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Scrambling for a Quarterback: The Cautionary Tale of Andrew Luck

In the ultimate team sport, even generational prospects need a little help from their friends.

Chicago Bears v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In other pieces in this series, I have examined the idea that quarterbacks elevate teams and have found instead that even high-level talents need fairly robust support around them in order to succeed. In all of the conversations about finding a starting quarterback in the draft, however, one name casts a shadow over sober analysis. Numbers and charts and trends are only so meaningful, it is said, because if a team has a chance to get a true “blue chip” quarterback prospect—the next “Andrew Luck”—then the team has to take that chance.

Thus, while every year there are some NFL teams that seem to reach to fill their need at passer, that’s not the whole story. Every few years, there is supposedly a quarterback who the NFL is waiting on. There is a generational prospect on the horizon for whom who is simply “the best”, and for about a decade now the gold standard of comparison has been Andrew Luck. Luck’s NFL career was briefer than some had hoped, but he has set the bar for prospects who have come after him. Supposedly, Trevor Lawrence was going to be the best prospect since Andrew Luck. With Lawrence in Jacksonville, the mantle of “Hope for the Future” is being passed to Caleb Williams.

As a Bears fan, I certainly hope that two things are true. The first is that I hope that due to the trade with the Carolina Panthers, the Bears are in a position to draft Caleb Williams. The second is that the Bears then trade away that opportunity to some other team, driving up the price to a level that makes the DJ Moore trade look like a warm-up band before the main attraction takes the stage. This is not because I have any specific doubt about Williams, but instead because of the broader context of elite quarterback prospects drafted into the NFL.


The year before Andrew Luck was drafted, Cam Newton was believed to have the talent to be a perennial All-Pro. He was not as beloved as Andrew Luck, however, because he faced “character concerns” that largely amounted to him being either arrogant or confident (depending on your viewpoint) and to NCAA-related “scandals” that are not worth digging into except to say that many, many quarterbacks have faced worse accusations and gone on to have successful careers in the NFL.

Once he was drafted #1 overall by the Carolina Panthers, Newton had nine years with them before a stop in New England and a return to the Panthers. During his initial run, Newton managed to make three Pro Bowls for his team. Newton also had a passer rating above the league average for four of his first six years in the league, but Newton then also played another five years–and his passer rating exceeded the league average a fifth time before his career faltered. Newton has seven playoff starts and is one game below .500 as a playoff quarterback, and he even won a conference championship game and made it to the Super Bowl.

This was a solid career, but it should not actually be terribly surprising. In fact, the state of quarterback prospects in general had been somewhat secure before Newton was drafted. Here are the quarterbacks who had been drafted in the first round from 2006-2008 and how they had been playing as of the 2011 draft:

“Recent” QBs

Quarterback Plus Seasons Pro Bowls CCGs
Quarterback Plus Seasons Pro Bowls CCGs
Vince Young 2 of 5 1 0
Matt Leinart 0 of 4 0 0
Jay Cutler 4 of 5 1 1
JaMarcus Russell 0 of 3 0 0
Brady Quinn 0 of 3 0 0
Matt Ryan 2 of 3 1 0
Joe Flacco 2 of 3 0 1

A majority of the first-round quarterbacks, then, had enjoyed multiple above-average seasons as a passer (which makes sense, in that they theoretically should be playing better than later picks or the old guard they are ostensibly replacing). Almost half of them had made a Pro Bowl, and two of them had even made a conference championship game. The 2009 and 2010 drafts were slightly more frustrating, as Stafford had suffered an injury, the Jets were making the playoffs seemingly despite Mark Sanchez’s play instead of because of it, and Sam Bradford was not looking like the answer for the Rams.

Still, while there were disappointments, there were also true hits. In the context of 2012, the promise of Luck, then, was probably not that he might be good. It was that he was safe.

The Hype and the Player

The man would go on to be parodied as Captain Andrew Luck was the unquestioned elite prospect of his class and really of most prior classes. Fanbases actively hoped that their teams would lose for the chance to draft him. It was an impossible burden to meet, really, especially since he was basically drafted to replace a future Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning.

In a career spanning seven years (though one season was missed entirely due to injury), Luck made it to four Pro Bowls and started in eight playoff games (winning half of them). He had a single conference championship game appearance. With a career passer rating of 89.5, he was above the league average in passer rating four times. Luck was undoubtedly successful when playing even if he always reminded me of a Muppet version of Wolverine. One harsh reality is that he was at most marginally more successful than Cam Newton was, and by some standards he was less successful, but because he was viewed as reliable, he created the gold standard against which future quarterback prospects are measured.

Chicago Bears v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

He was good. He was very, very good—but he didn’t reinvigorate the position or leave his peers in the dust. He was better than any quarterback the Chicago Bears have had since Sid Luckman, but that is a very low bar to clear.

The Reality

Meanwhile, three members of Luck’s own draft class are actually still playing. Ryan Tannehill has clearly not had a better career than Luck by any measure except longevity, but Kirk Cousins has made as many Pro Bowls (4), has more than twice as many seasons with a passer rating above the league average (9), and even has the same number of playoff runs–even if he has had a much worse record in playoff games. Finally, Russell Wilson has nine Pro Bowls and until moving to the Denver Broncos he had an uninterrupted string of passer ratings above the league average (he currently has 11 seasons above average). As for playoffs, he has more playoff wins than Luck had playoff appearances (he’s 9-7 so far), and in addition to appearing in twice as many conference championship games as Luck, unlike Luck he won both of his–and he won a Super Bowl to boot. He is currently struggling, but even just his first seven seasons are better by almost any measure than Luck’s.

At this point, someone might protest that “wins” are not a quarterback stat. Wilson was buoyed by his team, whereas Luck did what he did with less support. That is exactly true, and that is exactly the point. Andrew Luck might have been a better and safer prospect than people had seen in a long time, but he didn’t even have the best career of his own quarterback class. I loved watching him play, and I hope he is enjoying his retirement. However, he should also serve as a stark reminder that even a generational talent can only elevate a team so far, and that there is a cost to asking him to do so too many times. More successful quarterbacks are frequently the ones who play as part of a well-built, complete team.

Trevor Lawrence has recently taken on the mantle of “best quarterback prospect since…” and he is playing well for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He is on his way to a second season with a passer rating over the league average and he might earn a second Pro Bowl soon. It’s too early to be certain, but he might even be the best quarterback of his class. Justin Fields has yet to put together the consistency Chicago Bears fans are hoping for and after a brief surge, Mac Jones is faltering for the New England Patriots, Trey Lance has already been traded, and Zach Wilson is consistent–unfortunately for the New York Jets.

It is possible that Caleb Williams is the next Andrew Luck, or at least the next Trevor Lawrence. Even if that is true, however, I hope the Chicago front office remembers that Andrew Luck himself showed the league that being a generational quarterback prospect did not mean as much as being a good quarterback with a good team around him.