It has been a rough past few weeks for pretty much everyone on the Indianapolis Colts, from head coach Chuck Pagano to quarterback Andrew Luck to wide receiver Griff Whalen, and most people in between. Whalen has had a particularly tough time, however, as he's been the center of a few key special teams fiascos.
First, of course, was the bizarre fake punt call that was a disaster and essentially sealed the game against the Patriots. Whalen was the one snapping the ball, and it turns out that the ball was never supposed to actually be snapped. Nobody told Whalen that, however, so he went ahead and hiked the ball, taking a lot of heat and blame. That seems to have quieted down a bit after punter Pat McAfee cleared it up and showed it wasn't as much Whalen's fault, but the play was still fresh in everyone's mind.
In the first half of Sunday's game against the Saints, New Orleans was the beneficiary of a few really awful moments of football by the Colts. The Saints drove down the field for a 78-yard score (thanks in large part to their own fake field goal), then Andrew Luck threw an interception, and then the Saints went 23-yards for another touchdown. It was suddenly 14-0, and the Colts needed a spark. Griff Whalen gave them that in the return game, taking the kickoff back 30 yards to the Colts' 28 when he dropped the football. Fumble. Saints recover. Three plays and 27 yards later, New Orleans scored another touchdown, going up three scores. And if all of that wasn't enough, later in the game Whalen muffed a punt, but recovered, and then later muffed another punt, also recovered by the Colts. Three fumbles in one game for a return specialist, a week after being front and center in the fake punt mess, isn't good.
Many fans have openly wondered why Whalen remains on the team after his special teams miscues. But though Whalen has been criticized by many fans, punter Pat McAfee was clear in his support of the receiver on Monday.
"I love Griff Whalen," McAfee said. "He's one of the best returners in the NFL. He's the backup holder for our team. He's a wide receiver for our team. Last year, he was the guy that caught our surprise onside kick. He's a Stanford guy, so he's much smarter than I am. It's one of those things where if he hangs on to the ball there, he would have had a great day returning. He would have had us out to the 30. It's just those little things, the attention to detail that can really hurt you in this league because everybody is so good. We've just got to get back on the horse and turn things around on Monday."
One can't help but wonder whether Whalen would still be around if Phillip Dorsett hadn't gotten hurt on Sunday, as that now leaves Whalen as the number four receiving target behind T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Andre Johnson. The team signed Quan Bray on Tuesday to fill the number five receiver role and, perhaps, take over the return duties, which is something he did well in college. So Whalen might not be moving forward as the returner (it's yet to be decided), but he'll stay on the roster for the time being. And, to be honest, his versatility makes that understandable. He can play receiver (he has three catches for 46 yards and a score this year in limited action), can return punts (he has a 7.1 yard average on punt returns), can return kicks (he has a 27.1 yard average on kick returns), and can fill in elsewhere if needed on special teams. So especially with Dorsett injured, keeping Whalen around does make sense.
With that said, however, the main reason why Griff Whalen has been the Colts' return specialist is because he doesn't mess up. He's totally fine calling for fair catches (more than we could say for other returners... like Josh Cribbs) and doesn't make those critical errors that other return men have for the Colts. But after fumbling three times on Sunday, is that reliability still there? Can we still say that he doesn't mess it up? It's only one game, sure, but if that's the main reason why he's out there, and he's not doing that, he might not be out there for much longer. In fact, it could be Quan Bray as the return man this Monday.