The Colts' young Manning-Harrison duo showed signs of greatness against San Diego
"Hey," Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison said to quarterback Peyton Manning last Saturday night, "we got the signal, right?"
"Got it," Manning said.
Then the two men made a funky hand signal, like the kind a kid makes to gain entry to his secret tree house club. This was at the Colts' hotel in San Diego, and the NFL's hottest couple was making sure everything was in order for the following day's game against the Chargers: If on Indianapolis's first play from scrimmage Manning saw standard four-across coverage in the secondary, with cornerback Terrance Shaw man-to-man on Harrison, Manning would give his wideout the hand signal, and instead of running a quick curl, Harrison would get outside Shaw and run a go pattern.
That's precisely the coverage that Manning saw. He waggled his hand. Harrison ran the go. Manning threw a perfect rainbow. The completion went for 46 yards, and the best passing day in Colts history was under way. Despite getting popped after almost all his 54 pass attempts by a San Diego defense that ranked first in the league in '98, Manning threw for a club-record 404 yards, bettering the mark of 401 set by John Unitas in 1967 against the Falcons. Harrison finished with 13 catches for 196 yards, both career bests, including a 33-yard touchdown reception. Indianapolis rallied from a 19-10 third-quarter deficit to win 27-19.
While many fans and much of the media have been preoccupied with the collapse of league powers in the season's opening weeks, the Colts have been quietly building one of the league's most exciting new aerial connections. In fact, Manning, Harrison, running back Edgerrin James, wideouts E.G. Green and Jerome Pathon, and tight end Ken Dilger are arguably the best set of young skill-position players in the game.
Through Week 3 Manning and Harrison had connected 28 times for 422 yards and six touchdowns. Most impressive was the pair's Week 2 torching of one of the league's best cornerbacks, Ty Law of the Patriots. A month after signing a seven-year, $50 million contract extension, Law was burned by Manning and Harrison for three first-half touchdowns.
"We have been rewarded for our work," the 6-foot, 180-pound Harrison said after Sunday's game. Indianapolis coaches like him because he's not selfish and doesn't make much of statistics he has piled up in losses. "When Peyton and I were together in our off-season program for 10 weeks, we always did extra things," Harrison says. "The scramble drill, a lot of patterns, getting our timing down. It's gotten to the point where he looks at me a certain way, and I know the ball's coming."
Adds Manning, "Marvin and I have a bond, a feel that's hard to describe. We go to dinner. We hang around. We spend extra time on the practice field. Even when Marvin's the second or third read, I know I can count on him to be open. The best thing about Marvin is if an 18-yard route is called, I know he's going to go precisely 18 yards. He knows when he gets 15 yards downfield that I'm itching to throw, or I might be struggling back there. The ball's going to be in the air before he turns, and he knows that. Even when a play breaks down, we each know what the other's doing."
Perfect example: In the first quarter on Sunday, three Chargers flushed Manning from the pocket. Harrison saw what was going on and knew he had to get open. "Most times when we'd practice in the off-season, there'd be a break and I'd say, 'O.K., Marvin, scramble drill,' " Manning says. "While the other guys were resting, Marvin and I would run a couple of those plays, where the pocket breaks down and I throw to him on the run." On Sunday that play netted 10 yards and a first down, putting the Colts in position to score their first points, a 35-yard Mike Vanderjagt field goal.