last season. So he knows first-hand just how important a good defense can be for a young quarterback -- particularly one whose offensive coordinator doesn't seem to understand the downfalls of airing it out 50 times a game when the team's best player sits on the bench.
Luckily, Pagano hired Bruce Arians as his coordinator. Arians was Peyton Manning's first quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis, and he spent the last five seasons as Ben Roethlisberger's OC in Pittsburgh. He knows something about bringing along a young, talented quarterback.
|Manning era ends in Indy|
The first order of business, however, is getting the defense in order. The Colts re-signed Robert Mathis, but appear set to cut Dwight Freeney loose for salary-cap reasons. Pagano will install a 3-4 defense which will replace the soft Cover-2 the team had been running for years. Even a mediocre defense to go along with something resembling a running game would go a long way in making Luck's rookie season manageable.
The last time the Colts started a rookie quarterback was in 1998 after they drafted Manning first overall. The year before, Indy ranked 23rd in total efficiency, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. The offense was 24th, the defense 25th and special teams 25th. In 2011, without Manning, the Colts were similarly awful: 31st overall, 27th in offense, 27th in defense, and 31st in special teams.
Of course, Manning was 3-13 as a rookie but his defense didn't do him any favors: they ranked 28th in '98. If Pagano can cobble together a defense and couple that with a decent running game, Luck's transition to NFL quarterback could go much smoother than conventional wisdom currently suggests.
2. Atlanta FalconsIn 2007, Michael Vick was in a heap of trouble and out of football, first-year Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino quit after 13 games to take the Arkansas job, and the starting quarterbacks that season included Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich. It's a miracle they managed four wins.
In 2008, owner Arthur Blank hired Mike Smith and the team drafted Matt Ryan. They won 11 games, and Ryan threw for 3,440 yards (61 percent completion rate), 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
In the Falcons' case, the one-year turnaround wasn't because the defense drastically improved. The unit was 28th in '07 and 25th in '08 -- instead it was the … passing game, which was fourth behind the Chargers, Colts and Saints. Part of that was because then-Falcons OC Mike Mularkey put Ryan in positions to succeed. But it was also a function of Ryan exceeding everyone's expectations.
We talked to him in January 2009, shortly after his rookie season ended, and asked if the Falcons had eased him into the playbook.
"To my knowledge, we had the full offense in," he said. "… From the start, we had a bunch of different things in, and I had a good amount of responsibility at the line of scrimmage to do some different things. I think as the season went on, we found what we were as an offense. Because there were a bunch of new people working together and trying to find the rhythm of our offense."
While a stout defense and a reliable running game are a young QB's friends, ultimately, it comes down to assimilating a ton of information and making plays you're asked to make.
3. San Francisco 49ersIf there's a blueprint from which Pagano should work, it might be the 49ers. By the 2010 offseason, Alex Smith was roundly considered a bust. The 2005 first-overall pick had, at various points in his career, shared snaps with Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill and Troy Smith, and San Francisco had never won more than eight games in Smith's six seasons heading into 2011. Then Jim Harbaugh replaced Mike Singletary as head coach and everything changed.
But it wasn't that Smith suddenly morphed into a franchise quarterback (it was the best season of his career but he was more game manager than late-game winner). The offense improved to 18th in 2011 from 24th the season before, but it was the defense and special teams that were the difference. The latter improved from 13th to third, and the latter went from 22nd to 2nd.
4. Cincinnati BengalsThe Bengals dumped chatty veterans (Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco) and were forced to find a new quarterback when Carson Palmer chose retirement over returning to Cincy. So the team took the draft's best wide receiver in Round 1 (A.J. Green), and landed their next franchise quarterback a round later (Andy Dalton).
Dalton was considered a heady player in college and that distinction followed him in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. Turns out, it was true. Like Ryan in Atlanta, Dalton not only knew where to go with the ball, he was accurate and timely with his throws. It's one thing to understand what the defense is trying to do; it's something else entirely for a rookie to actually do it with a blitzing linebacker in his face.
5. Carolina PanthersCam Newton wasn't the beneficiary of a good (or even slightly below average) defense and the Panthers, 2-14 the year before he arrived, still won six games. (They lost five games by seven points or less.) His success surprised everybody, even folks whose job it was to breakdown film for a living. Here's NFL Films' Greg Cosell in December 2011:
"What was remarkable about Newton was he demonstrated many of these traits of an NFL passer right away. Beginning in Week 1 against Arizona, he read coverage, he knew where to go with the football, he was decisive and accurate. The next week he played the Super Bowl champion Packers and was truly impressive, showing NFL attributes beginning with poise and composure in the pocket. More importantly, he did not leave the pocket to run when the bodies started closing it down. He stood tall and delivered the ball in the face of pressure. He showed the willingness to make stick throws into tight windows, a necessary trait in critical long yardage situations against sophisticated NFL coverages."
And Newton came from a run-option offense at Auburn. Luck was in a pro-style offense at Stanford, and although he's plenty athletic, he was a pocket passer.
None of this means that the Colts are destined for the playoffs next year. But given how other teams have managed their young quarterbacks, it's reasonable to think that Luck could have early success in Indy. After all, if the only difference in Indy between annual double-digit wins and the playoffs, and last season's 2-14 record is Manning, then why can't the Colts win seven, eight or nine games with Luck in 2012?
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