PITTSBURGH – Is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history merely in a slump or is he slumping his way to the finish of his career?
That is the question surrounding wide receiver Marvin Harrison, even in the aftermath of a dramatic 24-20 victory Sunday by the Indianapolis Colts against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their daunting defense.
The answer to that question – which comes as Harrison dropped two potential touchdown passes that could have made this game easy for the Colts – is critical to the remainder of Indianapolis' season. If the 5-4 Colts are to make a serious run at and in the playoffs, Harrison has to be part of the solution.
Not an unmistakable problem.
Through nine games, Harrison has 30 receptions for 357 yards and three touchdowns, putting him on pace for the worst full season of his career.
The first drop was a potential 50-yarder from quarterback Peyton Manning when Harrison was all by himself in the middle of the field. The throw was short, but certainly catchable.
Yet all Harrison could do on the play was lunge at the ball with one hand, letting any chance for a score slip away. He didn't slow down or chop step. He didn't even dive for it. Why? Perhaps Harrison is afraid to put pressure on the knee that bothered him so much last year and forced him to miss 11 games.
In the third quarter, Harrison faced a slightly more difficult play on a potential 18-yard score on third-and-3. The ball went through his hands, but this was a catch Harrison has made a myriad of times in his life. The Colts ended up with a field goal, but the sum total of Harrison's effort on those two plays was 11 points left on the field.
The other telling part of this game was that the Steelers primarily used second-year cornerback William Gay to cover Harrison. Gay is a fifth-round pick from Louisville who doesn't regularly start. Gay got help from safety Tyrone Carter, another guy who makes his living primarily as a backup. This follows similar treatment Harrison received when Green Bay also used a backup cornerback on Harrison.
Over most of his career, Harrison has abused guys like Gay and Carter – spinning them like tops with his array of finely tuned moves. Now, teams like the Steelers are so brazen about their lack of respect for Harrison that they ran a defense on the second drop that basically forced the Colts to throw to Harrison.
That's right, the Steelers funneled the ball toward him, challenging Harrison to make the play.
"You saw what we did against him. He's not hurting anybody right now, so why worry about him?" the player said, rhetorically. "You have to make choices about who you cover."
Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy flatly denied that anything is wrong with Harrison, saying, "He's fine," in a strong tone. While Dungy is largely above reproach, he's the same guy who kept saying week-after-week last season that Harrison was getting better and was about to play.
Dungy also is a football coach, part of a class of men who have great tolerance for other people's pain. It's part of the job description.
As for Manning, he wouldn't bite on questions about Harrison.
"Let me tell you, there was nothing really clean all night against (Pittsburgh)," Manning said. "Every throw that we made, there was tight windows. We didn't really have anybody running really, really wide open."
Manning was then asked specifically if Harrison was physically OK based on the first drop.
"I think so. I can't speak for anybody else. Every pass that's incomplete, we always take a good, hard look at it, and I would never play the game around here about whose fault it is," Manning said. "Every pass that's incomplete, believe me, I start with me and how can I make a better throw. That was the case on that play."
As for Harrison, he played it in his usual Garbo fashion, twice declining to talk after the game.
"This is the second time I've told you, not right now," said Harrison, who has made a career of avoiding the media.
That said, Harrison doesn't come off as mean-spirited or evil, just not interested in talking. When you are annually one of the best ever at your position, people can live without answers. They enjoy the results enough.
Now, however, people are wondering simply: What is wrong? Harrison opened the season against Chicago with a critical fumble and has struggled all season to get open. The Colts have tried to force feed him the ball at times, but it's not working.
At this point in the season, there's no more time for the stuff that's not working.