Now that he is Peyton Manning's most important target, not to mention the NFL leader in receiving yards, Reggie Wayne can look back on his choppy indoctrination into the Colts' intricate offense and laugh.
Late in his rookie season in 2001, when the Colts were mired in a five-game losing streak in Jim Mora's final year as coach, Wayne endured one of the most embarrassing experiences of his professional life.
"It was during a walk-through right before lunch," Wayne recalled Tuesday night while driving through Indy, where the Colts will host the Chargers in a divisional playoff game Sunday. "Peyton, (offensive coordinator) Tom Moore and (offensive line coach) Howard Mudd were all talking about a certain protection, and the rest of us were all standing there, and it was freezing outside.
"I put my hand in my pants to stay warm, and I guess I was right in Jim Mora's view and that gave him a reason to snap. He called up the walk-through right there, had everybody go to a team meeting room and had an entire meeting about me having my hands in my pants."
Not since Pee-wee Herman had someone caught in a similar position caused so much drama.
"I tell (rookie wideout) Anthony Gonzalez all the time, 'You have no idea how easy you've got it,'" Wayne said, laughing.
Now, given the extended absence of injured eight-time Pro Bowl wideout Marvin Harrison, Wayne's hands mean everything in Indy. With opposing defenses gearing their game plans toward stopping him, Wayne nonetheless pulled in a career-high 104 receptions for a league-best 1,510 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"Reggie Wayne is a straight beast," says Minnesota Vikings safety Darren Sharper, who will help cover Wayne in February's Pro Bowl. "He's been a No. 1-type receiver for awhile, and now it might be his turn to be 1a and Marvin's to be 1b. With the way he's playing, and with what they've got over there, they might shock the Patriots in the playoffs."
Adds Packers cornerback Charles Woodson: "I think Reggie proved something this year. In the past people would always say, 'Well, Marvin gets doubled all the time, and that's why Reggie gets his catches.' This year, even if Marvin comes back healthy, who do you double? Over the past two years, he has definitely fine-tuned every aspect of his game."
Harrison, who missed the season's final 10 games with a severely bruised left knee, may return for Sunday's game against the Chargers. But even if Harrison resembles his pre-injury form, Wayne is clearly the San Diego secondary's biggest worry.
In the Colts' 23-21 defeat at Qualcomm Stadium in November, Wayne caught 10 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown – one of four occasions on which he amassed 140 receiving yards or more during a nine-game stretch from late October to late December. For perspective's sake, Wayne had three such games in his entire career before '07.
What changed, other than the obvious? Credit Colts offensive coordinator Moore and Manning, the team's brainy quarterback, for making it tougher for defenses to key on Wayne's routes.
For the first six years of Wayne's career, he lined up virtually every play on the left side of the line of scrimmage, while Harrison took his familiar spot on the right. No NFL team was as predictable in its alignment, and it didn't matter: Manning, working out of the no-huddle set, masterfully exploited whichever defensive backs were the most vulnerable.
Without Harrison – and with Gonzalez, a No. 1 draft pick from Ohio State, struggling to learn the offense amid a group of similarly untested backups – the Colts needed to make Wayne the focal point. So they started moving him around, varying the plan from week-to-week and, when necessary, giving Manning the freedom to make adjustments on the fly.
"Obviously Peyton is used to throwing to his right – he drops back and looks that way first – and in the past he's had the assurance that Marvin was there," Wayne says. "On some plays it feels better to work that side, and he might put me over there. I can probably count on two hands the times I lined up on the right before this season, and yet in our last two games I was on the right the whole game.
"Even though defenses may try to stop me, I have the ups on people a little bit because they don't know exactly where I'm going to be. I've played on the left, the right and even in the slot, and that seems to keep them guessing for at least a half. And to be honest with you, I actually feel faster on the right side. I don't know why; I guess it's because I'm right-handed and I grew up catching passes (over my left shoulder). It's almost like a breath of fresh air."
Should Harrison retire in the near future, on which side would Wayne want to play?
"Shoot," he says, "wherever Peyton wants me to line up."
Manning and the rest of Wayne's teammates and coaches wanted him to achieve the regular season milestones (100-plus catches, 1,500-plus receiving yards) he reached in the regular-season finale against the Tennessee Titans in the RCA Dome. With the Colts already assured of a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed in the AFC, Wayne's quest was the team's primary motivation, and it showed: Manning played two series and threw 11 passes Wayne's way, 10 of which were completed. Backup quarterback Jim Sorgi got Wayne two more receptions on the third series, the first of which moved him ahead of the Patriots' Randy Moss and atop the NFL yardage rankings.
"That was cool, man," Wayne says. "The thing about it was that everyone on the team knew what I needed – guys were saying, 'You need four more, you need so-and-so many yards.' It was almost like I had a whole sideline full of cheerleaders. That goes to show how close this team is. In the same way everyone was excited for (safety) Bob Sanders when he did his new contract and when he got (NFL) defensive player of the year."
Virtually all of Wayne's catches in that last game were underneath Tennessee's zone, which earned him his share of hard hits from the aggressive Titans. "They're a physical team," he said, "but there was no way I was coming out. You'd have to carry me off that field for me to get that close and not finish the job."
Once safely on the sideline, he got another thrill: a chance to meet Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry, who starred for the Baltimore Colts. Says Wayne: "We were talking about how he had (Johnny) Unitas and I had Peyton – he was saying how lucky we were to have had the same quarterback all those years. I was calling him 'Mr. Berry.' He's one of the all-time greats, so it was kind of weird."
On the current Colts, Wayne, 29, has become an elder statesman in Harrison's absence. The former first-round draft pick from Miami has watched Gonzalez's struggles, from learning the intricate Indy offense to battling through injuries, and offered been-there, done-that advice.
"It takes about 2½ to three years to start to grasp this offense, so it's tough," Wayne says. "It's easy to hit that rookie wall, and I understand his hard times. But at the same time, my rookie year, hell, we were 6-10. By this time that year I was back in Florida, so I can't really tell him a whole lot about what we're going through now.
"As far as people getting on him? Oh, man, he's got it way easier than I did. Seven years ago they'd claw and bite at you, but now I think they've gotten older and more mellow."
Maybe so, but you can be sure there's one place Wayne won't risk putting his hands anytime soon.
AND THEN THERE WERE EIGHT:
Four more teams got pink-slipped over the weekend, leaving our regular Wednesday feature a little thinner and a little poorer. So, before moving ahead to what is now 8 Questions, let's thank the Redskins, Steelers, Bucs and Titans for their contributions over the past four months.
There is reason for optimism within all four franchises, even with Washington coach Joe Gibbs' decision to walk away for a second time. When I saw Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher more than an hour after the Titans' 17-6 defeat to the Chargers Sunday, he was still seething – but he also had a defiant optimism that will carry him into a potentially exciting offseason.
"I'm very proud of this team," Fisher said as he sat in his office in the visitors' locker room at Qualcomm Stadium. "We've got great character, and there's a lot to build on. We'll get after it, and we'll be back."
Imagine how Fisher felt in San Diego: His team was physically dominant on both sides of the line, and he still couldn't win the game. The Titans were undone by a serious dearth of accomplished skill players, and the most skilled of all of them – cornerback/return man/wideout-in-waiting Pacman Jones – was nowhere to be found, having misbehaved his way off the active roster.
What will become of the man who made "Make It Rain" a part of the national lexicon? That's a question for the offseason.
In the meantime, we've got eight pressing issues to address:
1. New England Patriots: If there were, in fact, a blueprint for beating them, don't you think somebody would have done it by now?
4. Green Bay Packers: Was Atari Bigby late getting back to Green Bay because he was secretly interviewing for the Dolphins' coaching job?
8. New York Giants: If Eli does it again, will You Know Who show up at Lambeau (or Qwest) next week in a pink No. 10 jersey?
- Reggie Wayne