Outside or Inside, Gonzalez Has Been Effective in Second NFL Season
INDIANAPOLIS – Statistics mean little to Anthony Gonzalez.
And when the Colts' second-year wide receiver looks at a statistics sheet after a game, he said it generally doesn't tell him much about how he played.
But proving people wrong . . .
Gonzalez said he doesn't mind that, and he said he likes proving himself capable of more than what people once thought. Which is why Gonzalez said this past Sunday – as well as the last half season – was satisfying.
Gonzalez, widely considered a "slot" receiver – and by many, a slot receiver only – when the Colts selected him in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, caught a career-high nine passes for a career-high 137 yards in the Colts' 18-15 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
He caught many of those passes from the same position he started much of last season.
That position was outside receiver – as in, not in the slot.
"Honestly, it's kind of rewarding, because coming out of college, a lot of people said I couldn't play outside," Gonzalez said this week as the Colts (1-1) prepared to play the Jacksonville Jaguars (0-2) in an early-season AFC South game at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 4:15 p.m.
Gonzalez, who caught 37 passes for 576 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games as a rookie, has 14 receptions for 185 yards in two games this season, and this past Sunday, he was a critical player in the Colts' come-from-behind victory over Minnesota.
Of Gonzalez's nine receptions Sunday, seven were for first downs, and through the first 41 minutes of the game, his receptions had accounted for five of the team's eight first downs.
"He's doing about what we thought he'd do," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "He has some skills and some quickness coming out of cuts. He has good hands – all of those things that you look for. With most guys, it's really assimilating into this offense and learning what to do and adjustments and how to run the same route against different coverages you see and where to expect the ball. Those are the things he's picking up on, that are really helping him. He's going to be a good receiver for us. . . .
"He's getting into a comfort zone and he is going to get the benefit that most of our third receivers and tight ends have gotten, that a lot of coverages are designed to take away the other two guys.
"If you go into every game thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to get some chances because of the coverages we're going to see and if I'm on my game I can have a good day . . .' I think that's where he is. He just feels like every week he may be the guy because of the way the coverages are going."
Not that Gonzalez believes he has played great, necessarily.
He said this week he didn't think he played overly well in either of the first two games, and that he believed he played better in the regular-season opener – a game in which he had five catches – than his statistically superior game this past Sunday.
"I've never been one to look at stats," Gonzalez said. "I don't have statistical goals. I don't do anything like that. I just try to improve technically. If you improve technically, the numbers generally take care of themselves. That's always how I've approached it."
Through two games this season, Gonzalez said he has improved technically from last season, primarily because the experience of his rookie season has meant a more comfortable feeling.
"Last year," he said, "I played sometimes a little robotic, where it was, 'This is the play. OK, so I'm going to run in a straight line here and I'm going to run in a straight line there. This is how it's drawn up on paper.' This year, I'm trying to use my brain a little bit more and think more conceptually and do where it's not exactly what's on the paper, but it works.
"Rookie year, you spend a lot of time just trying to get those straight line images in your head: 'This is what the play is.' Once you're more comfortable with it, you can play faster and you can play quicker."
Against the Vikings and Bears, Gonzalez started the game as the Colts' third wide receiver, with eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marvin Harrison and two-time Pro Bowl selection Reggie Wayne. But throughout the Vikings game, with the Colts using three-wide receivers sets, Gonzalez played extensively, sometimes playing in the slot, but often lining up outside with Wayne in the slot.
It's a formation that Dungy said proved effective, and one he said on Thursday the Colts likely will continue using.
"Both of them know both positions and it works out pretty well," Dungy said.
"I like being out there," Gonzalez said. "I don't really care. I always said in college, you put me at center if you want. As long as I'm playing, it doesn't matter. Inside, outside, it doesn't make a difference to me."
Wherever Gonzalez lines up, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said he has shown solid feel for what needs to be done to be effective on the field.
On Sunday, Manning said the Vikings' pass rush forced the Colts' offense to run differently than usual, with Manning sometimes having to throw a second or two earlier.
"He made some big catches," Manning said. "He (Gonzalez) did a good job of sensing that Minnesota was doing a good job with the pass rush and altering his routes to depths that helped with the timing. Sometimes you have a 15-yard route and they're blitzing and you have bump-and-run coverage, maybe I don't have time to get 15 yards. You can cut it off at 13 or 12. I think he does have that good feel for the game and what's going on."
Said Gonzalez, "That might be just a feel thing more than anything. It's hard to explain, but for some reason, sometimes you can feel when there's pressure even though you're way outside. We did that a few times in the Minnesota game, and it worked out. Obviously, you want to get to your depths as much as you can. When the time is right, sometimes you do need to cut things a little short."
Manning said Gonzalez's feel for the game was shown on one of the game's most memorable plays.
With 3:31 remaining in the third quarter and the Colts trailing, 15-0, Indianapolis faced 3rd-and-6 at its 24. Manning threw deep to Gonzalez, who was tackled near the Vikings 18. Just before his knee touched the ground, Gonzalez pitched the ball to Wayne, who caught the ball, broke a tackle and advanced to the Vikings 1 for a 75-yard gain.
Gonzalez later called the play the dumbest thing he ever had done, and while Manning said afterward he wasn't sure the Colts wanted to see a lot of Gonzalez lateraling, he said this week, "he (Gonzalez) said on the lateral, 'I felt like we had to score and I felt like going down at the nine, with us struggling to run the ball, I didn't want to get down there and have to settle for a field goal.'
"I don't want to boost his ego," Manning said, "but I think he is somewhat of a gamer. He showed that last year, and you like having a guy like that. I think he'll continue to get better. He still needs to work on some things that (wide receivers coach) Clyde Christensen is constantly coaching him about, but he played a good game for us against Minnesota."
Said Gonzalez, "Gamer, that's another term I'm not really sure on. I practice as hard as I play, I think. Obviously when you're in a game and going against other people you're going to be a little bit more intense and a little bit more focused just because the stakes are obviously a lot higher. There are other people in the stands and you say this counts toward your record and all of a sudden people get real serious. I know this much, I'm enjoying the games, I'm having fun in the games.
"I certainly feel more comfortable and I guess just overall better than I did last year."
And that comfort level has led to a solid start at a position many believed he would never play, which in turn Gonzalez said this week has given him at least a bit of satisfaction.
"I remember I did an interview with John Clayton (of ESPN) and he said, 'Well, you know you're not going to play outside," Gonzalez said, adding with a laugh, "I thought, 'OK, I guess I'm not playing outside, then,' so to do it and kind of prove to myself and I guess in some ways to other people is somewhat rewarding."