Throughout his three-year career at Stanford, quarterback Andrew Luck had the benefit of conducting a power football/spread offensive scheme that steamrolled opponents. Cardinal running backs Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor (to a somewhat lesser degree) opened up the passing game for Luck.
When he took over for Peyton Manning as the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, Luck was placed in the unnatural position of being a volume passer in a finesse, shotgun offense. And like a breakout TV star transitioning to the silver screen, he’s been slow adapting to the weight of the role. In that regard, Luck has been more Bryan Cranston than Will Smith. He’s a technically proficient signal caller, but his blockbuster potential remains untapped under the brightest lights.
Looking back at the 2015 season’s preamble, the Colts were being touted as the next “greatest show on turf.” Luck was expected to lead the Colts’ charge back into Super Bowl contention. But an ineffective running game proved too much to overcome, and this season shapes up as offering more of the same.
Luck’s place at the top of the list among the NFL’s rising stars at quarterback has been supplanted by the likes of Carolina’s Cam Newton and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who have been complemented by robust ground games. Yet, Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson has not felt the need to address the issue in the draft, using only one pick, a sixth-rounder on Josh Robinson, to select a running back the last two years.
The trade that sent a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Richardson two games into the 2013 season represents the most aggressive move Grigson has made in pursuing a workhorse back. Richardson was a bust, and three years later the Colts’ streak of games without a 100-yard rusher is closing in on the equivalent of four seasons.
Unfortunately for Luck, the Colts have come to resemble the Miami Dolphins of a generation ago, when quarterback Dan Marino’s immense talent for throwing the football and one-dimensional offense led to passing records and postseason disappointment. Interestingly, Marino was the only quarterback to throw more touchdown passes through his first three seasons than Luck.
Marino played 17 seasons, during which time the Dolphins had only one 1,000-yard rusher, Karim Abdul-Jabbar in 1996. The closest Marino came to conquering the NFL came during the 1992 AFC title game when Miami accumulated 33 yards on the ground in a loss to Buffalo.
Marino’s most crushing playoff defeat came at the hands of the San Diego Chargers during the 1994 Divisional playoffs. The Dolphins dominated the first half, 21-6, but were outscored 16-0 in the second half. Miami set a franchise low with 8 total rushing attempts. San Diego’s bulldozing Natrone Means wore Miami down by running for 139 yards.
The ensuing offseason, general manager-coach Don Shula’s prized signings consisted of tight end Eric Green, defensive end Trace Armstrong and cornerback Terrell Buckley. Returning running backs Keith Byars and Terry Kirby never came close to rushing for 1,000 yards and Marino never came within two games of another Super Bowl.
Luck’s Colts have been almost as feeble running the ball. Only the San Diego Chargers averaged fewer yards per rush than the Colts last season. Former San Francisco 49ers star Frank Gore was added to the mix last season, but at 32 he is on the downside of his career. Gore tiptoed to a career lows in per-carry and per-game averages.
New England, San Diego and Philadelphia are teams who can match Indy’s rushing deficiencies. More disconcerting for the Colts offense is their absence of a third down back with route running ability from the slot or who can gain yardage off of bubble screens. After Gore finished 24th in reception yards among tailbacks who rumbled for at least 300 yards, don’t expect much out of him as a pass catcher in 2016.
The seemingly remote possibility of a bounce back season by Gore, or the emergence of a new starter out of the hodgepodge of backups that includes Jordan Todman, Robert Turbin, Josh Ferguson and Trey Williams suggests the Colts running game will continue to sputter. Indianapolis’ best hope could rest on its chances of getting a shot at one of the impressive crop of running backs expected to be available in the 2017 draft.
Meanwhile, Luck is anxious to put an injury-plagued 2015 behind him. He missed the remainder of the season after suffering a lacerated kidney and a torn abdominal muscle on Nov. 8 in a game against Denver. He signed a six-year extension with the Colts in the offseason that includes $87 million guaranteed.
He enters the 2016 season with wealth and health. From a football perspective, perhaps only a legitimate running game will provide happiness.