INDIANAPOLIS – Let’s consider it a bit of NFL plagiarism, compliments of Reggie Wayne.
It hasn’t been that long ago Quenton Nelson broke out his Run the Damn Ball mantra.
Now, as the Indianapolis Colts transition from 15-year veteran Matt Ryan to relative newbie Sam Ehlinger, some of the attention shifts to Wayne’s receivers room. That collective group – Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, Alec Pierce and the rest – needs to lessen the pressure on Ehlinger, who not only will make his first career start Sunday against the Washington Commanders but also attempt his first NFL pass.
How does that dramatic shift impact the wideouts?
“Ultimately it shouldn’t be much of a difference,’’ Wayne said Thursday afternoon. “Our job is still the same no matter who’s throwing it.’’
What for it.
“Catch the damn ball, you know what I mean?’’ Wayne said. “It doesn’t change a thing.’’
Well, that’s not entirely true.
“What does change is the type of ball that’s being thrown,’’ Wayne said.
Instead of a Ryan-to-Ehlinger shift, consider a receiver having to adjust to Andrew Luck after catching passes from Peyton Manning. That’s something Wayne did during his prolific 14-year career with the Colts.
“It would go from Peyton Manning, if he was the starter, (to Luck) and you’d go from a duck to a spiral,’’ Wayne said with a widening smile. “That’s a major difference.’’
He was reminded Manning’s oft-wobbly passes almost always found their mark: third all-time with 539 touchdowns and 71,940 yards, and fourth with 6,125 completions during his Hall of Fame career.
“The duck got there on time and it was accurate,’’ Wayne agreed, “but it’s a lot easier to catch a spiral. The mentality is still the same. The thought process is still the same. It’s just the timing may be a little bit different.
“Sam does throw a pretty good ball. You just hope it gets there on time and gets there accurately.’’
Shortly after Frank Reich announced Monday the Colts were to turning to Ehlinger, Wayne gathered his wideouts and told them what to expect.
Be prepared to do more.
“Sam needs more reps to make sure he gets everything down pat. It takes time,’’ Wayne said. “Like I told the receivers once the decision was make, ‘Be prepared this week to do a lot of extra work. You’ve got to do a lot of extra work for Sam. We’ve gotta get on the same page. Gotta make sure he understands the way you run routes and we’ve got to understand the type of ball he throws.’’’
Pittman is the Colts’ unquestioned leader at the position. The 2020 second-round draft pick is coming off his first 1,000-yard season and is setting the pace again this season with 44 receptions, 475 yards and one touchdown.
Still, Wayne approached his star pupil.
“I asked him, ‘When’s the last time you caught a ball from Sam?’’’ he said.
Pittman: “At least a year ago.’’
In fact, Pittman has caught exactly one non-practice pass from Ehlinger. It was a 7-yarder against the Minnesota Vikings in the second game of the 2021 preseason.
That’s what Wayne’s group – the entire offense, for that matter – is facing this week. Sooner rather than later, everyone must find a level of comfort with a quarterback whose experience consists of 18 total snaps in three games as a rookie.
When Ehlinger enjoyed a productive preseason in August, he primarily leaned on Dezmon Patmon and Mike Strachan. His on-field interaction with Pittman, Campbell and Pierce – in preseason games and practices – has been limited because of his role as No. 3 QB behind Ryan and Nick Foles.
Ehlinger began taking reps with the No. 1 offense when he was elevated to Ryan’s backup two weeks ago.
“We need to support him, make sure he’s comfortable,’’ Campbell said, adding “we’re comfortable enough. We’re getting those reps this week. We’re getting extra reps on the side and after practice.
“It’s going to come. Sam’s a good enough quarterback to where when he sees something, he’s going to make it happen.’’
Pittman added the best way the receivers can help Ehlinger is “just go out there and make plays. Catch everything and build up his confidence and just make it easy for him.’’
Pittman must adjust to his fourth starting quarterback in less than three full seasons: Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Ryan and now Ehlinger.
“He’ll be all right,’’ Wayne said. “I know it was years ago, but I had four different college coaches. The results were still the same.
“As a receiver you’re always saying to yourself, ‘I don’t care who’s throwing it. Just get it to me.’ I think that stays the same.’’
Thursday, Shaquille Leonard practiced for a fifth time since suffering a concussion and broken nose in the Colts’ week 4 loss to Tennessee, and again sounded like a linebacker ready to get back on the field.
“It ain’t up to me,’’ he said. “My job is to go out here every single day and put the best foot forward and whenever that number is called, just go out there and to the best of my ability play as good as I could possibly play.’’
Leonard has missed the last three games even though he lobbied to play in Sunday’s loss to the Titans. The Colts kept him out, erring on the side of caution.
The key throughout his initial comeback from June back surgery and return from the concussion/broken nose has been for Leonard to stack one quality practice on top of another.
“Yeah, each day has been absolutely better and better,’’ he said. “This week right here I feel more explosive. I feel like a linebacker. I feel like I’ve got the quick twitch, feeling more powerful in the left leg, being more confident in the left side.’’
‘Shocked’ by Ryan decision
The collective reaction in the locker room to the decision to bench Ryan? Shocked.
“Everybody, it was just shocking at first,’’ Leonard said. “ . . . coaches have to make decisions best for the team. We appreciate Matt and I talk to Matt all the time and I just let him know it’s not all on him.
“If you look at the games that we won, the games that we lost, it’s not because of Matt Ryan’s decision. If you look defensively, not taking the ball away and not holding leads. Special teams, we have to make impact plays there. I just think it’s an easy target for people to point the finger at No. 2.
“But this is a team sport and I don’t think that we all did our jobs to win. . . . we know who Matt is as a leader. We know who Matt is as a player, person.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.