INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Luck entered the NFL in 2012 with a ton of hype — many evaluators called him the best prospect since Peyton Manning — and he didn’t disappoint. Luck went 11-5 with a division title in each of his first three seasons, reached the AFC Championship game, last year, and had a huge fantasy season in 2014, throwing for 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns.
But while the Colts won the “Suck for Luck” campaign in 2011, earning the No. 1 pick and the right to draft their next franchise quarterback, they face a head-scratching problem as they prepare to face the Patriots on Sunday night: Unexpectedly this season, Luck kind of . . . stinks.
The Colts are 3-2 entering Sunday’s showdown, but Luck isn’t the reason for the winning record. Luck and the Colts looked awful in their first two games, losses to the Bills and Jets, then escaped with a 2-point win in over the Titans Week 3.
And Luck has missed the last two games with a right shoulder injury, with backup Matt Hasselbeck leading the Colts to victories over the Jaguars and Texans.
Luck’s numbers are down across the board — he’s completing only 56 percent of his passes (down almost 6 percent from last year) and has thrown a whopping seven interceptions in just three games, or on 6 percent of his passing attempts, the highest percentage in the league (no one else is over 5 percent).
Luck is averaging a pedestrian 251 passing yards per game — a pace of 4,016 for a season — and his 65.1 passer rating ranks 34 out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks, ahead of only Houston’s Ryan Mallett.
Suddenly, Luck’s teammates and coaches have found themselves defending their franchise quarterback’s performance.
“Small sample size,” Hasselbeck said. “We’re just talking about three games, right? I think the Super Bowl champ last year got off to a slow start then had an amazing year, so I’m certainly not worried.”
Fair enough. There are still 11 games to go, plenty of time for Luck to return to his old self. And he certainly hasn’t been healthy this year.
Luck never missed a game in his first three seasons and is widely lauded for his toughness and willingness to stand in the pocket and take hits, so he must have been seriously hurt to sit out the last two games.
Officially, the Colts list him as having a shoulder injury — reports vary on whether it is a separation or a subluxation — but there are also strong rumors that he’s playing with a rib injury. TV cameras in Week 3 showed Luck wincing in pain when Hasselbeck tapped him in the middle of his chest, not his shoulder.
Luck has been limited in practice this week but appears ready to return to the lineup, although the Colts are still playing coy.
But even if Luck plays on Sunday, that doesn’t mean he’s healthy.
“I think it will probably come out that Andrew’s been dealing with some ribs before the Tennessee game, when my brother patted him on the chest during that game,” said ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck. “We don’t necessarily have all the information of what he’s playing with. There are a lot of players playing through stuff that people generally aren’t aware of, and it prevents guys from playing their best.”
Sunday’s opponent won’t make life much easier for Luck. In four games against the Patriots he has six touchdown passes against 10 interceptions, losing all four games by an average score of 47-18.
The Colts also took the heat off Luck this week, with coaches and teammates taking responsibility for Luck’s poor start. Coach Chuck Pagano called Luck’s performance “a collaborative effort.” The Colts are 23d in the NFL in total offense, 24th in scoring (19.8 points per game), and 24th in rushing offense, so it’s not like anyone on that side of the ball is playing well.
“One of the things we have to do is do a better job of keeping him upright,” tight end Dwayne Allen said. “Andrew is a freaking competitor. He’s a warrior.”
Thursday, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who worked with Luck at Stanford and for all four years of his NFL career, said he “absolutely” takes responsibility for Luck’s performance this season.
“I should have done a better job of finding ways to put our playmakers in a position to be successful,” Hamilton said. “We know Andrew is a playmaker. He’s a guy that’s going to make plays on schedule and make the off-schedule plays. I think the one thing that we have to do as we move forward is just understand that there are situations where I have to do a better job of knowing that hey, it’s OK to punt the ball after a third and 25, all right. That was part of the problem.”
But Luck is making some terrible decisions, as well. Week 3 against the Titans, he threw a floater off his back foot with a pass rusher in his face that was intercepted by linebacker Zach Brown. Luck clearly should have taken the sack or tried to throw it away.
“That was as bad of an interception as I’ve ever seen him throw,” Tim Hasselbeck said. “Why did that happen? Well, sometimes it happens because you make a bad decision.”
But while Luck hasn’t been himself, no one’s ready to write him off, either.
“Truth is good players have bad games. It does happen,” Tim Hasselbeck said. “We tend to overreact. We’re basing a lot on a very small sample size.”