INDIANAPOLIS –When Reggie Wayne finished the 2011 season, he was not under contract to the Colts.
One of the most noteworthy careers with the club hung in the balance as a new regime took control.
One of the first acts was to identify, retain or acquire "pillar" players. Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano were kingpins in the process. Pagano called Wayne, with whom he had been associated at the University of Miami, and he remembers the conversation.
"I said, 'If we're going to….move forward and get back to the winning ways this organization and the fans and this community are used to, we need you back. I want to do this with you. We all want you back,' " said Pagano recently. "I told him, 'I don't want to do this without you.' "
Wayne re-upped and has continued a career that should pave a way to Canton.
Wayne assumed his normal starting role, though his normal location differed. In spring and training camp work, he found himself located in new positions in the offense, sometimes in the slot where he cut teeth earlier in his career.
As the club reloaded the roster and retooled its scheme, Bruce Arians noticed Wayne's ethic.
"He had to be a rookie," said Arians. "He played on the left side with his left foot back for 10 years. To go in motion, playing the slot, playing the right side, run from stacks, all the things (we asked) him to do was all new for him.
"He'll be the first to tell you that for the first few weeks, 'My right foot doesn't like doing that.' It was hard for him. When you see a veteran guy embrace a challenge, a rookie, he's got no choice but to follow this guy. Ask him to block, he blocks. He does whatever it takes for his football team to win. He also grabs those young guys, teaches them how to prepare."
T.Y. Hilton snared 50 passes for 861 yards and seven touchdowns, setting the franchise rookie record with five 100-plus games. Hilton found a mentor in Wayne who dispensed knowledge.
"He helped me out a lot studying films and breaking down the defensive backs. I know how to leverage guys and how I can get their hands off me," said Hilton. "I'm reacting to his cuts. I like how he gets in and out of his breaks. I'm just trying to add that to my game."
Andrew Luck benefited from Wayne the same way his predecessor, Peyton Manning, did. Manning and Wayne collaborated on 779 completions for 10,602 yards and 67 touchdowns, and Luck, too, finds the pillar receiver emerges at key times.
"His knack for showing up at big times (stands out)," said Luck. "Big moments, he controls (those). He's going to make the catch, the play. He's going to get the first down, the touchdown, whatever you need. On top of that, (is) the consistency – every day in practice, every play on the field. He's a lot of fun to play with, and you learn a lot."
Beyond Wayne's performances, it is the tutelage of young players that impresses Arians.
"His leadership ability with the young guys has been outstanding," said Arians. "The fact that he can still perform and play football (is great), but what he's done leadership-wise has gone above and beyond Pro Bowl status with me."
Antoine Bethea and Robert Mathis are long-time teammates who admire Wayne's dogged approach.
"He's the ultimate professional. He does all the little things right," said Mathis. "The minor things he does that make you a good professional, they turn into major things on the field. He makes sure he doesn't leave any stone unturned. He works in practice, catches balls, simulates what happens in games so when it happens, his success is not by accident. All the plays he makes, his amazing catches and the routes he runs, it's no accident."
Said Bethea, "The way he approaches the game is what makes him successful beyond the numbers. If you watch how he practices, you can see why he is the player that he is and how he produces on Sunday."
Wayne (968 receptions, 13,063 yards, 78 TDs) ranks 10th in NFL receptions, 14th in yards and 24th in touchdowns. With 83 receptions for 1,128 yards in the playoffs, he ranks fifth and seventh, respectively.
This year, the 11-5 Colts became only the second team in history to win 11 or more games following a season of two or fewer victories. Their nine-game jump from 2011's record tied the third-best turnaround in history, and Indianapolis joined the 1982 Patriots and 2008 Dolphins as the only teams in the last 30 years to make the playoffs one year after going 2-14 or worse.
Wayne is not the sole reason, but he is one reason. Pagano is not sure the rebound would have been possible without Wayne.
"I've been asked that quite a bit," said Pagano. "If you asked anybody in the locker room, on the coaching staff, in this building, in this community, I really don't believe without his leadership – I'll throw Robert (Mathis) into that mix, Dwight (Freeney), Antoine (Bethea), Pat (McAfee), the guys that have been here – absolutely not.
"What he's done for a young receiving corps, you can see the progress that every one of those guys has made. It's because he's sitting in that (meeting) room. What he's done for us at practice, in the locker room and on the field is tremendous. He's a great pro, person (and) teammate. To say we'd be sitting here…if he's not here, or if Robert's not back or if Dwight's not out there, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you, 'Yeah.' "