Five years after Newton beat Luck for the 2010 Heisman Trophy, the two players are preparing for their first meeting from completely different vantage points. Newton is peaking. He's playing so well that he called his effort in the team's sixth straight win last Sunday night "lackluster." He's playing so well that he's getting MVP buzz despite numbers that are mostly worse than his career averages.
Luck is on tilt. He's having the rookie season he skipped past in 2012, missing routine plays and showing a lack of confidence. The shoulder injury that kept him out two weeks can't explain why he's staring down receivers or hesitant to make decisions. Luck set himself apart with his innate pocket presence and ability to go through his progressions like a veteran. Now he's panicking when his first read is taken away, making poor decisions to run, and throwing a lot of check-down passes on third-and-long. Everything is half a beat late and the "wow" plays are rare. Matt Hasselbeck played better.
That doesn't mean this will continue. Luck's previous 54 games mean far more than his last five weeks of struggle. He's still my long-term pick for the best quarterback under 30. But there's no denying that Luck is a big part of the Colts' problems this season and he's playing like a below-average starter. In a season where he was expected to take a big step to MVP contender, Luck needs to play far better to save his coaching staff.
*This is the Quarterback Index. The rankings below are based on this season's play only. *
Alone at the top
He's leading the league in touchdowns and has the lowest interception percentage. His adjusted yards-per-attempt is his highest since 2007. He put his best game together in his toughest matchup of the year despite 10 drops, no running game and a makeshift offensive line. One great Aaron Rodgers game in Denver could change this, but Brady stands apart for now.
Synonym for Elite
When we get to NFL draft season, we hear a lot of talk about isolating the "pro-style" throws from prospects. The deep outs that test arm strength. The mid-range zone busters and the vertical passes to the outside. No quarterback makes more "professional" throws each week than Carson Palmer, and his consistency this season has remained staggering. You can't find a bad game in the bunch and he's routinely accurate deep down the field. He has the confidence to throw into tight windows and the luxury of a receiver group that rewards his decisions.
I was tempted to rank Wilson higher than Newton this week. Forget the record; this is the best start to a season of Wilson's career. Pete Carroll said this week Wilson is playing better than ever before from the pocket, and it's hard to disagree. (Wilson's off-field game is a different matter, as Anthony Jeselnik and I discussed on our new podcast. Plug!) ... Hopefully the bye week will help the Packers reset on offense. Rodgers wasn't finding a lot of open receivers the last two games before the break and throwing to Randall Cobb has proven inefficient.
This trio gets its own tier because things get far messier afterwards. During a turbulent season at quarterback, they represent relative consistency. Brees' game against the Colts was far from spotless, but the Saints are showing better rhythm on offense. They are using all three running backs. It's getting closer to the offense they envisioned this offseason, and the upcoming schedule sets up well for big numbers. ... Carr is having the season I expected Teddy Bridgewater to have. He avoids sacks, and doesn't get too high or too low. Most weeks are so clean. You can eat off his box scores.
There's not a lot separating this group of quarterbacks who struggle to string together big games. Fitzpatrick was the biggest riser this week after a second straight strong outing, showing uncanny ability on third-and-long. He's avoided head-scratching throws of late and his mad dashes provide inspired insanity for the whole family. He's tied with Newton for the most value as a runner this year, according to Pro Football Focus. Game manage that.
The Flacco that America watched Monday night was the one we've seen most of the season. He's not the problem. ... Bortles has taken a small step back the last two weeks. At least he entertains even when he struggles. This throw from Week 6 is typical of his ridiculous arm strength.
Middle of the pack
There's no quarterback in the league who's harder to judge than Winston. The more he plays, the more there is to like. He's quietly carving out a quality rookie season. ... Tannehill played just as well against the Titans in Week 6 as he did in his Offensive Player of the Week performance against Houston. It's not that Tannehill did anything wrong against the Texans. He just didn't have to make more than 2-3 non-routine throws to rack up a 41-0 halftime lead. It was an insanely dominant performance by all of his teammates. This is one area where the PFF-like grades are definitely helpful. Tannehill deserves part of the credit for a great team performance, but this was a case where the quarterback played a secondary role.
Luck's lack of conviction really stands out from the Luck lowlights at the top of the column. His pump fake and long holding of the ball in the final two plays killed two different drives.
End of the line
Kaepernick is an inferior version of Tannehill at the moment. If the offensive coordinator dials up the right game plan, he can show off his skill set. If the defense takes away the first read or makes Kaepernick uncomfortable, he struggles to adjust. ... Hoyer is similar in some ways. If things start poorly, it usually only gets uglier from there. Much like this column.