Last season, the Colts looked like a Super Bowl contender through the first seven games of the season, notching wins over the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos. In week seven, however, star wide receiver Reggie Wayne tore his ACL. And the Colts weren't the same after that.
Pinning it solely on the loss of Reggie Wayne is stupid and lazy, as the defense had some terrible games after that, the entire team had several slow starts, and the entire team didn't play as well during the second half of the season, but the Colts' offense did drop from averaging 26.71 points per game with Reggie to averaging 22.67 points per game without him. Andrew Luck and the offense scored 30 points just twice in the final nine games of the season (both times exactly 30), while they scored over 30 in three of the first seven games. There's no other way around it: the loss of Reggie Wayne greatly derailed the Colts season last year as we all saw they weren't prepared to play without him.
This year, things are different. And with Reggie Wayne being ruled out of this Sunday's game against the Steelers with an elbow injury, there isn't the same concern that there was a year ago. And that's not to take anything away from Reggie - he's having a fine season, catching 38 passes for 434 yards and a score so far this year, numbers that look better when considering he's 35-years old (and soon to be 36). He's not the dynamic playmaker he once was, but he's kept himself relevant with his route running and his ability to find gaps in defenses. He still gets open, and he's still a guy who will move the chains. The Colts will miss him - but this year, they're equipped to play without him.
All offseason, I was adamant that T.Y. Hilton was the team's number one receiver now and not Reggie Wayne. Some thought I was crazy, but most knew it was true. Just like he did in the second half of last season with Wayne out, Hilton has proved that this year. He has 711 yards, which ranks as the fourth best mark in the league. His 47 receptions are tied for the fifth best. Only three receivers have had more plays of 20 yards or more than Hilton (who has 10). And he's tied for first in the league with 35 receiving first downs. He's been the explosive playmaker of the Colts' offense, but he's been more than that - he's been their number one wideout, and he's been that since week eight last year. While last year he stepped up to the challenge of playing without Wayne, this year he's kept up that play.
It wasn't Hilton that was the concern last year, however. Instead, the Colts were left with a receiving cast of Griff Whalen, Da'Rick Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and others. The only legitimate threat the passing attack had outside of Hilton was Coby Fleener when Reggie Wayne was out.
Contrast that to this year. This year, the Colts have two solid receiving options behind Hilton and Wayne in Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief, but more than that they have legitimate receiving threats from both the running back and tight end positions. Take a look at this breakdown of the Colts' passing attack through the first seven games of this season (and remember - this includes Wayne):
|Position||# of Players||Receptions||% of Team Total||Yards||%||TD||%||First Downs||%|
The Colts have utilized Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Jack Doyle, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Trent Richardson in the passing game, and the result has been a very balanced passing attack. This team has a lot of weapons, and that's why they're set up better than a year ago. Furthermore, however, the receiving talent they have is better than a year ago. Last year when Reggie Wayne went out, Griff Whalen was the second best wide receiver option they had. This year, even with Reggie out, he's fourth.
The Colts brought in Hakeem Nicks in free agency as a direct result of what they saw last year when Reggie Wayne went out - they knew they needed help. They drafted Donte Moncrief in the third round of the draft this year with the future in mind, but at the same time Moncrief has been contributing a bit this year already. He has 9 catches for 103 yards in limited time this season but has done enough to cause fans to continually call for increased playing time for him. Nicks has caught 17 passes for 141 yards and 2 touchdowns, but you can't really say he hasn't had the opportunities - he's tied for the third most targeted player on the team. He just hasn't taken advantage of those opportunities. In fact, nobody on the team who has caught a pass has caught a lower percentage of targets than Nicks has, and only one other (Fleener) is below 60 percent.
Keep in mind that this includes all targets - not just ones deemed "catchable." But I think what it shows to at least a degree are two things Colts fans have seen clearly this year - he's struggles a bit to create separation and he doesn't have good timing with Andrew Luck. And with all of that said, he's still a better option than any receiver the Colts had outside of Hilton last year. Nicks has played at a high level before in the NFL and at least this year he has two scores and other production. He's a better option than all but two players the Colts had last year in the receiving game when Reggie went out (only Hilton and Fleener would have been better), and this year even with Reggie out the Colts have several other options. Nicks will likely get the start, but Donte Moncrief will see a lot of playing time. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener will likely factor into the receiving game more. And Ahmad Bradshaw should just continue doing what he's doing, which has been in a role as a valuable short-yardage or red zone option. When the Colts lost Reggie Wayne last year, they were losing a player that accounted for 31.96% of their receiving yards up to that point. So far this year, Reggie has accounted for just 18.46% of their receiving yards.
Andrew Luck is the league's leading passer on the league's number one offense, and the offense isn't dependent on any one receiving option for Luck. Whether it be T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Hakeem Nicks, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Jack Doyle (who is questionable), Ahmad Bradshaw, or Trent Richardson (who is also questionable), the Colts have plenty of options. That's a big part of what makes them so dangerous, and it's why the loss of Reggie Wayne - though not something to ignore and thankfully only for a game or two - isn't going to derail them like it did last year.