INDIANAPOLIS --- Colts wide receiver Griff Whalen had a tough choice to make coming out of Stanford. After going undrafted in 2012, he had two choices: follow his college quarterback Andrew Luck to the Colts, a riskier choice but with more upside to make the active roster, or reunite with his college head coach Jim Harbaugh on the 49ers, an option Whalen viewed as a safer bet to at least remain on the practice squad all season.
His choice is paying off. Stepping into the slot receiver role with 1st round pick Phillip Dorsett out 4-6 weeks, Whalen has caught 10-of-11 targets for 121 yards over the past two games. Of all NFL receivers with at least 55 snaps this year, Griff Whalen has caught 92.9% of his targets, best in the NFL.
"I think Andrew and I have a lot of trust between each other," said Whalen. "It's just kind of the way it's worked out, where there's been some opportunities to take advantage of."
Back-up quarterback Matt Hasselbeck sees more though. Three of Whalen's catches against Denver came in the 2nd half of a close game on 3rd downs to move the chains. Before that, all five of Whalen's receptions at Carolina came during the 4th quarter comeback, including a crucial 4th and 10 catch after the two minute warning, which led to Adam Vinatieri's game-tying field goal.
"The truth of the matter in the passing game is that every quarterback has a receiver or tight end that they just feel him. They get him," said Hasselbeck Monday. "I had that relationship with Bobby Engram. You saw Peyton Manning had it with Brandon Stokley. Tom Brady had it with Deion Branch. There's definitely a rapport between Andrew and Griff that goes back a long, long time ago."
"You never know when something's going to creep in, where we've been down that road before," said Whalen of his rapport with Luck. "(We) can kind of figure out what the other is thinking and what we need to do to execute the play."
Hasselbeck said Whalen was not the primary receiver on his receptions over the last two weeks, but when Luck's internal clock is going off in his head to get rid of the ball, he looks for Whalen. Hasselbeck also said Whalen knows the offense so well and takes such good notes, that when there's a debate amongst the offense about what new hand signals to use each week, they go to Whalen's encyclopedia of notes, asking for his opinion on a new signal. Whalen's emergence may have come as a shock to some, but not his teammates.
"No, I don't think it's a surprise to anybody in the locker room or anybody at practice," said Luck, after the win over the Broncos Sunday. "He's where he's supposed to be, and he gets the job done. I realize too it's pretty special to be able to get to play with your roommate from college in big games and in the NFL. He's a heck of a guy."
"He, every week on scout team, is somebody's slot receiver," said Hasselbeck. "No one's surprised he's stepping into that role for us."
"If you ask any of the guys on our defense what they think of Griff Whalen, he's probably converted 100-of-110 3rd downs against them (in practice)," said tight end Dwayne Allen Monday. "Running other teams' plays, just because he's that kind of route runner. He has that type of ability to get open...his work ethic, man. He is a workhorse. He comes after it everyday."
After going on Injured Reserve his rookie season, Whalen split time between the active roster and practice squad in 2013, catching 24 passes in 9 games. Whalen was on the active roster for 10 more games last season but only caught two passes.
Coming into training camp this year, the receiving corp was crowded - T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson, Donte Moncrief, Phillip Dorsett, and Duron Carter. All pegged by most outsiders as the ones who would make the team, not Griff Whalen.
"Probably the most competition I've had," said Whalen of the challenge of making this year's team, but never saying there was a moment he thought he wouldn't make it through final cuts. "Having gone through it so many times in the past, it was a lot easier mentally to ignore it."
Whalen said he stayed away from the 53-man roster projection articles and social media during the preseason, focusing solely on his responsibilities inside the Colts' operation. That level of focus and dedication should come as no surprise, considering we are talking about a person who commits to making tough choices, including changing his diet almost two years ago.
Whalen is now a vegan, getting the protein his body requires to play in the NFL, not from meats and animal products, but from other plant-based sources like black beans (39g of protein per cup) and lentils (18g of protein per cup). One cup of black beans has one more gram protein than a cup of chicken. His 5'11", 190 pound frame may be small compared to his contemporaries, but he's cut like an Olympian.
So was Whalen surprised he made the team this season? "No, I'm not surprised." That answer might be one some fans don't believe, but it's one his teammates that have been around him since he made the decision to follow Luck instead of Harbaugh believe unequivocally.
And despite being cut three different times in the past by the Colts, here he is sticking in 2015. Whalen refuses to go away.
"Every time he's been cut, and every time you guys write about him not being able to make it and can't do this and can't do that, just more motivation. Keep writing that stuff (laughs). I appreciate it," joked head coach Chuck Pagano Monday. "He's a grinder. He's a gym rat. He loves football. He loves his teammates."
And the ones that say Whalen isn't big enough, fast enough, or strong enough, think again.
"He's got a really good skill set," said Pagano. "He runs precise routes. He's got excellent hands. His ball skills are there. He understands football. He understands defenses. He knows if he's getting zone or man, when to keep running on a crossing route and when to settle in soft zones and find open windows. Obviously, he's got great chemistry with the guy who throws the football."
Whalen's shown he's got plenty more than that too, but picking Indianapolis over San Francisco might just be the best choice he's ever made in an NFL career full of tough decisions.