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FOR A MAN who could go entire practices or meetings without uttering a word, Marvin Harrison was sorely missed around Colts camp this summer. Though Harrison, the NFL's second-leading receiver alltime, was injured most of the last two seasons and was not offered a new contract after last year, Indianapolis has yet to come up with a replacement as reliable as he was. On draft day quarterback Peyton Manning got an indication of who Indy thought that player could be when the Colts didn't pick a receiver at No. 27. "I was sure we'd take Hakeem Nicks, the wide receiver from North Carolina," Manning recalls. "I knew he was [general manager] Bill Polian's guy. But we didn't. We picked [UConn running back] Donald Brown.
"That was Bill saying to [third-year wideout] Anthony Gonzalez, You're my guy—don't let me down. Reggie Wayne will be Reggie. Dallas Clark will be Dallas. But Gonzalez needs to step up, and we need to get production from our other young guys."
Says Gonzalez, who had 94 catches over his first two seasons out of Ohio State, "I know what I need to do, and I think I'm ready."
While some fans may wonder how the coaching transition from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell will go, the greater concerns are fixing an anemic running game and identifying Harrison's successor. Brown should add a true inside-outside threat to a ground attack that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, but the solution at wideout is not so clear.
After Manning's 3--13 rookie season in 1998, he and Harrison began the most impressive statistical run of any QB-receiver combination in NFL history. Over the next eight seasons Harrison caught 826 passes, including 101 for touchdowns, and missed just two games. "We're not trying to replace the Marvin of 2007, 2008," said Manning. "We have to replace the Marvin of 1999 to 2006, who couldn't be covered, who you couldn't play one-on-one."
This off-season Manning worked in one-on-one passing sessions twice a week with Gonzalez, the Colts' first-round pick in 2007, and in team sessions with Pierre Garcon, a sixth-rounder in '08. If Garcon proves worthy early in the season, he'll get Harrison's old spot out wide, with Gonzalez moving into the slot. If Garcon struggles, Gonzalez will play outside and tight end Clark and rookie Austin Collie, a fourth-round pick out of Brigham Young, will share slot duties.
Either way, Gonzalez should be on the field for 50 snaps a game, which is why Manning felt a sense of urgency with him in the spring and summer. "Most people throw the route tree when they work out—one hitch, one slant, one out, one hook," says Manning. "You hit 'em all and you say, 'Good workout.' The way I think is, you master one route at a time—one route a day—and you throw the living stew out of it. I think I feel good about every route with Gonzalez now."
What's so hard about running a 15-yard comeback? Consider this: Because defenses are so diverse, a third-down pass play could bring two blitzers or it could bring bump coverage. Colts receivers must know how those schemes will affect the time Manning has to throw; they must have a clock in their heads plus the peripheral vision to know when to shorten a 15-yard route to 12.
Making those adjustments second nature will determine whether the Colts' receivers succeed. "Those sessions helped a lot," Gonzalez says. "Peyton's such a perfectionist. At the end of my rookie camp I got the sense that I was not good enough. So I asked Peyton what he wanted out of me. I remember this vividly. He said, 'I need to know every single play that you're exactly where I need you to be.'"
If Manning can develop that chemistry with at least one of his young receivers, Harrison will become a fond but distant memory.