The Indianapolis Colts were ahead of the Denver Broncos 36-30 with 7:21 left to go in the game and were trying to withstand a fourth quarter Broncos surge. The Colts had been playing well and came out firing, jumping out to a 33-14 lead at one point. Now, the lead was down to just six points and the Colts were facing a 3rd down and 1 from their own 34 yard line.
Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton called a play-action pass and it left wide receiver Reggie Wayne, one of the best in the league, wide open down the field. Andrew Luck threw to him, but it was low. Reggie reached down to pull the pass in from the shoestrings, but as he did so, his knee bent awkwardly and he fell to the turf. One of the best two or three players without question on the Colts was now lost for the season with a torn ACL, and while the Colts held on for the win, Andrew Luck did not complete a pass the rest of the game.
The Colts had their bye week the following week, and when they returned to action in week nine in Houston, they were terrible. They trailed 21-3 at halftime. In the final 15:05 of the game, however, Andrew Luck hooked up with T.Y. Hilton three times to lead the Colts to a stunning 27-24 come from behind win. But the problems were there, and they were evidenced by the Colts's offensive struggles early on. That problem would only intensify. In the six games since Reggie Wayne's injury (including the Texans game), the Colts have been outscored 114-24 in the first halves of games and 185-126 total.
Is that all because Reggie Wayne hasn't been there? Absolutely not - that doesn't explain the awful defense. But you absolutely cannot ignore just how much of an impact Reggie's injury had, because the Colts really didn't have anyone to replace him. T.Y. Hilton - who was having a phenomenal season - hasn't been nearly as dominant since stepping into the number one receiver role and drawing the defense's attention. Darrius Heyward-Bey has hurt the offense way more than he has helped it and he has dropped several passes - a lot of them easy ones, at that. Griff Whalen, LaVon Brazill, and David Reed weren't getting it done in the limited action they got. Andrew Luck didn't have anyone to throw to, and so he had to go to tight end Coby Fleener, the running backs, and even fullback Stanley Havili. The lack of receivers severely limited Luck, also playing behind an atrocious offensive line, and Luck began to look human and average like the rest of them.
After what was by far the worst drop of the season for DHB against the Titans last week, Chuck Pagano decided to bench him, like he had other players too. In his place, undrafted rookie receiver Da'Rick Rogers got the start. Rogers went undrafted out of Tennessee State and was originally signed by the Buffalo Bills before being released in training camp. The thing about Rogers, though, is that he was a first or second round talent who dropped because of off the field issues - issues that led to him getting kicked out of the University of Tennessee and having to finish his playing career for his third and final season at Tennessee Tech. The Colts signed Rogers to their practice squad and brought him along very slowly, and when he finally played last week, he didn't do much - he drew a pass interference penalty, but other than that he didn't do much. Fans have long been enamored with him, so when he got the start this week, we were all excited.
Rogers lived up to the expectations after the first game, that's for sure. He caught 6 passes for 107 yards and 2 scores. He recorded the seventh 100 yard performance by a Colts player this year, being the fourth player to top the 100 yard mark. He also caught 2 scores in the game, just the fourth time a Colt has caught double digit touchdowns this year (LaVon Brazill earlier in that game became the third) and just the third player to do so.
By comparison, the most catches DHB has in a game this year is 5, the most yards he has in a game this year is 59, and the most touchdowns he has in a game this year is 1 (having only 1 on the entire season) - and he started the first 12 games.
Rogers has shown more than enough to continue to be a starter, and his speed has been evident as he repeatedly gets by defenders easily.
LaVon Brazill got the first extended playing time of the season (and really of his career as well), and he to made the most of the opportunity. Brazill caught 3 passes for 53 yards and 2 touchdowns. The highlight of his game and of the entire game for the Colts was when he caught a slant pass across the middle and then broke six tackles on his way to a 19-yard touchdown. He broke six tackles. That's impressive, and that's exactly what Brazill's overall performance was on Sunday, too.
On his weekly radio show Monday night, Chuck Pagano was asked whether Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill earned more playing time with their performances:
"That's a great question and an obvious answer. Yeah, they have. With only four receivers on the 53-man roster at this point and what they went out and did (Sunday), the production that they had, both guys made huge plays for us. We knew they had playmaking ability and they just needed opportunities. They took advantage of those opportunities and really helped us get back into that ball game. Moving forward, we look for more production and more playing time for both those guys."
While they absolutely have earned more playing time, it's not like they weren't playing much on Sunday. Against the Bengals, they pretty much both played like a full time starter:
Da'Rick Rogers played 41 (68%) of the Colts snaps yesterday. Heyward-Bey was in on 23, 42 for Brazill, 45 Hilton #Colts (per NFL)— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) December 9, 2013
As the season moves on, it seems clear that the Colts are going to roll with T.Y. Hilton, Da'Rick Rogers, and LaVon as their top receivers. Darrius Heyward-Bey will likely be relegated to the number four receiver role and, while he'll continue to play, he won't be starting (or at least he shouldn't be).
We all saw just how awful the Colts receiving core was without Reggie Wayne (and we even saw it when Reggie was playing, too). Most of us had resigned ourselves to the fact that it was going to be that way for the rest of the season.
Now, with the second year (24-years old) T.Y. Hilton, rookie (22-years old) Da'Rick Rogers and the second year (24-years old) LaVon Brazill, the Colts suddenly have a very young receiving core that actually looks very talented. Let's not get ahead of ourselves and say that they will be the fix to the Colts receiver issues long term (they badly need a number one receiver to replace Reggie, and they need to get him by this offseason), but let's also not ignore the fact that Da'Rick Rogers has the look of a guy who could potentially be that, and LaVon Brazill isn't bad, either. But that's a discussion for after we've seen these guys play more than just one game. Right now, let's look at what they did Sunday and get some hope for this offense moving forward.
The emergence of Rogers will provide the Colts with another deep threat and a receiving threat elsewhere on the field as well, but perhaps more importantly it might cause defenses to stop focusing solely on T.Y. Hilton, which would open things up for him once more. The fact that Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill both played great and looked like they could continue to do so could do great things for this offense, which already had weapons in Coby Fleener and the running backs catching the football. And with Joe Reitz starting on Sunday along the offensive line, it looked much, much better.
The Colts still have a lot of questions and just because of Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill both having great games it doesn't mean that the Colts are a Super Bowl team once again or even that the receivers's success will continue. But it does provide hope, and that's something Colts fans haven't had much of recently.
Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill both looked good, and I expect their success to continue. If that happens, perhaps the Colts will finally be able to figure out the slow starts and get back to the point where they're a threat in the AFC.
I'll be very anxious to see what Rogers and Brazill do this Sunday against the Texans. Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton lit up the Texans secondary earlier this year in their first game without Reggie Wayne - and that was with DHB starting. What will Andrew Luck be able to do with Rogers and Brazill replacing DHB? We'll see, but there's a good chance that they will continue to impress.
In an offseason where general manager Ryan Grigson spent over one hundred million dollars in free agency and drafted several players, there is a legitimate chance that the signing of an undrafted free agent who was released by the Buffalo Bills could be his best addition of the season. Whether that says more about Rogers or about the other moves Grigson made remains to be seen, but so far, after one game, it says more about Rogers. He was great on Sunday. LaVon Brazill - Grigson's sixth round pick last year - was great Sunday. And the great thing for Colts fans is that, for the first time in a long time, they have legitimate hope about the offense and the receivers.