Dan Marino often tells me that "too many quarterbacks today don't demand great route running from their receivers." That might be true for most teams with young, upstart signal callers, but it's far from the truth in Indianapolis, where Peyton Manning plays a big role in the development of his targets.
I have talked with Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, Manning's most recent projects, about their experience, and both have described the process of becoming a Colts receiver. Now you can throw in Blair White. He came off the practice squad last week in Denver and played like a five-year veteran while replacing injured receivers Anthony Gonzalez and Garcon. Former NFL quarterback Jim Miller tipped me off about White during last year's draft, and he hit the nail right on the head about that kid.
What's amazing about Garcon, Collie and White is the production the Colts get out of these unheralded guys. Garcon was a sixth-round pick in 2008, Collie a fourth rounder in 2009, and White was an undrafted rookie this year.
Colts president Bill Polian knows he can get his money's worth by getting Manning the right kind of receivers -- not necessarily top picks. In fact, Gonzalez, who Polian did take in the first round (32nd overall in 2007), looks like the odd man out when stacked up against Collie, Garcon and now White.
Is there a common thread among these three diamonds in the rough? Yes. All three have reputations as humble, hard workers with excellent change of direction as demonstrated by their combine short shuttle times (White 4.03, Collie 4.07 seconds and Garcon 4.10). All three have good explosion and have jumped over 10 feet in the standing broad jump. Each arrived with good route-running skills, which meant Manning had something to work with right from the start.
Consider these bits of information:
» Collie led the NFL in receiving last weekend with 12 receptions for 171 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos.
» On any given Sunday, Garcon can deliver a double-digit reception game and look like a Pro Bowler doing it. He caught 47 balls last year as arguably the fourth read on many pass plays.
» White was a former walk-on at Michigan State with a reputation as a tough guy. I can't believe someone didn't claim him when he was cut at the end of camp and placed on the practice squad. Of all the wide receivers around the league released and headed to the practice squad a month ago, he had the best production during the preseason (12 receptions, 181 yards, 15.1 yards per catch, and three of those grabs were over 20 yards).
The secret to this endless stream of receiver talent is Manning and his offseason preparation with these young guys. And what Polian might not realize by lobbying so hard for an 18-game season -- which in turn would reduce offseason training -- is that he's cutting his team's edge.
"They're talking about extending the season to 18 games, so they're going to cut down the offseason stuff in return. That's not a fair trade," Manning told Yahoo! Sports. "Offseason workouts -- that's how we've gotten our edge over the years. It's how you really develop a player and improve your craft.
"Without the offseason, how do we get anybody ready to play? I've thrown to Blair White since we picked him up in April, and there's no way he's ready to play (against the Broncos) if I don't have those reps with him. In training camp, there just aren't enough reps to get familiar with a guy (near the bottom of the depth chart). You've got to be able to throw to him in the spring, otherwise I wouldn't feel good about rushing him out there."
Manning uses that time to groom his guys. He refuses to let injuries or holdouts or even a shaky offensive line deter him from moving down the field through the air. Both Collie and Garcon have told me that Manning would take them out on the practice field one-on-one and just drill the nuances of the passing game into them.
That type of teaching continues on game days. There is no drifting off and talking to teammates on the sidelines. Those young receivers are always right by Manning's side, getting further instruction about route adjustments and coverage reads. Watch the sideline during the telecast this Sunday when the Colts are in Jacksonville. Collie will be seated right next to Manning between series, and the other receivers will be there as well.
As for the Colts' running backs, I regularly get asked why they are so effective when given the chance to run with the ball. And it's simple. Every defense plays the pass on almost every down, more afraid of Manning than the run.
Edgerrin James once made a living running against two high safeties. Dominic Rhodes came to the Colts as an undrafted rookie and rushed for 1,104 yards in his first season (2001) while James was injured.
Now it's Joseph Addai and Donald Brown always prepared to run when Manning tries to keep the defense honest. The NFL running game is evolving, and the best run opportunities seem to be coming from teams in passing personnel groups and spread formations. The Colts have been ahead of the curve on that phenomenon.
Get a grip on uneasy QB scenarios
In Week 1, Ryan didn't throw a touchdown in the loss to Pittsburgh, but nobody panicked in Atlanta. The Falcons got it right when they drafted him, and if a team doesn't have a star -- or at least an emerging star -- as their quarterback, then they have a big dilemma.
Volatility at the QB position is at an all-time high right now. Studying how certain teams got into these conundrums is important before moving forward. Fourteen quarterbacks had under an 80.0 rating in Week 3, and 10 of them were involved in losing efforts that could cause a few teams to panic.
So the message is simple: Evaluate the position the right way, and most of the QB problems go away.
Secondly, if you have one that can win don't let him go; and if he needs more time to develop be patient. Jay Cutler has talent, and it still amazes me that he is in a Bears uniform and not still with the Broncos. Some of the more famous quarterbacks to hit the road and reinvent themselves elsewhere include Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Steve Young, Jim Plunkett, Rich Gannon, Doug Williams, and Boomer Esiason.
Third, be smart enough to recognize early in a quarterback's development that there are going to be radical highs and lows. Overreacting to either can be devastating to a team and the player. I just shake my when I hear people say maybe it's time to move on from Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Vince Young.
Jets coach Rex Ryan does a very good job with Mark Sanchez in this area. Sanchez is playing for a coach that is not going to destroy his confidence when he has a bad game. Ravens coach John Harbaugh had to protect Flacco after two games this season because he didn't play well, but at no time did Harbaugh doubt the direction his young QB was headed.
Alex Smith is in a much more volatile situation in San Francisco. He's playing poorly, and the coordinator was just fired. The lows just got lower.
A Henne for your thoughts
Look at Chad Henne in Miami. He lost his last three games last year, but the Dolphins remained confident in him. He wins his first two games this year but doesn't throw for 200 yards. However, in Sunday's loss to the Jets, he came alive for 363 yards and two touchdowns. He's worth working with, and the Dolphins know it.
Gannon is a great lesson for all teams struggling with their quarterback situation. He bounced around the league for a long time and didn't even play football in 1994, before being named the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2002 and leading the Raiders to the Super Bowl. Obviously, nobody had Gannon right until Jon Gruden got him in Oakland.
It's easy to make an in-season change at quarterback when he's playing poorly, but it's usually too late to get a better player. You have to wait until the end of the year to evaluate your QB situation -- make your move in the offseason, not now.
When Brees was available after the 2005 season, not many teams were interested. Since then, a lot of coaches and personnel people have been fired that could have saved their teams and jobs if they had done the right thing.
I wonder how many more people will see their jobs get terminated in the next year or so for not pursuing Donovan McNabb when he was on the trading block this past offseason.