Colston hears message loud and clear

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist
Yahoo! Sports

You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The long Ford LTD was big and old and had a sleepy way of creeping along. And there was a time when Marques Colston(notes) would step out of that car and spend his day exhibiting that same droopy lope in his step.

New Orleans Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson saw it first, when Colston arrived as a seventh-round NFL draft pick in 2006. He was tall and big and almost entirely unknown coming out of Hofstra – the 252nd of 255 players selected. That meant Colston wasn't even a standard draft pick. Instead, he was taken with a supplemental choice the Saints had been awarded for losing a relatively inconsequential player in free agency the previous season. As far as the rest of the league was concerned, he couldn't have been more of an afterthought.

And if you listen to Johnson, Colston's career almost ended that way, too. Now Colston is the Saints' star wideout and one of the most dangerous pieces at the disposal of quarterback Drew Brees(notes). But when he arrived in 2006, he was the epitome of a bubble player. He was out of shape, exhibiting poor study habits and carried an utterly silent demeanor. Even now, the Saints brass concedes the franchise didn't expect a whole lot, a reality that was subtly reflected when Colston was given the No. 12 at the start of camp. When you're a rookie wideout and your team gives you a number typically reserved for quarterbacks, it's not a vote of supreme confidence. If anything, it's an omen that coaches don't expect you to be around long. Johnson could see by the disappointing expression on Colston's face that he got that message.

"I told him, 'You came down here in that LTD or whatever you drove down in, that 1976 LTD,' " Johnson said of Colston's rocky NFL beginnings. "I said, 'That's what you came down in. You better be glad you got that [jersey].'

"He was so out of shape [in his first rookie camp] that he would run a route and then he would waaaaaalk baaaaack and it would take him five plays to almost get back to the line of scrimmage. … He caught a pass and he was in the end zone like this [grabbing his back]. His back was hurting because he was out of shape. So I told him 'You're gonna get in that car and you're gonna drive your butt right back to Pennsylvania or New York or wherever you came from, because we don't practice or play like that.' That was my first real encounter with Marques."

It's not often you hear such a tale on this Super Bowl stage, where elite players are often painted as if they had always been cradled in NFL stardom. But Colston isn't afforded that luxury. Despite catching 33 touchdowns and notching 4,074 receiving yards in his four seasons – and becoming the Saints' most reliable offensive weapon not named Drew Brees – the remarkable nature of Colston's story is that it has such an unremarkable start.

Drafted out of I-AA Hofstra, which actually moved to disband its football program in December, Colston bypassed a late scholarship offer from Missouri in the hopes that he'd get immediate playing time at the smaller school. He ended up starting 37 of his 40 college games, while gradually growing from 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds to an NFL ready 6-4 and 225. Along the way, he set multiple school records and won the MVP at the lightly regarded East-West Shrine Game. That was just enough to land him on the Saints' radar before the 2006 draft, albeit on the fringes and with little expectation.

"We felt good about the pick, but I think in our building we would have said to you, 'Hey, this is a guy we can spend a few years with, maybe on the practice squad and develop into a guy that can contribute to our team,' " Saints general manager Mickey Loomis admitted. "No one in our building would have said, 'Hey, this guy is going to be an 80-catch, 1,000-yard receiver [as a rookie].' … We had a good grade on him and we'd been talking about him for a few rounds. But hey, we're not geniuses either. If we were, we would have taken him a lot earlier."

Indeed, Colston's lack of conditioning in his initial appearance in New Orleans' first minicamp seemed to validate the thought that Colston was little more than a project. He limped around the field with a sore back, the heat was sapping him of his energy, and Johnson was seemingly relentless in his on-field criticism. For a player who needed to come in and stand out instantly in hopes of making the team, Colston's debut in May of 2006 was far from impressive.

"I'll be honest," said Brees, "I'm not sure if I knew his name or even realized he was there until about the first week of training camp."

"I felt terrible coming out of minicamp," Colston said. "To be honest, I really didn't think that I was going to be on the roster too much longer. … I really wasn't in the best shape coming into that first year and really didn't know what to expect. The heat and humidity in New Orleans definitely didn't help me out. [But this Super Bowl appearance] is so far removed from that."

After minicamp and on the heels of a continuous lathering of criticism from Johnson, Colston spent two months whipping both his mind and body into shape. When he arrived back in New Orleans for training camp, he was in vastly better condition and carried a stronger knowledge of the playbook.

The work paid off almost immediately. Within weeks, he was lighting up the New Orleans secondary.

"About midway through training camp, you realized you had something in this guy," Brees said. "He started to play every receiver position. As guys got hurt, he was kind of the mainstay. He was Mr. Reliable. He was kind of the go-to guy."

It wasn't long before Johnson was pushing for Colston to be inserted into the starting lineup. And in Colston's second preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys , it was one piece of advice that would ultimately make the difference.

"We looked like the worst team ever," Johnson said. "Marques was the only bright spot. So [before playing Dallas] I told him, 'This is what you better do. You better go out there and you better grab Terence Newman(notes) and you've got to throw him around. I don't care what you do. Do something.' "

Colston responded by throwing Newman to the side like a rag doll early in the game – a move that caught the eye of Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. After Dallas had thoroughly whipped New Orleans 30-7, Parcells told Payton how impressed he was with Colston's physical play.

According to Johnson, "That's how Sean stopped getting on me for saying Marques Colston should be a starter."

Colston hugs Brees after the NFC title game win vs. the Vikes.
(Chris Graythen/Getty)

Seven days later, the Saints traded mercurial wideout Donte' Stallworth(notes) to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Colston was handed Stallworth's starting spot. By the time Colston was finished, he put up a superb rookie season – 70 catches, 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns – and Stallworth's memory was dust in the wind.

"I ran Donte' out," Johnson says now with a chuckle.

Now, four years later, Johnson beams with pride. The player who arrived moving as slowly as his worn down Ford LTD eventually became a streamlined example of excellence.

"The problem with Marques was, I think he didn't understand who he was," Johnson said. "Now I think he's starting to learn a little better who he is. He can be one of the dynamic guys. You've gotta play like it, act like it, attend meetings like it, pay attention like it.

"[For a while] he had a problem with a little bit of a leadership role. He didn't want to be a leader. Well, it's just unfortunate that you caught 90 balls your rookie year. Now you're the leader, because they're looking to you."

Indeed, that inauspicious start and the Colston of today seem almost solar systems apart. Now the Indianapolis Colts look at him on film, and as defensive coordinator Larry Coyer put it, they see a player who is "developing into one of the premier receivers in football."

"His size and body allows him to go up and make all the physical plays," said Colts safety Antoine Bethea(notes). "You can see [Brees] has the confidence that he can throw it up whenever he wants to Colston and he will go get it."