Reggie Wayne took the baton from Peyton Manning this offseason and ran with it.
Wayne and the Indianapolis Colts couldn't be happier.
After spending nearly a dozen NFL seasons living in the shadow of Manning, Marvin Harrison or both, Indy's longest-tenured player has finally emerged as the Colts' unquestioned offensive leader.
"You realize those were a lot of big situations that he comes up in," Andrew Luck said after watching Monday's game film. "It's not that hard to throw the ball in the vicinity of a receiver and he goes out and makes an amazing catch. He made everybody look good."
While this may be Luck's team, eventually, Wayne's imprint is all over it. He's passed along the critical lessons he learned from Manning and Harrison and other ex-Colts about the work ethic needed to excel in the NFL.
— When Luck graduated from Stanford and the Colts' offseason mini-camps wrapped up, Wayne made sure he and his new quarterback got together in South Florida to work out their timing long before training camp began, just like he and Manning had done.
— Over the last several months, throughout team meetings and practice, Wayne provided this young, talented and still unproven receiving corps with a private glimpse into what has made him so successful: Breaking down tape, explaining the nuances of earning a quarterback's trust, making changes through eye signals, providing tips on catching techniques and explaining how he's managed to stay fit enough to play in 177 games, make 149 consecutive starts and continue to be a productive receiver at age 33, just like Harrison taught him.
— And on Sunday, Wayne took his private lessons public with a demonstration nobody will soon forget.
He caught 13 passes for a career-high 212 yards, including five receptions for 64 yards on Indy's decisive final drive — the last catch a 4-yard TD reception with 35 seconds to go that gave Indy a stunning 30-27 victory over Green Bay.
The numbers only told part of Wayne's remarkable story, which came six days after the receiver learned his close friend, coach Chuck Pagano, would be out indefinitely after being diagnosed with a form of leukemia.
"I said to myself I was going to lay it all out on the line (for Pagano)," Wayne said after the game. "They were going to have to carry me off, the old (Kellen) Winslow senior, give everything I had. As a team, we were able to just keep fighting, fighting, fighting and fighting."
Almost from the moment Pagano and Wayne met at the University of Miami 16 years ago, there was a special bond.
Pagano, then the Hurricanes secondary and special teams coach, tried to entice Wayne into playing his freshman season on special teams — something Wayne quickly rejected.
But over time, the two developed a relationship, stayed in touch and became so close that Wayne in March actually turned down more money to play for another team so he could stick around his adopted hometown and help his friend rebuild Indy's franchise.
So when Wayne, like the rest of the Colts (2-2), learned last Monday that Pagano would be out indefinitely as he underwent treatment for leukemia, Wayne took matters into his own hands. Playing with an orange mouthpiece and bright orange gloves, the symbolic ribbon color in support of leukemia patients that could bring him an NFL fine, Wayne was easy for Luck to spot, especially late.
On third-and-9 from the Colts 21, Luck found Wayne for 15 yards and a first down. On third-and-15 from the Packers 47, Luck connected with Wayne for 15 yards and another first down. And on first-and-goal from the Green Bay 4, Luck found Wayne right in the middle of the field, and the guy Manning described in 2001 as having the strongest hands in the draft alertly stretched the ball over the goal line.
"Yesterday's performance made me want to lead his Hall of Fame induction campaign," rookie tight end Coby Fleener said. "I've never seen anything like it."
The Colts who have been around a while certainly have.
Wayne caught Manning's first Super Bowl TD pass in the Colts' 2006 championship season, and when Harrison got injured early in the 2007 season, Wayne responded with 104 receptions, 1,510 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Last December, when the Colts needed to make a play in the final minute of their home finale, it was Wayne who made the spectacular TD catch to beat Houston in what he and others figured would be his final home game with the Colts.
Interim coach Bruce Arians is glad it wasn't.
"You want to have a vet in every room that is a pro, that knows how to prepare on and off the field, and shows up on Sunday," said Arians, a 20-year NFL assistant who called Wayne's showing Sunday one of the top three receiving performances he's ever seen. "I think we're fortunate that we have one of those guys in every room, especially in that (receivers) room where we're so young. ... Having Reggie, especially with Andrew, the trust factor is huge."
And so is the knowledge that he is passing along to the Colts' young players, the same way Harrison and Manning did for him more than a decade ago.
"You watch him yesterday, and that's pretty much what we see in practice every day," rookie T.Y. Hilton said. "You see someone work that hard for that long, and that's what happens."
Notes: The Colts waived tight end Dominique Jones and placed guard Seth Olsen on injured reserve Monday. Olsen has been designated as the player who can return later this season. Indy also signed receiver Kris Adams, who was released last week, to the practice squad.
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