Young WRs eased Colts' transition

Austin Collie, left, and Pierre Garcon have become steady performers for Peyton Manning. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

MIAMI -- When Reggie Wayne arrived at Colts training camp in Terre Haute, Ind., last summer wearing a construction hardhat and driving a dump truck, teammates thought he just joking.

He wasn't. The Colts' offense was undergoing its most extensive reconstruction project in years.

The Colts were forced to say goodbye to future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison because of the team's finances and the receiver's declining speed. Because Peyton Manning is such a creature of good habits, the loss of even a declining Harrison was tough.

Little did he know that an unheralded, raw talent from Ohio's Mount Union College (Pierre Garcon) and a hard-working slot receiver from Brigham Young (Austin Collie) would not only rebuild the offense but also re-energize it.

Change, as it turned out, was good.

Further complicating things was a knee injury to wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez that effectively ended his season as it began. Gonzalez hurt his knee in the season opener and didn't play again. Drafted in the first round in 2007 as a slot receiver, Gonzalez was supposed to become Harrison's replacement as an outside receiver, even though there was no guarantee he would make a successful transition.

How important was Harrison to the offense? His last great season was 2006, when he caught 95 passes for 1,366 yards. Manning and the Colts won the Super Bowl that season.

"I think he missed maybe one game in a nine-year stretch," Manning said at camp about Harrison. "He was always a threat on any play to go deep. He never had an off game."

General manager Bill Polian made a bold gamble. He could have taken wide receiver Hakeem Nicks with a first-round pick to replace Harrison, but Polian believed in Gonzalez. When Gonzalez suffered a knee injury, the Colts could have gone into crisis mode.

Manning instead had fun developing Garcon and Collie, and the offense really didn't miss all that much.

At 6-0 and 210 pounds, Garcon has the good size and run-after-catch ability that offers something a little different from Harrison, whose game was built on elusiveness and sure hands. Collie's ability to work in tight spaces in the middle of the field gives Manning quick throwing options.

There was a bonus that became apparent by midseason. Young players meant fresh legs, which the Colts' offense hadn't benefited from since 2003 and 2004, when Wayne became a dependable part of the offense and Dallas Clark started to emerge in his role at tight end.

Garcon and Collie also offer yards after the catch, which helps the Colts' offense soar.

In 2003 and '04, the Colts ranked third and fourth in the league's YAC figures. The numbers dropped dramatically over the next few years as the Colts' pass-catchers took more hits and gained fewer yards after each catch.

This season, the Colts finished with 2,116 yards after the catch, the most in Manning's career. Those yards accounted for 46 percent of the passing yards, a career high for Manning. Manning loved how much easier it made his life as a quarterback.

The ability of Garcon and Collie to break tackles and get extra yards helped in the final two minutes of first halves -- a span in which the Colts scored 79 points (including the playoffs) -- and allowed Indianapolis to engineer seven fourth-quarter comebacks. Manning could get the ball into their hands and hope they would get out of bounds or get extra yards to make two-minute drives easier.

What also helped is how Garcon and Collie worked with Manning and how they listened to the veteran advice of Wayne. Manning taught them the value of studying film and working hard in practice. Collie almost took that responsibility too seriously. Once the Colts broke training camp, Collie would bring plays home and have his wife test him each night for more than two hours to make sure he was ready for the next day's practice.

Wayne took Garcon under his wing and made sure he understood what was required of a Colts wide receiver. A Colts receiver can't pout when the ball doesn't come his way and must be ready to catch every pass once Manning has the confidence to throw in that direction.

"I'm a hard worker, but I have a lot to learn," Collie said. "I was forced to put my nose in the dirt to know exactly what to do. In this offense, you don't want to be the guy to cause a three-and-out. We're professionals. We don't need to be reminded of it."

Because of the development of Garcon and Collie, the Colts effectively replaced Harrison. Collie, a rookie, caught 60 passes for 676 yards and two touchdowns. Garcon, in his second season, had 47 catches for 765 yards and an impressive 16.3-yard average. With Clark and Wayne each catching 100 passes, Manning had enough balance in his passing distribution to be effective.

During the playoffs, the Ravens and Jets concentrated on minimizing completions to Wayne and Clark. Each was "limited" to 11 catches in two games. That left Garcon and Collie in single coverage, and both young receivers excelled. Garcon has 16 catches for 185 yards, and Collie has 11 for 175 and two touchdowns.

They played so well that the Saints might have to adjust more coverage to them. The Colts' reconstruction may not be complete, but it's close.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.