This is what they say: Andrew Luck will make the leap this season.
The Next Great Quarterback is the consensus favorite to lead the NFL in passing yards in every sportsbook I can find. He's essentially a co-favorite to win the MVP award. Sportsbooks predict the Colts and Patriots as co-favorites to win the AFC.
Luck is already one of the finest quarterbacks in the NFL. The Colts have often asked him to make chicken salad out of Indianapolis' crisper full of wilted leftover receivers. But from the standpoint of advanced statistics, Luck hasn't yet lived up to the hype. He set a career high in Football Outsiders' DVOA last season, which measured him as 9.2% better than a hypothetical average quarterback. That was good for eleventh in the league, behind quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan.
Given where Luck is in his career, how strange is this? It's not a rhetorical question, or at any rate it's not one whose answer I knew. So I decided to try to find the average career path for a quarterback with a superstar-caliber season on his resume. I dug up a list of 26 quarterbacks who, per Football Outsiders, have been 25 percent better than a league-average passer in a single season. The player must have debuted after 1989, as that's as far back as FO's database goes. He must also have thrown more than 250 passes during his breakout season. (This removes sample-size backup quarterback flukes like Josh McCown in 2013.)
The average quarterback in this data set has 200 attempts in a season for the first time at almost three years out of college. They have their first season of supreme effectiveness in about their fifth year out of college. Extreme examples inflated those numbers a bit. Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, and Trent Green all spent time in the CFL or Arena League and joined the NFL later in their careers.
But even when you remove those players, it is uncanny how many quarterbacks didn't hit their stride for a few seasons. Drew Brees didn't post a great campaign until his third season as a starter. For Tony Romo, it was his fourth. Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger were able to hit the criteria in season one, but they haven't been able to hit it with any kind of consistency afterwards.
It's easy to roll this data out, conclude that quarterbacks are still mastering their craft even after 32 starts, and call it a day. But another factor affecting the data is the ability of the team to surround the quarterback with offensive talent. Brees' first breakout season was also the first season that he targeted Antonio Gates more than 24 times. Romo's best year coincides with the Cowboys making a star of Miles Austin. Sometimes the quarterback can be ready, but the general manager hasn't surrounded him with the talent yet.
The Colts have yet to do this with Luck. Reggie Wayne's decline coincided with T.Y. Hilton's ascent, but beyond that, the receiver position has been barren in Indianapolis. This is a team that threw at Donnie Avery 125 times in 2012. On purpose. Darrius Heyward-Bey had 64 targets in 2013, and Luck was throwing to undrafted free agents in the playoffs after Wayne tore his ACL. In 2014, a seemingly washed-up Wayne and Hakeem Nicks received 184 targets.
The national media raked Indianapolis over the coals for not attempting to fix their run defense this offseason. This, after being the victims of yet another Patriot stampede in the AFC Championship. The Colts deserve it, but they also deserve credit for finally putting their quarterback in a better position to be great.
It's uncertain how much of Andre Johnson's down year in Houston was about motivation rather than age-related decline. But even if Johnson is only a possession receiver at this point, he should be a strong replacement for Wayne. 49ers refugee Frank Gore still has enough juice in the tank to make the run game a strength, which is a major change from the days of Trent Richardson. Drafting wideout Phillip Dorsett in the first round and securing the services of CFL star Duron Carter ensures Indianapolis has credible backup plans on the roster. As they've learned recently, sudden decline often hits sooner than you'd think.
The odd Erik Walden signing worked out better than most pundits thought it would. But ever since it happened, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has been under attack by the skeptical football media. The media likes to create narratives out of roster holes, and use that to blurb up weaknesses for NFL teams as if every position is equal. This ignores the fact that most teams have holes.
What Grigson has done this offseason is simple. Instead of focusing on deficiencies, he accentuated the team's strengths.
In the course of doing so, he's set Luck up for a big step forward, and given him a fighting chance to be the best quarterback he can be. Those sorts of phrases, and that view of progress, should make you skeptical, by the way. It's hard to forecast a leap for a player who is already very good. To guess at this is to dive into the 20 percent of every NFL season that we don't and can't know much about.
But given the recent history of franchise quarterbacks, I can't help but think there's a real chance Luck steps forward and becomes a statistical marvel this season. Anyone who has watched Luck play has seen the greatness buried beneath the so-so advanced statistics.
If he does step forward, credit will go not just to the quarterback, but to Grigson, the GM who recognized that a great quarterback doesn't make for a great offense all on his own.