In Marvin Harrison's absence, longtime No. 2 receiver Reggie Wayne has kept theColts' passing game clicking
REGGIE WAYNE waslisting the remaining healthy members of the Colts' ravaged receivingcorps—Anthony Gonzalez, Craphonso Thorpe, Devin Aromashodu—when he turned tothe lanky stranger dressing at the locker next to him at the RCA Dome onSunday. "Devin A-ro-ma-sho-du," he said again, sounding out thesyllables. "That is your name, isn't it?"
Six years afterWayne arrived in Indianapolis and three years after his first 1,000-yardseason, the 2001 first-round pick out of Miami is finally the No. 1 target forPeyton Manning. Never mind that Wayne gained such status because All-Pro MarvinHarrison suffered a sprained left knee on Sept. 30 and has been mostly out ofaction since then. Even after Harrison returns, Wayne will likely be the leadreceiver.
"In my eyesReggie was always the guy," says tight end Dallas Clark. "Marvin is agreat player, and when both of them are on the field, people talk about Marvin.But there are things Reggie does that make me a better player."
Indianapoliswideouts had nine catches in an important 28--25 victory over AFC South rivalJacksonville on Sunday—and Wayne made eight of them, for 158 yards and atouchdown. Of course he had put up big numbers in previous years, but they wereoften discounted because Harrison had occupied so much of the defense'sattention. With Harrison out of the lineup, teams have keyed on Wayne, and hehas punished them anyway.
There were signsthat Wayne may have been on his way to supplanting Harrison even before thelatter got hurt. In five games this year Harrison uncharacteristically did notreach 100 receiving yards in any of them; Wayne has surpassed 100 yards fivetimes in 12 games. Coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance last season, Wayneappears a cinch for his second; Harrison might miss Honolulu for the first timein 10 years.
Such is thenatural order in the NFL. Harrison is 35, Wayne 29. The Colts still believeHarrison has productive years left, but a gradual drop-off should not affectthe offense deeply. Wayne has proved he can handle the extra coverage that goeswith being Manning's primary option, and Harrison will benefit from softercoverage.
Wayne insists he'splaying as he always has, only with a bit more attention paid him by defenses."It's no different," he said. "I look at it as though [Harrison] isstill over there."
But Manning hintedat a subtle change in Wayne's role. Three times against the Jaguars, Manningthrew to Wayne on third-and-one. All three times Indy converted. "Reggie isa playmaker now," Manning says. "You have to look for a guy like him onthird downs. You feel good, you trust him. He's going to be in the right spotand make the catch."
Wayne is alsodoing the little things that are expected of No. 1 receivers. After histouchdown catch on Sunday, a 48-yard rope from Manning in the first quarter, hewent right to Gonzalez. "The defense will start rolling my way," Waynetold the rookie. "It's your turn now." On the next possession Gonzalezmade a 22-yard catch that set up another TD.
Of all theinjuries the Colts have had—14 starters have missed a combined 43 games—noposition has been hit harder than receiver. In addition to Harrison's balkyknee, fifth-year player Aaron Moorehead is out with a bad back, and Gonzalez,drafted to replace valued possession receiver Brandon Stokley, missed two gameswith a dislocated thumb. Wayne is the only healthy receiver on the roster whohad an NFL reception entering this season. Manning must rely more than ever onhis tight ends and running backs.
In fact, runningback Luke Lawton made the game-winning touchdown catch against the Jaguars, ona one-yard shovel pass. It was not only the first touchdown of Lawton's careerbut also his first reception. Asked if he kept the ball, Lawton said, "Ispiked it and was like, 'Uh-oh.' But Dallas went and got it for me."
The Colts areshowing their gumption. After losing consecutive games to New England and SanDiego, they have won three in a row. The reigning Super Bowl champions are notdazzling anybody—they beat Kansas City and Jacksonville by a mere three pointseach—but they are not caving, either.
Indy leadsJacksonville by two games in the AFC South and controls the head-to-headtiebreaker, which means the division race is essentially over. The Colts canstart eyeing a playoff bye, which is vital considering their overallhealth.
The team has notgiven a timetable for Harrison's return, other than to say he could play ifabsolutely necessary. It is safe to assume that Harrison and Wayne will belining up together again in January. The most intriguing question is, wherewill Manning look first?
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After a career-high four straight games without a sack,Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman had four in his last two games, includingthree in Sunday's 24--10 victory at Kansas City. Merriman is a half sack fromreaching double digits for the third time in as many pro seasons. There hadbeen whispers that he started slowly because he'd stopped using supplementsthat violated the NFL's steroid policy. (He was suspended four games lastyear.) His response: "I've been through much [worse] than somebody feelinga certain way about me. I'm going to be the player I am and keep proving toeverybody that I'm the best."
BOB ROSATO (CELEBRATION)
THE MAN Wayne (with Clark, 44) has emerged as a playmaker in the clutch.
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (CATCH)
[See caption above]
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