- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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The words attached themselves to Reggie Wayne long ago: crafty, deceptive, precise, strong, determined.
At 33, his speed might not be the same, but his route-running and hands are as good as ever, and the labels all remain accurate.
The Colts' receiver said during Super Bowl week that he would be honored to be part of a Colts rebuild, that a youth movement required some veterans mixed in. An old friend, Chuck Pagano, took over as the team’s new coach and added the sales pitch Wayne needed to stay put.
Nearly halfway into his 12th season, Wayne’s been an incredible resource for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, and an incredible frustration for opponents.
In Indianapolis’ overtime win over the Titans in Week 8, Wayne snatched a couple of Luck throws, waiting to raise his hands until the last second and beating the better-than-decent coverage of Titans nickelback Ryan Mouton.
Defensive backs on all the teams the Colts play routinely return to the huddle shaking their heads over what Wayne just did against them. He can be acrobatic, for sure, but more often it’s just a workmanlike efficiency that leaves defenders confused as to how their good work didn’t prevent a catch.
“He knows what he’s doing out there,” Titans cornerback Jason McCourty said. “There are times when he comes off the ball and it seems as though he’s moving in slow motion, he’s not really trying to get open. Next thing you know, he breaks away from your leverage and he’s wide open.
“This year more so than usual, he’s moving around a lot. He’s in the slot, he’s in motion, he’s cutting off the backside defensive end on run plays. He’s doing a lot for them, and you can see he’s leading by example. He was able to make the tough catches against us. There was a third down where Mouton had him blanketed and he darn near catches it with one hand.”
Wayne has been targeted 92 times by Luck this season according to play-by-plays from the Colts’ seven games. ESPN Stats & Info says the count is a league-high 87.
One broadcast commentator said Wayne told him in a production meeting that he doesn’t like the tracking of targets, because an uncatchable ball thrown 20 feet over his head counts in the column. Out of context that designation suggests it’s something he should have, or could have, caught.
I spent Thursday morning watching all 92 of those passes thrown in his direction per the game-by-game stats. In doing so, I didn’t learn anything new really. I just got a fresh reinforcement of the things that have been talked about throughout his career. He’s crafty, deceptive, precise, strong, determined.
Of his 54 catches, I starred 13. That’s nearly a quarter of his catches that qualifies to one set of typically critical, tough-to-impress eyes as special.
Although I counted it only once, his reaching, one-handed catch against the Packers and Charles Woodson, who was flagged for pass interference on the play, got three stars. It’s a play that will be at the front of the team’s highlight reel this season, and will assume a prominent place on Wayne’s when his career ends.
That win against the Packers was a tribute to Pagano, who the team learned had leukemia at the start of the practice week. Wayne wore orange gloves and an orange mouthpiece -- the color attached to leukemia awareness -- as he posted a 212-yard receiving day. It was the second-best receiver production against Green Bay since 1960.
Wayne’s never been predominantly about speed, so that he might be going through the natural slow-down that a guy who turns 34 on Nov. 17 hasn’t dented his effectiveness.
Pro Football Reference defines this as his “age 34 season.” Wayne’s currently averaging 108 yards a game. If he maintains a triple-digit average this season, he’ll be the first player in the AFL or NFL to average 100 or more receiving yards over 14 or more games in his “age 34 season” or later.
Per Mark Simon of ESPN Stats and Info, Jerry Rice did it in 1995 in his “age 33 season” with 115.5 receiving yards per game. Don Maynard did it in 1967 in his “age 32 season” for the Jets in the AFL in 1967 with 102.4 yards a game.
In the past 10 seasons (2003-2012), five receivers have averaged 100 or more yards while playing at least 14 games. All of them were under 30 when they did it, with Carolina’s Steve Smith the oldest to do it, at 29.
In the midst of it all, he’s a significant piece of the blocking that’s helped the run game break out the past two weeks, something that will need to continue for the Colts to stay in the playoff hunt.
That he takes as much pride in his role there as he does in his ability to raise his hands and reach out to snare a pass at the last second tells us a lot about Wayne.
“I’m in the trenches,” he told Indianapolis reporters last week. “I’m definitely keeping my feet moving, because that’s how a lot of O-linemen get rolled up on. I’ve seen it. It’s interesting. It is, but I’m eager to go out and step up to the challenge. It’s been fun, man. Especially when you are blocking a linebacker, and in your mind, you got the best of him.
“It’s a good feeling when the ball goes off your block and you get a 6, 7, 8-yard gain. It pushes you to continue to go out there and do it. We have a lot of little packages where I’m motioning and blocking, and it’s fun. It keeps me young.”
The age of the prima-donna receiver seems to have largely passed, which is a wonderful development. The down-to-earth Wayne has always done his part. He’s not about flash. He’s about work.
Despite all the change around him, the work is working for the NFL’s leading receiver in yardage right now.