INDIANAPOLIS – Colts coach Chuck Pagano says Reggie Wayne can be a valuable wide receivers coach the rest of the season, and I believe him.
Wayne's knowledge of the game matches anyone on the Colts, probably even quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck. “He can dive in and really break down our opponents' secondary, their corners” Pagano said, "and give that information to other wide receivers and ...help the young guys.”
There's only one problem with this. Wayne, the coach, means there is no Wayne, the player, and that remains a major concern for the Colts entering the second half of the season.
Can the Colts (6-2) beat the St. Louis Rams (3-6) at 1 p.m. Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium without Wayne? Of course. But in the long run, in the drive for a Super Bowl, the loss of Wayne to a knee injury remains a concern that won't go away.
No matter how many great catches T.Y. Hilton hauls in, the gap left by Wayne makes the Colts a lesser team. Nothing Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill or David Reed did in last week's win at Houston makes me believe they're capable of being big-time starting receivers. Darrius Heyward-Bey seems like a nice, positive guy, but he has yet to click as a Colt.
So, from a realistic viewpoint, that leaves Hilton, tight end Coby Fleener and prayer, not necessarily in that order.
“It wasn't the same not having (Wayne) out there in that first half,” Hilton said. “So we went back in there the second half, adjusted, we had to man up. Since (No.) 87 wasn't there, somebody had to make a play.”
The Colts have players who can make a play. Hilton can. Luck can with his arm or legs. Fleener has shown of late that he can. But I still look at the Colts offense without Wayne and see a gaping hole. That's not a criticism of general manager Ryan Grigson or the coaching staff. There are only so many receivers out there. I'm merely saying the win over Houston didn't dispel the notion that the Colts are far from the same without Wayne.
There are ways to adjust, certainly. They can involve running backs Trent Richardson and Donald Brown more in the passing game. They can increase Fleener's touches.
Outside of Luck, I can't imagine a more difficult loss for the Colts to fill than Wayne. Wayne's value as a receiver was glaring in the first half at Houston, especially in third-down situations. It could be even more so in the weeks ahead. This problem is far from solved.
“Andrew has done a pretty good job of distributing the ball to different guys,” Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “That's a big part of our system and our approach. Defensively they can't zero in on one guy and scheme up a way to take that one guy away. I think those guys, they're up to the challenge. I think as we all saw, Griff made a huge play at the end of the game, 3rd-and-10. Of course T.Y., Brazill, DHB and those guys, they made plays throughout the game. By committee, that's been our approach with the wide receiver group.”
Wide receiver by committee means there's no special wide receiver beyond Wayne and Hilton. Maybe that will change as Whalen, Brazill or Reed get more touches. I don't think here's any evidence to believe that's true, but the Colts have been a team that surprises and disproves conventional wisdom.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, along with other future Colts opponents, have to feel better about their defensive game plan knowing they don't have to deal with Wayne.
Fisher praised Luck's knack for finding ways to win games, especially in comeback situations. He also looks at Hilton as a Wayne-type of threat to make big catches.
“In time, (Hilton's) numbers will certainly change because of the loss of Reggie, which is very unfortunate,” Fisher said. “It appears he's able to do the same things. They're moving him around, asking a lot of different things of him. He's got exceptional speed. He can make the tough catch. He's got run-after-catch ability.”
Those Hilton traits were easier to exploit with Wayne on the field. It's a credit to Luck and the offense that they were able to find ways to use Hilton in the comeback. The fact remains that defenses can now alter their approach to focus on Hilton, limit his touches and make other players beat them.
Some feel the use of Fleener, Richardson and Brown in the passing game might be the best route to altering the Colts' approach, even if those type of pass plays won't generate the oohs and aahs of Wayne's spectacular one-handed catches.
“I think the toughest part of the transition back to the NFL for me thus far has been making the adjustments when you lose certain guys to injury, of course,” Hamilton said. “You can lose one guy and as a matter of fact, you may lose a whole package when you lose one guy, depending on which guy it is.”
The Colts lost running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw and tight end Dwayne Allen and those losses hurt and forced adjustments. Wayne's loss is at a different level, and it might not get fixed this season. The Colts can still win. It's just going to be a lot harder.
“There's going to be some times where some other guys are going to be asked to step up,” Fleener said. “We're all excited about the opportunity, but at the same time we hope Reggie heals quickly.”
Wayne can't heal quickly enough.