INDIANAPOLIS – Throughout the Colts' nine straight playoff appearances, a stable of talented wide receivers has been a key ingredient of the club's offense success.
Dating all the way back to the start of the NFL record-tying streak that began in 2002, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were the cornerstones of the wide receiver corps.
Wayne now is entering his 11th season with the club and is chipping away at many Colts receiving records owned by Harrison. He keeps plugging away as the only wide receiver who has played throughout that streak.
A variety of Colts have played the 'slot' position alongside Harrison and Wayne. In 2004, Brandon Stokley finished the year with 68 catches, 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns, which still placed him behind Harrison (86-113, 15 TDs) and Wayne (77-1,210, 12 TDs) in all three categories. The trio did become the only in NFL history with 10 seasonal touchdowns.
Before Stokley, Qadry Ismail and Troy Walters took the role as the inside receiver for quarterback Peyton Manning.
With Harrison hanging up his cleats after the 2008 season, the Colts looked to the NFL Draft to help find the player or players needed to not only offset the loss of the most productive receiver in club history but to keep an offense stocked so it could continue performing at an elite level that had reached historic heights.
In Harrison's second-to-last season, rookie wide receiver and first-round draft pick Anthony Gonzalez became an understudy while finishing the season with 37 receptions for 576 yards and three touchdowns. After having another successful season in 2008 by posting 57 receptions for 664 yards and four touchdowns, Gonzalez suffered injuries that cost him all but three games over the last two seasons.
In the sixth-round of the 2008 draft, the Colts selected Pierre Garcon out of Mount Union. Garcon spent his rookie campaign returning kicks for the Colts, but he has emerged since in the offensive game plan, with more than 700 reception yards in the each of the past two seasons. Garcon had 47 receptions in 2009 and had 60 in 2010, totaling 10 touchdowns over those two campaigns. Additionally, he was a post-season force in the club's march to Super Bowl XLIV when he caught 21 passes for 251 yards and three scores.
For a third straight year, the Colts dived back into the receiver pool in the 2009 draft, picking Austin Collie in the fourth round. The Brigham Young product played in all 16 games in his rookie season catching 60 passes for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. Despite being limited by injuries last season, Collie still finished the year with 58 receptions for 649 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games.
With Gonzalez and Collie both healthy going into the 2011 training camp, the Colts receiving corps was expected to be one of the deepest in the NFL. They would join Wayne, Garcon and others to provide a group of talented receivers.
Manning and his receivers took full advantage of the off-season, hitting the practice field to work on their timing.
"With the lockout, we had a lot more freedom and I feel like we threw just as much, maybe more, this off-season than we ever have," Gonzalez said.
The four receivers played in the club's preseason opener at St. Louis, though their exposure was brief as the club substituted liberally to help determine the depth of the squad beyond the starting unit.
The depth of the receiving unit was put to a momentary test last Friday against the Washington Redskins as Collie (knee) and Gonzalez (hamstring) both missed the second preseason game with injuries. Second-year wide receiver Blair White, who caught 36 passes for 355 yards and five touchdowns in 2010, was missing on the physically unable to perform list with a back ailment, while Wayne missed the contest due to a personal matter.
With those four out, the Colts started two receivers who had never caught a pass in an NFL regular season game. Taj Smith and Chris Brooks joined Garcon in the starting unit on Friday, each catching a pass against the Redskins.
Garcon should have some more familiar faces with him back in the line-up as the club meets Green Bay on Friday night. This being the third preseason outing, the club is approaching it more like a regular season outing than it did for the previous two games. Garcon knows what to expect Friday.
"We are still going to stick to our game plan and play Colts football," said Garcon. "We are going to try our hardest, complete plays and do our best to all be on the same page and score touchdowns."
Gonzalez said he expects to be back this Friday, too, and it is only a matter of time before that deep and talented receiving corps gets back in the saddle.
For now, it's back to the old Colts mantra.
"The 'Next Man Up' philosophy has been around here for a long time," Gonzalez said. "It applies to everyone, all positions. No one is exempted from that."