FOR A MAN whocould go entire practices or meetings without uttering a word, Marvin Harrisonwas sorely missed around Colts camp this summer. Though Harrison, the NFL'ssecond-leading receiver alltime, was injured most of the last two seasons andwas not offered a new contract after last year, Indianapolis has yet to come upwith a replacement as reliable as he was. On draft day quarterback PeytonManning got an indication of who Indy thought that player could be when theColts didn't pick a receiver at No. 27. "I was sure we'd take Hakeem Nicks,the wide receiver from North Carolina," Manning recalls. "I knew he was[general manager] Bill Polian's guy. But we didn't. We picked [UConn runningback] Donald Brown.
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2009 issue
"That wasBill saying to [third-year wideout] Anthony Gonzalez, You're my guy—don't letme down. Reggie Wayne will be Reggie. Dallas Clark will be Dallas. But Gonzalezneeds to step up, and we need to get production from our other youngguys."
Says Gonzalez,who had 94 catches over his first two seasons out of Ohio State, "I knowwhat I need to do, and I think I'm ready."
While some fansmay wonder how the coaching transition from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell will go,the greater concerns are fixing an anemic running game and identifyingHarrison's successor. Brown should add a true inside-outside threat to a groundattack that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, but the solution at wideout isnot so clear.
After Manning's3--13 rookie season in 1998, he and Harrison began the most impressivestatistical run of any QB-receiver combination in NFL history. Over the nexteight seasons Harrison caught 826 passes, including 101 for touchdowns, andmissed just two games. "We're not trying to replace the Marvin of 2007,2008," said Manning. "We have to replace the Marvin of 1999 to 2006,who couldn't be covered, who you couldn't play one-on-one."
This off-seasonManning worked in one-on-one passing sessions twice a week with Gonzalez, theColts' first-round pick in 2007, and in team sessions with Pierre Garcon, asixth-rounder in '08. If Garcon proves worthy early in the season, he'll getHarrison's old spot out wide, with Gonzalez moving into the slot. If Garconstruggles, Gonzalez will play outside and tight end Clark and rookie AustinCollie, a fourth-round pick out of Brigham Young, will share slot duties.
Either way,Gonzalez should be on the field for 50 snaps a game, which is why Manning felta sense of urgency with him in the spring and summer. "Most people throwthe route tree when they work out—one hitch, one slant, one out, one hook,"says Manning. "You hit 'em all and you say, 'Good workout.' The way I thinkis, you master one route at a time—one route a day—and you throw the livingstew out of it. I think I feel good about every route with Gonzaleznow."
What's so hardabout running a 15-yard comeback? Consider this: Because defenses are sodiverse, a third-down pass play could bring two blitzers or it could bring bumpcoverage. Colts receivers must know how those schemes will affect the timeManning has to throw; they must have a clock in their heads plus the peripheralvision to know when to shorten a 15-yard route to 12.
Making thoseadjustments second nature will determine whether the Colts' receivers succeed."Those sessions helped a lot," Gonzalez says. "Peyton's such aperfectionist. At the end of my rookie camp I got the sense that I was not goodenough. So I asked Peyton what he wanted out of me. I remember this vividly. Hesaid, 'I need to know every single play that you're exactly where I need you tobe.'"
If Manning candevelop that chemistry with at least one of his young receivers, Harrison willbecome a fond but distant memory.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
0--0 in NFL, first season with Colts
First-rounderDonald Brown led the nation in rushing (367 att., 2,083 yards, 18 TDs at UConn)and will split carries with Addai.
Pat MCAFEE (R)
Bullitt, who ledthe team in interceptions, fills in at SS for the oft-injured Bob Sanders(right knee).
(R) Rookie:College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 13--4
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 31 > 5 > 15
DEFENSE 24 > 6 > 11
21 at Miami (M)
27 at Arizona
11 at Tennessee
25 at St. Louis
1 SAN FRANCISCO
15 NEW ENGLAND
22 at Baltimore
29 at Houston
17 at Jacksonville (T)
27 N.Y. JETS
3 at Buffalo
NFL Rank: 13
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .512
Games against playoff teams: 5
Peyton Manning should put up big numbers against subpar NFC West pass defenses.The AFC matchups are tougher, with trips to Baltimore and icy Buffalo andIndy's seventh straight regular-season date with the Patriots. It will bedifficult for new coach Jim Caldwell to get off to a fast start with away gamesagainst three division winners before the Week 6 bye.
Pierre Garcon, Wide receiver
PEOPLE COME up to me and say, 'Hey, have a big year.I've got you in my fantasy league,'" says Colts receiver Anthony Gonzalez."I tell them, 'Trade me for Pierre. You'll be a lot happier.'" Theymight be. At some point early this season Garcon will either start at the rightwideout spot vacated by Marvin Harrison or will play extended periodsthere.
That's how far Garcon has come in the 17 months sinceIndianapolis drafted him out of Division III Mount Union, where at 6-feet, 210pounds, with NFL-quality 4.4 speed, he scored 60 touchdowns in three seasons.Garcon was not scouted heavily and was surprised when the Colts took him in thesixth round in 2008. When he got the call, he says, "All I could think was,Wow, I'm on the phone with Coach Dungy." With Indy he's shown the abilityto slice through defenders and play a more physical game than his small-collegebackground might have suggested. Harrison took a liking to Garcon last season,schooling the kid on how to set up corners on one play for pass routes he'd runlater in the game. He's slowly gaining the trust of Peyton Manning, to thepoint that he doesn't get down anymore if Manning chews him out for making amistake on a route. "I'm glad I play for a demanding quarterback," hesays. "With Peyton, you have to have a sense of urgency on everysnap."