Indianapolis, so poor last season, are turning heads, thanks in part to Reggie Wayne, writes Mike Tierney.
Indianapolis are Colts from the blue
Nobody saw this coming. At least nobody in their right mind.
The Indianapolis Colts, along with the St Louis Rams, were the NFL's most dreadful team last year. They began this season with a rookie quarterback and the fifth least experienced offence.
Three weeks in, head coach Chuck Pagano took leave with a severe case of leukaemia.
Yet, with three weeks left, the Colts (9-4) have moved to the brink of post-season inclusion. They would join the 2008 Miami Dolphins as the only franchises to follow 14-loss seasons (or worse) by qualifying.
A large dose of inspiration has been provided by wide receiver Reggie Wayne. It was hardly surprising that Andrew Luck, the first-year quarterback, disguised as a cucumber-cool veteran, said about the pursuit of the post-season, "I'll talk to Reggie, talk to coaches that have been there. They'll tell us how it is."
Wayne, being of sound mind, surely wondered if he would ever return to the play-offs. He is 34, recently separated from Peyton Manning, who headed west to the Denver Broncos.
Conventional thinking held that by the time Luck became acclimated to the NFL, Wayne would be in a rocking chair, enjoying retirement. Wayne wondered, too, and nearly switched teams after his contract with the only club that ever employed him expired.
"I was close," he said of moving.
"Very, very close." Wayne re-signed for three seasons, then braced himself for more hard times.
"I knew it was going to be ... me and a bunch of new faces," he said. "Once we released all the guys that had been here for years, I knew it was going to be weird."
Not "good" weird, either. But the Colts have brushed aside a 2-3 start with a mostly anonymous offence whose primary rusher has barely scratched out 500 yards. Luck has been a godsend, and Wayne already has exceeded his output from a year ago.
Luck noted that Wayne invariably finds holes in zone defences and, against the man-to-man, "he's got all the tricks up his sleeve".
Wayne last week had six receptions, one for a touchdown, that vaulted him into 10th place on the league's career reception list.
As the old-timer in the locker room - not counting kicker Adam Vinatieri, 39 - Wayne said on the Colts' website, "The days that I feel a little weary, [my] bones may hurt more than others. But when I get around those guys, they get me going. Keep me motivated."
On the eve of last week's game against the Tennessee Titans, Wayne handed over the keys to his Bentley to a valet, who drove off on a joyride before being arrested for theft. It figures. Aside from their coach's illness, the entire season has been a joyride for the Colts.