INDIANAPOLIS — Playing the "what if?" game is rarely a productive exercise, but it's difficult not to at least wonder what heights the Indianapolis Colts' offense could have reached last season if it had the services of Marlon Mack and Parris Campbell.
Mack went down with a torn Achilles in the 2020 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, while Campbell suffered a season-ending knee injury the following week against the Minnesota Vikings.
Both Mack and Campbell remained positive — as well as fixtures within the Colts' training room — throughout the last year, just waiting for their chance to get onto the field once again.
Sunday's 2021 preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers provided just that opportunity, as both players took advantage of some early reps in the Colts' eventual 21-18 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The fifth-year veteran running back Mack played 13 offensive snaps in all on Sunday, finishing with four rushing attempts for 12 yards, and one reception for three yards. The third-year wide receiver Campbell, meanwhile, logged 10 offensive snaps, hauling in the only pass thrown his way on the day — a 37-yard over-the-top strike from quarterback Jacob Eason late in the first quarter.
"I think what I had today was necessary to help me get my feet wet, just get in the flow of things, and just being out there in a game setting," Campbell said.
The Colts were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to use what they deemed their "1-1" punch at running back heading into last season after the team used a second-round pick on Wisconsin star Jonathan Taylor to complement the veteran Mack, who was coming off his first-career 1,000-yard rushing season.
Unfortunately, Mack would go down with a season-ending Achilles injury in just the second quarter of the 2020 opener against the Jaguars.
Taking over as the lead back, Taylor seemingly improved with each passing week. He eventually finished his rookie season with 232 carries for 1,169 yards (5.0 avg.) — third-most in the NFL — with 11 touchdowns, as well as 36 receptions for 299 yards (8.3 avg.) and another score through the air.
Heading into the offseason, the Colts knew Taylor was going to be their "bell cow" at running back moving forward, but they also decided to re-sign Mack, a free agent, knowing how important his talent and veteran presence were going to be at the position alongside fellow veterans Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins.
Mack got the start at running back on Sunday with Taylor and Hines sitting out Sunday's preseason opener. His best play of the day was his first rushing attempt — on 2nd and 7 from the Indianapolis 38-yard line, Mack took the handoff from Eason off the left tackle and broke free for a nine-yard gain.
After an injury-plagued rookie year, Campbell, meanwhile, was expected to explode as the Colts' primary slot receiver heading into the 2020 season. In fact, the Ohio State product had a solid season opener against the Jaguars last year, finishing with six receptions for 71 yards and two rushing attempts for 16 yards.
But early in the following week's matchup against the Vikings, Campbell would go down clutching his knee near the sideline after taking a hard hit on a seven-yard rushing attempt. He would be carted off the field, and later ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Campbell — who this offseason took advantage of new NFL rules to switch uniform numbers from 15 to 1 — also got the start at receiver in Sunday's preseason opener. At the 4:47 mark of the first quarter, with the Panthers up 3-0, Eason, lined up in the shotgun, threw a beauty of a deep touch pass down the left sideline to Campbell, who beat cornerback Jalen Julius to haul in an over-the-shoulder 37-yard grab at the Carolina 21-yard line.
Four plays later, kicker Rodrigo Blankenship knocked in a 34-yard field goal to tie the game at 3.
That deep pass play to Campbell, by the way? He knew it was coming his way the whole time.
"I knew it pre-snap," Campbell said. "Me and Jacob actually talked about it on the sideline. Like, we both had the same thought process; we saw the linebackers pushed over and knew it was going to roll down to one high. I knew pre-snap, I knew that ball was coming for sure."
Both Mack and Campbell will get their chance to continue working their way back into the mix on Saturday, when the Colts travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in their second of three preseason matchups.