Indianapolis has more than Marvin Harrison to throw to, and it shows.
By RICK STROUD
Published January 16, 2004
Hours before kickoff in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Chiefs, Peyton Manning stood under an imaginary center in empty Arrowhead Stadium and snapped the ball to himself.
Split to his right was Marvin Harrison and to his left was Reggie Wayne, the Colts starting receivers, who took off at full speed. Over and over, they ran pass patterns - curls, comebacks, digs and square outs.
The football never hit the ground and the precision passing attack looked intimidating even going against air.
Once the game started, there wasn't much difference.
When the Chiefs doubled Harrison, Manning flipped a touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley streaking down the middle. Late in the third quarter, he connected with Wayne for a TD.
The point was proven. There is no more lethal receiver for the Colts than Harrison. But it's Manning's other targets that force defenses to pick their poison.
"Marvin sets the tempo for us in the passing game and we really have to look and see how people are going to play us and how they're going to try to take him away," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "But when they do that, we've got a lot of alternatives.
"In our offense, you have to be able to produce when your number is called. And we have confidence in everybody. That's where Peyton is now. We just call the plays and run them and he has confidence guys are going to produce. It's great when you can get everybody involved like that."
The Colts hope to have every receiver participate in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, but Stokley's status is uncertain. His 1-month-old son, Cameron, is ill. And though Stokley returned to practice Thursday, he could be replaced by Troy Walters.
"Our concern right now is his family and his son," Dungy said. "If he is able to play and his son's condition continues to improve, then he'll play. If not, then our other guys will step in and we'll move on."
That's the way it has been all season for the Colts. A year ago, Harrison set an NFL record with 142 receptions. But that said more about what was bad about Indianapolis' attack than what was great about Harrison.
This season, Harrison had 94 catches for 1,272 yards and 10 TDs. But thanks to Wayne (68 catches, 838 yards, seven TDs), Walters (36 catches, 456 yards, three TDs) and tight end Marcus Pollard (40 catches, 531 yards, three TDs), the Colts were more balanced.
Stokley, who missed 10 games with an assortment of injuries, has been a terror in the playoffs. Against Denver, he caught four passes for 122 yards and two TDs. Against Kansas City, he caught four passes for 57 yards and a touchdown.
"That's really what defines you as a player, the last two months of the season," Stokley said. "That's when real players step up and make plays."
Stokley is no stranger to the playoffs. In 2000, he was the Ravens' second-leading receiver in the postseason and caught a 38-yard TD in Super Bowl XXXV.
"Brandon has helped us a lot," Dungy said. "Now I'm not so sure if Troy Walters was in there that Troy wouldn't be doing the same thing. But Brandon is a little bit bigger body, he's got the playoff experience and he's a tremendous player. We were hoping to get him earlier in the year, the injuries kind of held him back. But when you have guys that you know can make plays in the clutch, it helps."
In training camp, while trying to recover from offseason foot surgery, Stokley considered retiring.
"Practice was a grueling experience for me. Waking up in the morning was so tough," said Stokley, 27. "(Retirement) was a serious thought for me. I talked to my wife, she knew how I was feeling and what kind of pain I was in. If it didn't turn the corner, there was nothing I could do."
The Colts are glad he stuck it out and so is Stokley.
"I think the other guys open it up for me. I think Edgerrin (James) and Marvin and Reggie are taking a lot of pressure off me and everybody is worried about those guys and I'm just slipping through the cracks."
That's all Manning needs. Practice, it seems, has really made the Colts passing game nearly perfect.
"I remember earlier, his first couple years here, (Wayne) would get so frustrated," Manning said. "I said, "Reggie, I promise you man, just stay with me. Stay with me.' We're going to have to have all of them. Stokley down the middle. Pollard with a couple huge catches. (Tight end) Joe Dean. There's your tendency breaker right there. Him and (fullback) Tom Lipinski. There you go, jeez Louise. Reggie, with that third quarter, he was there, he was ready. Everybody is stepping up."