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Does the Colts’ offensive scheme get in the way of Andrew Luck leading the team to victory?

It’s not easy out there for Andrew Luck. His team relies on him to pull out close games in the fourth quarter. To show their appreciation, the Colts allow teams to knock Luck to the ground far more frequently than any other quarterback in football. All that speaks, at least in part, to a lack of talent around Luck; he simply has to carry the Colts to wins at times.

What’s even harder to fathom, though, is that the Colts would actively get in the way of letting Andrew Luck lead them to victories. When new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton arrived in town last year and announced that the Colts were going to implement a “run-first,” “power-running” offense, fans feared that it would restrict Luck’s ability to affect games and instead focus the Indianapolis attack on its weakness. A year later, the reviews are certainly mixed. The Colts scored 34 more points in 2013 than they did in 2012 under Bruce Arians, but a seemingly endless string of runs for no gain from newly acquired halfback Trent Richardson unquestionably left some Colts fans wondering whether they left a better offense on the cutting-room floor. Indianapolis seemed at its best when the Colts were behind and Hamilton turned things over to the passing attack, most memorably in the comeback victory over the Chiefs in the wild-card round. Even Hamilton seems to recognize that he’d gone a bit too far; this offseason, the rhetoric has shifted, with the coordinator now describing his offense as a “score-first team.”

So, was Hamilton’s run-heavy approach a failure? The answer is somewhere between yes and no. There are important takeaways from 2013, both good and bad, and they should influence what we see from the Colts and their star quarterback in 2014.

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The Genesis

The 2012 Colts were victims of their own success. Just one week after “retiring,”1 ex-Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians accepted an offer from former Ravens rival Chuck Pagano to take over as Colts OC. The Colts then re-signed Reggie Wayne before drafting Andrew Luck with the first overall pick, giving Arians one path to a competent offense. He proceeded to install a vertical attack designed to take advantage of Luck’s abilities, and while Arians was forced to take over head coaching duties while Pagano battled leukemia, his offense got the job done. Luck was admittedly inconsistent, but the Colts scored 357 points (18th in football) with Luck averaging 10 yards in the air per pass (according to ESPN Stats & Information), more than anybody else in football.

After the season, Arians took over the head coaching job in Arizona. Needing a new OC, Pagano turned to a face Luck knew well. Pep Hamilton had been with Luck at Stanford, serving as the team’s wide receivers coach in 2010 before taking over as both quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator during Luck’s final season at school in 2011. Quoting what he had learned under Jim Harbaugh and the offensive success of the previous year’s Super Bowl competitors, Baltimore and San Francisco, Hamilton detailed his desire to build a power-running offense that remained balanced while “imposing [Indianapolis’s] will” on the opposition. You know, the sorta stuff that sounds great during training camp. Mike Munchak got a head coaching job saying stuff like that.

You’ll hear a lot of quotes like this, and they’ll even occasionally get backed up by statistics; you’ve all seen the graphics that note how your favorite team is 37-2 when its star running back carries the ball 25 times or more. As noted in the very first Football Outsiders article from 2003, that’s a measure of effect, not cause. Teams chalk up large rushing attempt totals because they’re up by a comfortable margin in the second half and killing clock, not because they’re running the ball down the opposition’s throat in the first quarter. I’ll get to that more in the play-calling section later on.

The Scheme

What Hamilton ended up installing was a version of the West Coast offense with plenty of traditional, old-school running plays built in. Why would Hamilton go away from the vertical passing scheme that propelled the Colts into the playoffs? Best I can figure, five reasons:

1. It would play to Luck’s strengths as a passer. Coming out of Stanford, Luck was arguably regarded as the most accurate quarterback of his generation. While playing in a pro-style scheme in college, Luck completed more than 70 percent of his passes in both 2010 and 2011, numbers backed up by what scouts saw on tape. Meanwhile, while Luck was basically the perfect quarterback prospect, the only knock most even dared to throw in his direction was that Luck lacked the ideal arm strength of a Matthew Stafford or a Joe Flacco. (This led to a famously batty Phil Simms quote.) Of course, the scouting process tends to overvalue arm strength, and Luck’s arm has been just fine in the pros.

It’s hard to argue that the offensive shift, at least in terms of passing plays, didn’t benefit Luck. His average throw in 2013 traveled just under 8.0 yards in the air, dropping him from the longest throws in the league all the way to 23rd. But with that came improved accuracy, as Luck’s completion percentage rose from 54.1 percent to 60.2 percent. It naturally led to a drop in yards per attempt, but Luck lost only three-tenths of a yard per pass, falling from 7.0 yards per attempt in 2012 to 6.7 last year. Luck was a more productive passer under the new scheme on a per-play basis, especially because the new scheme would …

2. Reduce turnovers. Indianapolis’s biggest problem on offense in 2012 came with turning the ball over; the Colts were 22nd in turnover rate in 2012, with Luck throwing 18 interceptions while also leading the league in dropped interceptions. Some of that was due to a young quarterback trying to make plays, but Arians’s scheme and those long passes lent themselves to a higher chance of interceptions, as passes that travel 15 yards or more in the air are nearly four times as likely to be intercepted as passes that travel fewer than 15 yards in the air. With even the typical passing play more than four times as likely to produce a turnover than a typical running play, more runs and shorter passes would suggest a dramatic reduction in Indy’s turnover rate.

That’s exactly what happened. After throwing interceptions on 2.9 percent of his passes as a rookie, Luck’s interception rate dropped to 1.6 percent during his 2013 campaign. Indy also enjoyed some fumble luck, as its offense put the ball on the turf 16 times, but lost only four of those fumbles.2 In all, the Colts turned the ball over on just 7.3 percent of their drives in 2013, the best rate in the league.

3. Keep Andrew Luck from getting killed. Even as early as 2012, the Colts knew they were doing their star quarterback an injustice in pass protection. Luck dropped back 668 times during his rookie season and was sacked or knocked down to the ground, per Football Outsiders, on 122 of those plays, producing a hit rate of 18.3 percent. For reference, the second-most-hit quarterback in football in 2012 was Aaron Rodgers, who was knocked down 93 times. With shorter, quicker passing plays and a dollop of balance from the rushing attack, Hamilton undoubtedly thought he could keep opposing defenses from teeing off on Luck quite so frequently.

This worked, if not very much. Luck was still the most hit quarterback in football, but this time, he was hit only 115 times. That’s technically better! The gap between him and the next most battered quarterback, Matt Ryan, was a mere 12 hits. Unfortunately, if you consider the hits on a per-drop-back basis, Luck was knocked down 19.1 percent of the time he went back to pass, which was actually an increase of his 2012 hit rate.

4. It fit at least some of Indianapolis’s personnel. While I’m sure there was plenty of discussion about how they wanted to build their offense, the Colts invested heavily in offensive linemen during the 2013 offseason. They gave a big-money contract to right tackle Gosder Cherilus while also adding 305-pound Patriots guard Donald Thomas. The team already had tight end Dwayne Allen, who profiled as one of the league’s best blocking tight ends after his rookie season. Nobody could have known this as Hamilton installed his scheme over the spring and summer, but the Colts would even trade for Trent Richardson, the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, in mid-September. That’s not enough to have the Colts turn Luck into a handoff machine, but you can see the components of a good power-running game there if things break right.

Injuries dramatically affected those plans. Allen suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1, as did incumbent starting halfback Vick Ballard, which led to the Richardson trade. Thomas tore his quadriceps a week later, ending his season. (He tore the quadriceps again in July and will miss all of 2014, as well.) Richardson wasn’t injured, but he sure hurt. Whatever it might have seemed like in August, the people who suited up for the Colts as the season went along weren’t a great fit for a power-running scheme.

5. It would open up the play-action pass. There’s nothing a coach loves more than the play-action pass. You get to justify smashmouth football and put one over on the opposing coaches all at once. If the Colts could complete short passes and establish the run, the play-action pass would be the final piece of the triangle, allowing Luck to take advantage of overstretched defenses and retain his vertical streak from the Arians days.

That didn’t go very well at all. Here’s Luck’s QBR (with rank among quarterbacks in parentheses) on play-action and non-play-action passes in 2012 and 2013:

The average quarterback improves by a comfortable margin when teams go to play-action; the average QBR for a passer in 2013 improved from 50.5 without a play fake to 65.1 with the play-action on. Luck’s numbers were basically stagnant in 2013, which left him well below average when Hamilton called for play-action. You’d expect that to be because teams didn’t really respect the threat of the running game, and I can’t say I disagree. Interestingly for a team that was supposed to be built off a power-running attack, the Colts didn’t really use play-action all that frequently. Luck incorporated play-action on 20.7 percent of his drop-backs, which was well below the league average of 28.5 percent.

The Play Calling

Whatever decisions Hamilton made about the types of plays he wanted to run, the bigger problem came with his play calling. Was there too much Richardson and not enough Luck? Well, yeah, but how bad was the problem? Let’s run through the actual numbers from 2013 and see where the Colts went wrong.

Start with the simple fact that the word “balance” doesn’t mean what most might think. Balance in the NFL is not a 50-50 proposition. Just about every team in football throws more than runs, which isn’t a surprise, because the average team empirically gets more from throwing the football in the vast majority of situations than it does from running the football. Take the essential basic measure of what a team wants to do on offense: their play calls on first-and-10 when the scoring margin between the two teams is within 14 points.3 Teams rushed the ball 51.8 percent of the time in that situation last year. Teams average 6.9 yards when they drop back to pass in those situations, but only 4.3 yards when they run the ball. Even allowing for the turnover rate in that spot increasing from 0.6 percent with a running play to 3.2 percent with a passing play, teams don’t throw the ball frequently enough on first down.

The Colts were right around league average in terms of what they did on first down in 14-point games. They threw the ball just over 52 percent of the time, averaging 6.9 yards per pass when they did so, while picking up a first down 26.2 percent of the time. When they ran the ball, they gained 4.1 yards per run, producing a first down 7.6 percent of the time. That’s almost exactly what the rest of the league did. What did stand out is how the Colts did after their decisions on first down. Power-running offenses in 2014 are predicated upon the idea that the run sets up the pass; for the Colts, that wasn’t really the case.

If that chart’s a little confusing, read along. The first column notes what happened when the Colts threw the ball on first down without getting a conversion and then threw the ball again on second down. Naturally, since many of those pass plays fell incomplete or produced sacks, they still had a lot of work to do, requiring 8.7 yards to go for a new set of downs. They picked up an average of 7.4 yards on that second-down play, which resulted in a conversion 39.1 percent of the time.

Meanwhile, despite the expectation that the run would set up the pass, it didn’t work that way. (When the Colts followed a first-down run with a second-down pass, despite needing nearly a yard less to convert, they averaged just 5.2 yards per play, picking up the first down far less frequently.) The sample size isn’t enormous (69 plays for pass→pass and 85 plays for run→pass), but it seems pretty clear that teams weren’t intimidated by Indianapolis’s running game.

The problem in using these numbers is that there were two different Indianapolis running games last year.4 There was the running game with Donald Brown and brief contributions from Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, which was decent. Then there was the running game with Trent Richardson, which was … well, no reason to keep picking on the guy. You saw it last year. In those first-down, 14-points-or-fewer situations, the guys whose last names begin with “B” ran the ball 68 times for a total of 328 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry. During his time with the Colts, in those same spots, Richardson carried the ball 61 times for just 177 yards, averaging a mere 2.9 yards per carry. Among backs with 50 such carries or more, only Rashard Mendenhall was worse. Brown finished second in the league in rushing DVOA; Richardson, behind the same line for most of the season, finished 44th. There are those who suggest that it wasn’t Richardson’s fault and that the numbers inflate Brown’s performance while deflating his, and I don’t doubt that Richardson could have benefited from better interior line play. But in the same situations and the same contexts, Brown (with a few scattered carries from Ballard and Bradshaw before they were injured) was a significantly better option behind the same line than Richardson.

As it turns out, in terms of their pass-run ratio last year, the Colts were not actually a run-oriented team by NFL standards. Chase Stuart uses a concept called pass identity to analyze how frequently a team passes the ball after adjusting for the situations and scores the team faced. In terms of their pass frequency (on all downs and in all situations here), the Colts were the 13th-most pass-happy team in the league. Now, that doesn’t mean the Colts were unbalanced toward the pass; given their personnel, it might have made sense for Indy to be one of the five most pass-happy teams in football. Imagine if a team with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and Grantland’s Robert Mays as the only running back threw the ball 55 percent of the time on first down. That would be ahead of the league pass ratio average, but still obviously a significant distance away from the optimal inflection point, which would be somewhere in the 99 percent range. Indy’s example isn’t as extreme, but the Colts almost surely would have been best throwing the ball more frequently on early downs in 2013.

So, About 2014 …

What will this offense look like in 2014? Well, for one, the personnel have changed. Brown left, somewhat bizarrely, to become the third-string running back in San Diego. The interior of the line has changed, with Hugh Thornton moving from left guard to right guard, rookie second-rounder Jack Mewhort stepping in at left guard, and second-year man Khaled Holmes stepping in for the departed Samson Satele. In the reclamation project slot, Darrius Heyward-Bey has been replaced by Hakeem Nicks. Ballard and Thomas are each already done for the season again with injuries, but the Colts will get a nice boost from the return of Allen, Bradshaw, and Wayne, each of whom come back from injured reserve. Richardson, for whatever it’s worth, has had a year to grow comfortable in the offense and should be fresh out of excuses.

Hamilton, likewise, has had a year to learn his team and apply his knowledge to the NFL. Given what he saw last year, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be quite as power-run oriented in 2014, even if he wasn’t quite as run-happy as public perception suggests. Luck is too skilled of a player for Hamilton to ignore, and while some of his broader schematic decisions did play to Luck’s strengths, Hamilton simply can’t stand there on the sidelines and say the team is better off handing the ball to Richardson for three yards a pop than they are putting the game in Luck’s hands. That’s a credibility killer once things go south. Football players are smarter than that. So is Hamilton.

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck, Trent Richardson

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell