It’s hard to remember a time before the Indianapolis Colts were the most popular team in town, much less one of the NFL’s most premier franchises. Before Jim Irsay took over as team owner in 1997. Before Bill Polian came to town in 1998 and before Peyton Manning was drafted the same year. Before Edgerrin James, Jeff Saturday, and Dwight Freeney showed up. Before Tony Dungy was hired in 2002. Before all of that there was Marvin Harrison.
Drafted in 1996, Harrison could truly be considered the first major piece of the foundation laid in Indianapolis, one that would result in the winningest decade in NFL history and one of the most remarkable eras the league has seen. Harrison was selected in the first round of the 1996 draft, and from that point on he was a playmaker.
His first two years were good, especially for a young player like Harrison. But in 1998, his career changed for the better with the arrival of a young quarterback from Tennessee named Peyton Manning. Together, they would go on to become the most prolific quarterback/wide receiver duo the NFL has ever seen – and perhaps ever will see again. The two of them completed 953 passes for 12,766 yards and 112 touchdowns, all three of which are NFL records. Manning said earlier this year that though he thinks many of his records will be broken, he doesn’t think the touchdown record with Harrison ever will be. He’s right: the two combined for 20 more touchdowns than the next closest duo (Steve Young and Jerry Rice), and the closest active duo is still 36 touchdowns away (Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates). In fact, only five receivers in NFL history have more than 112 touchdowns total, much less with one quarterback!
During their primes, Manning and Harrison were essentially unstoppable. For an eight-season stretch from 1999 through 2006, Harrison recorded at least 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns in each season (catching 100+ passes in four of them). That’s an insane level of production, but that was just Marvin being Marvin. He always let his play do the talking and was never the flashy or showy wideout. Instead, he just showed up for work each and every day. He practiced like he played, and the results showed up on the field. It was always said that you could turn out all the lights and that Manning and Harrison would still complete passes, and that’s because of the work they put in at practice. For six days of the week the two of them worked on perfecting their crafts. Then on Sunday, it was time to just go show everyone.
There are too many highlights to even begin to include here when it comes to Marvin Harrison. The one handed grab against the Titans. The one-handed tip to himself against the Patriots. The play where he wasn’t touched and just got up and ran to the end zone for a touchdown against the Broncos. All of it was vintage Marvin Harrison. Together with Peyton Manning, he was the best receiver on the NFL’s best passing attack for years. Champ Bailey has called Harrison the best receiver he ever had to cover. Charles Tillman has said the same, as has Charles Woodson. In case you didn’t catch that, those three guys combined to play in 637 games, make 23 Pro Bowls, eight first-team All-Pro teams, and occupy both cornerback spots on the NFL All-Decades Team of the 2000s – and all of them said that Harrison was the best they faced.
It’s hard to argue Harrison’s career resume, even though the Hall of Fame selection committee tried for a few years too long. He made eight Pro Bowls, was a three-time first-team All-Pro and five-time second-team All-Pro, and was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s. He ranks third all-time in receptions with 1,102, seventh all-time in receiving yards with 14,580, and fifth all-time in receiving touchdowns with 128. He owns 28 Colts franchise records, including career receptions, yards, touchdowns, and 100-yard games. His 778 career points are the most in Colts history for a non-kicker (fourth-most in total). His average of 5.8 receptions per game is second in league history, while his 76.7 yards per game and 59 100-yard games both rank third. He was a part of the most prolific quarterback/wide receiver duo in NFL history, as already mentioned. He’s the only player to ever put up eight straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns, while he’s also one of only three players to ever put up eight consecutive 80+ catch seasons. The Colts won 72.9 percent of games in which Harrison topped 100 yards receiving.
Early in his career, Marvin Harrison was the Colts’ only reliable receiving threat, and Peyton Manning relied heavily on him. But even as Reggie Wayne began to emerge as a very good receiver in his own right, Harrison continued to be the guy until 2007, when he suffered a knee injury mid-season. In 2008, he clearly wasn’t the same player he was before and was quiet. He was released following the season and then quietly retired. Even that was typical Marvin Harrison: he didn’t make a big deal about his retirement but rather just walked away quietly. That was who he was throughout his career, as he was always a quiet player and let his game do the talking. It proved to be plenty loud enough, as Harrison is heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to join the most elite group of players in NFL history – which is right where he belongs. As both Peyton Manning and Adam Vinatieri said this week, Marvin Harrison was “special.”