Colts Passing Offense Excels in New Circumstances in 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – From the start, Peyton Manning said it was different.
The difference for the Colts' veteran quarterback started with the departure of a longtime teammate, and continued with the arrival and development of a pair of young players. And in a very real sense, those two factors helped define the Colts' passing offense this past season.
What was significant about that season was this:
Yes, the feeling was new, and yes, where once there was eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison, last season there were wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. But even with relatively unknown players, the Colts' passing offense remained very, very effective.
And it was a big reason for the Colts' success this past season.
"This year (was) a lot different because of the young players that (we) had on offense," Manning said recently. "(I) learned more about them. I kind of almost (went) back to some of the things I learned when I was a rookie, the nuances of our offense, teaching those guys, helping those guys."
Through a season of learning and teaching, the Colts' passing offense – as it has throughout the past decade – excelled.
Manning, in his 12th NFL season, had one of the best seasons of his career, completing 393 of 571 passes for 4,500 yards and a 33 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. He was named to the Pro Bowl for a 10th season and was the NFL's Most Valuable Player for a fourth time in seven seasons.
Manning threw for more than 300 yards in nine of the Colts' first 14 games of the season, and also had more than 300 yards passing in two of the Colts' three postseason games.
Much of that success could be attributed to the Colts' offensive line. That unit included center Jeff Saturday, who made his fourth Pro Bowl in five seasons, but also included a pair of players – left tackle Charlie Johnson and right guard Kyle DeVan – who moved into their positions last season.
The line as a unit allowed a league-low 13 sacks, and Manning was sacked a career-low 10 times.
Part of the success, too, came because the Colts weren't without experienced talent at receiver.
Reggie Wayne, in his ninth NFL season, made the Pro Bowl for a fourth consecutive season. He caught 100 passes, his second 100-reception performance in three seasons, for 1,264 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also remained one of the NFL's best late-game, clutch receivers, three times catching game-winning touchdowns in the fourth quarter – against Houston, New England and Jacksonville.
Tight end Dallas Clark not only again was a crucial part of the passing game, he made his first Pro Bowl and was named first-team Associated Press All-Pro, catching a career-high 100 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The success of Wayne and Clark was hardly unexpected.
The contributions of Collie and Garcon, while more surprising, were perhaps as imant, particularly late in the regular season and playoffs.
With wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, the starting receiver opposite Wayne entering the season, out all but one game this season, Collie – a fourth-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft – played in every game, catching 60 passes for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. He gave the Colts a solid, young receiver who played extensively in the slot-receiver role.
Garcon, a sixth-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft, caught 47 passes and emerged as a big-play threat in the offense with 765 yards and four touchdowns.
"They (were) big for us," Wayne said late in the season of the younger receivers. "They (were) stepping up to the plate all year, making things happen. They work so hard. They want to do well. Every time you see them in meetings, they (were) taking notes and doing whatever it takes to be good. That's all you can ask for, guys that take the time out of their busy schedule and put all the focus into watching film and going on the field and making things happen. They showed up for us."
Wayne, long one of the NFL's most durable receivers, hasn't missed a game because of an injury since 2002. He said the ability of Garcon and Collie to stay healthy and play each week was critical to their quick development.
"One thing about them is they (were) pretty healthy all year and able to have an opportunity to make things happen," Wayne said. "They (played) big for us. After like Week 6, we told them, 'You're not a rookie anymore. You got your feet wet and we're going to need you to really focus in on the task at hand and make things happen.' They (did) that all year."
The pair improved in the postseason, with Collie catching 17 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns and Garcon catching 21 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. In the Colts' 30-17 victory over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game, the pair combined for 18 receptions for 274 yards and two touchdowns, with Garcon catching 11 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown.
Collie caught seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in the title game. Like Garcon, Collie's yardage in the title game was a season-high.
The key to such development, Manning said, was many fold. Wide receivers coach Clyde Christensen worked with the pair, as did he and Wayne. Whatever the reason, Manning said the pair produced when called upon. That they did made the season different for the Colts' passing game and successful, too.
"Those guys (did) a great job improving throughout the season and they had a lot of help," Manning said. "Those guys, as individuals, improved. You never know how a guy is going to respond when the lights come on. The game never has appeared too big for them, never overwhelmed them.
"I tried to help them in whatever way that me as a quarterback can help them. Really, my goal in helping them was to get them on the same page. I didn't want to throw an out route at 12 yards and they were running it at 15 yards.
"As a quarterback, it is important to have everybody on the same page and kind of knowing what you are going to do. I have certainly spent my share of time talking to them. But Clyde (Christensen) gets those guys ready to play and gets those guys focused on what they need to do.
"So he really deserves the credit for that."