There's no replacing Reggie Wayne for the Indianapolis Colts. He's unique, on and off the field, in his skills and presence.
Yet life goes on in the NFL, as painful as it is. For the Colts, that means figuring out their offensive approach with Wayne lost for the season with a knee injury.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, your time is now.
Yes, the Colts will likely use more of T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener, and perhaps integrate LaVon Brazill or Griff Whalen into the regular rotation.
But Heyward-Bey needs to step up to make this offense work going forward.
Signing Heyward-Bey in the offseason was a much debated move by Colts fans and analysts. Here's a receiver, drafted seventh out of Maryland in 2009 by the Oakland Raiders, who has not quite lived up to potential in outsiders' eyes. Fans and media expected huge numbers and, so far, he's had one season of medium-sized numbers: 64 catches for 975 yards and four touchdowns in 2011.
Heyward-Bey has been criticized for drops, of which he's had a few. But his reputation cheats him sometimes. Example: Many called his failure to catch a long Andrew Luck pass against San Diego as a drop. The ball glanced off his fingers while he ran full speed down the sidelines. You could argue he might have had a chance for a spectacular catch if he'd stretched and dived at the end. You could argue that Wayne or Hilton makes that catch. (Note: Wayne makes a lot of catches mortal receivers don't, and Hilton's heading that way.)
A drop? That was a harsh judgment.
Heyward-Bey's numbers so far in his first Colts season are modest: 18 catches, 190 yards, one touchdown. His best games, however, came in big wins: He caught four passes for 44 yards and a score against Denver on Sunday, and had five catches for 59 yards in the road win over San Francisco on Sept. 22. On the flip side, he had no catches in the win over Seattle.
Heyward-Bey should have significantly more chances with Wayne out.
He's a big target (6-foot-2, 219 pounds). He's a fast receiver, perhaps the fastest player on the team. Yet during the first seven games, he had fewer passes thrown his way than Wayne or Hilton, and only one more than tight end Coby Fleener.
Wayne was targeted the most times (58), followed by Hilton (54), Heyward-Bey (34) and Fleener (33).
So it goes to figure that Wayne's average of eight passes thrown his way per game will be distributed in various ways, upping Heyward-Bey's chances from less than five per game to closer to seven or eight.
For Heyward-Bey, the time is now in more ways than one.
Not only must he improve his numbers to take up some of the slack left by Wayne's absence, he also needs some production for his career. Heyward-Bey is on a one-year deal with the Colts. The way he finishes these final nine games of the regular season could determine whether he has a chance to return to the Colts next season. If he doesn't return to the Colts, his production will still determine whether he'll be able to land a deal elsewhere.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano was talking in general about all receivers, but it's clear that those stepping up to try to fill Wayne's production need to emulate his approach to the game.
“You want to stick around for a long time?” Pagano said. “You want to be productive? You want to write your own legacy? You want to be a guy in the National Football League and not an also-ran, not just a guy that collects a paycheck and (sticks) around for a couple years? You want to be a guy? Then just do exactly what Reggie does.”
In my limited dealings with Heyward-Bey, I've found him to be a thoughtful, engaging interview subject. He seems like a good teammate. He's still relatively young (26) and capable of becoming a better receiver. During training camp, he soaked in some of Wayne's habits, such as taking passes from the JUGS machine after regular practice ended.
The next few games will speak volumes about where Heyward-Bey goes from here, and where the Colts offense goes from here.
There's no replacing Wayne, but the season moves on, and Heyward-Bey has the best opportunity of his career.