INDIANAPOLIS – Andrew Luck should be NFL Rookie of the Year. Yes, I'm biased from covering him all season. That doesn't mean I'm wrong.
The cases are strong for Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson. If you think one of them should be the rookie of the year, you have statistics to bolster your argument. How you separate the two in stats, I'm not sure. They are within a couple throws in every passing category.
Quick example: Both players threw 393 passes. Griffin completed six more and had 82 more yards. Wilson threw six more touchdown passes and five more picks. Griffin's passer rating: 102.4. Wilson's: 100.0. Griffin ran for more yards (815, 6.8 per carry), but Wilson was no slouch (489, 5.2 per carry).
Teams not in the playoffs, with the exception of the Saints, Steelers and Giants, would probably jump to start fresh with one of those two.
Here's why I think Luck is the best choice for rookie of the year: He had the world on his shoulders and it's now at his fingertips.
He took a city divided over the decision to part ways with the great Peyton Manning, and carved his own niche. He helped the Colts win 11 games, seven of them with fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives. He set an NFL rookie mark with 4,374 yards. He threw 627 passes and got sacked 41 times. He wore rib-protecting pads in the front and defensive ends on his back.
Luck took chances he shouldn't have at times, flinging the ball when taking a sack would have been much more Peyton-esque. Later in the season, some of his passes seemed to sail high, the result of hurrying and feeling the pressure of the pass rush, no doubt. Some questioned if he was tired. Who wouldn't be?
Yet as the criticism of his late performance surfaced – particularly the fact he'd thrown 18 interceptions – something happened. He stopped throwing them. The last three game, two against a supposedly strong Texans defense, Luck threw five touchdown passes (would have been six if coach Chuck Pagano had challenged the ruling of T.Y. Hilton's knee down at the goal line Sunday) and zero interceptions. Two of Luck's highest passer-rating games were against the Texans.
Luck spent the season without a dink-and-dunk pass in the arsenal. He stretched the field with his throws often. The attack style favored by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians demands the quarterback carry a heavy load mentally and be ready to take calculated risks on throws. Luck had his share of bad throws, certainly, but he also had a number of receiver drops, which he never points out. That last part reflects some more value in the rookie – he knows how to operate to keep a team's morale at its highest point.
“I know the playoffs will be uncharted territory for a lot of rookies and I'm sure for a lot of new guys that have joined the team this year,” Luck said. “But we've got Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney and Adam Vinatieri, who has been in however many playoff games. We'll lean on them early in the week…”
Luck's best throw of the season might have been his 70-yard touchdown to Hilton. He hit Hilton in stride, beyond the defenders, and essentially broke the Texans' spirits.
“It was a straight-up seam route,” Hilton said. “The linebacker buzzed me. I looked up and I was running wide open. Andrew made a beautiful throw.”
The attack will continue. Arians knows no other offense philosophy. Luck has been compared to Ben Roethlisberger, who loved Arians' style, and Brett Favre, who had a similar let-'er-rip approach. That approach lends itself to more interceptions. Luck finished with 23 touchdowns (three fewer than Manning in his rookie season) and 18 interceptions (10 fewer than Manning).
As his career continues, Luck also faces a double dose of comparisons that his rookie peers don't have to encounter. Luck is compared to Manning, his predecessor, if you don't count Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. He'll also be compared to Griffin since they went 1-2 in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Luck doesn't let those comparisons bother him, just as he doesn't let mistakes remain in his psyche. He has made some of his most memorable plays after he's had a less-than-stellar game. That's what happened in Detroit. He takes the hits, learns from them, files them and moves forward.
A number of factors went into the Colts' turnaround from 2-14 to 11-5 in one season. Pagano's illness and the emotional reaction was part of it. The play of veterans such as Wayne and Mathis played a role.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, however, and teams only go as far as their quarterbacks take them. No rookie has taken a team further from its starting point than Luck.
Much has been made about the Colts' weak schedule. Luck faced five playoff teams. He beat three (Green Bay, Minnesota and Houston) and lost to two (New England, Houston). Griffin faced four playoff teams (2-2) and Wilson faced five (4-1).
Can I see Griffin as Rookie of the Year? Yes. Can I see Wilson as Rookie of the Year? Yes. It's a close race. I've been watching Luck the closest.
Would you rather have the best quarterback rating and completion percentage or the biggest plays in the clutch? In the latter category, Luck didn't look like a rookie at all.