INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – He initially came in as the complementary piece. Think of a young, energetic Robin joining Batman, who very much was in his prime.
It was April 2001 and the Indianapolis Colts used the 30th overall pick in the NFL draft on Reggie Wayne, a prolific receiver out of the University of Miami.
“I got there with a Hall of Famer already in place,’’ Wayne said.
That would be Marvin Harrison, who was destined to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016.
Wayne knew his place, but never was satisfied with just being the other guy. At some point, he was determined to emerge from Harrison’s enormous shadow. He was driven to prove he was more than 1B to Marvin Harrison’s 1A.
After enduring a lackluster rookie season – a high ankle sprain contributed to him finishing with just 27 receptions, 345 yards and no TDs – Wayne approached Tony Dungy in the ensuing offseason. Dungy had replaced Jim Mora as the Colts’ head coach.
“It was easy to kind of take Reggie for granted because he played in the shadow of Marvin,’’ Dungy said. “But I remember Reggie coming to me and he told me, ‘I don’t just want to be a complementary player. I want to be somebody who makes a difference and I have to get Peyton’s confidence to do that.’
“He worked at it. He knew how to play the position, but he worked himself into being a very good player, then into a great player.’’
And here we are.
Saturday in Miami, Wayne’s shadows-to-stardom career will be under review by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s among the 15 Modern-era candidates, and reached that exclusive group in his first year of eligibility.
“I was always consistent,’’ Wayne said. “I was always in the tops (statistically), especially after Marv left.’’
It’s difficult to argue against the Hall of Fame-worthiness of Wayne’s 14-year career. Consider:
- Only two players in NFL history rank in the top-10 in receptions and yards in both the regular season and postseason: Jerry Rice and Reggie Wayne.
- Only three players rank in the top-7 in receptions and yards based on combined regular season and playoff numbers: Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne. Wayne’s 91 regular season/postseason touchdowns rank 15th in league history.
- Wayne generated six seasons with at least 1,200 yards. The only players with more – Jerry Rice (11) and Randy Moss (8) – are first-ballot Hall of Famers.
- Wayne holds the NFL record with at least three receptions in 82 consecutive games. Antonio Brown is second (76) and New Orleans’ Michael Thomas (63) third. Thomas would break Wayne’s record in week 4 . . . of 2021.
- In terms of the regular season, Wayne ranks 10th in both receptions (1,070) and yards (14,345).
The perception is so much of what Wayne accomplished was a result of being Harrison’s sidekick. With defenses always focused on Harrison, who was easy to locate lined up on the right side, it was only natural and simple for Wayne to run around and catch passes from Peyton Manning. They were teammates from 2001-08.
Champ Bailey and Ty Law, a pair of cornerbacks who were enshrined as part of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019, beg to differ.
“He was fortunate to go to a team he could actually play and play with great players,’’ said Bailey. “But I think he was that missing piece they needed. He made them dynamic.
“I think Reggie gets a little overshadowed because of what Peyton and Marvin did, but this guy was a centerpiece of everything they did and he lasted after Peyton left and still was productive.’’
Added Law: “A lot of people don’t get their due because of a teammate at the same position or players around them who might have gotten more accolades. But look at Reggie’s productive after Marvin left. That should erase any doubt in anybody’s head about the player that Reggie was.
“He took the reins and ran with them. He was a problem.’’
That always was Reggie Wayne’s grand plan: grab the reins and run with them.
Never accept being a solid No. 2 wideout. Never accept being less than his absolute best.
Harrison and Wayne were a demoralizing duo for eight seasons. Harrison was the unquestioned No. 1 until injuries began pecking away at his availability and productivity. Wayne supplanted him in 2007.
In his first six seasons and 93 games as Harrison’s assertive No. 2, Wayne averaged 4.1 receptions and 58.8 yards with 37 touchdowns.
In his final eight seasons and 118 games as the Colts’ No. 1 wideout, the averages mushroomed to 5.8 receptions and 75.2 yards with 45 TDs. During his first six seasons as the passing game’s focal point – 2007-12 – Wayne had at least 100 receptions four times and at least 1,145 yards on five occasions.
The only non-1,000-yard season during that stretch came in 2011 when Manning was out with his neck issues and the Colts turned to the ineffective QB triumvirate of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. Considering the circumstances, Wayne’s 75-catch, 960-yard season was Herculean.
“Tough year,’’ he admitted.
However, emerging from Harrison’s shadow “was big,’’ Wayne said. “All my career it was I’m getting everything because of Marv.
“I took pride when Marv was still out there and they made me the main guy. I took pride in putting the receiver room on my back, putting the team on my back so we could get it done.
“I just wanted to prove to everybody I wasn’t a systems guy. I didn’t care what system I was in, I as going to bust my ass and go out there and get the job done. That’s how I looked at it every year.’’
During that “gotta prove myself’’ phase of his career, Wayne reached out to teammates who were in similar situations. He became close with Robert Mathis, who fought for his own identity while working as Dwight Freeney’s pass-rush bookend, and Antoine Bethea, whose early years with the Colts were dwarfed by Bob Sander’s presence.
“That’s why we hit it off so well,’’ Wayne said. “They had been working hard but no one wanted to give them that juice. People thought they were just a dude making plays because of the other dude.
“When you’re the man, it’s pressure. But I invited the pressure.’’
The pressure might have been the most severe heading into 2012 as the Colts were transitioning from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. As Ryan Grigson began building the roster around the new face of the franchise, one of his critical decisions was whether to re-sign a 33-year old Reggie Wayne or invest in Pierre Garcon, 26 and flush with upside.
Grigson understood the impact Wayne likely would have on his young QB, and kept him with a three-year, $17.5 million contract. Wayne responded with 106 receptions, 1,355 yards, five TDs and a sixth Pro Bowl selection.
Offseason skepticism fueled him.
“The one part of my career that pissed me off the most was after Andrew Luck got there in 2012,’’ Wayne said. “People on TV said I wasn’t going to be the same. I’m out there with all rookies and I still go for 1,300 yards.
“I’ll never forget on NFL Network you’ve got Sterling Sharpe – it kinda hurt me because he’s a fellow receiver – and he was one of those guys saying I wasn’t going to be successful because I didn’t have Peyton. I couldn’t do it without Peyton. That was (BS), you know?
“You listen to TV announcers and it was like Peyton threw a ball that catches itself. Man, that’s (BS). My jersey and the ball didn’t have Velcro on it. I had to get open. I had to catch it.’’
Wayne remained the centerpiece until injuries intervened: a torn ACL in week 7 of 2013 and a torn triceps in week 7 of ’14 that greatly limited his effectiveness. Before the ACL injury in ’13, he was on pace for 87 catches and 1,150 yards.
Over the years – from complementary player to the guy with a target on his jersey – Wayne was able to change Dungy’s impression of him.
Does the Hall of Fame coach – like Harrison, Class of 2016 – believe Reggie Wayne deserves to join him in Canton?
“Originally in the first five years, I probably didn’t,’’ Dungy said. “Even in 2004 and ’05 and he’s starting to put up those big numbers, I was thinking, ‘Very good.’ Our Super Bowl year (2006), he was dynamite.
“After I left, the ’09 and ’10 seasons, you just say, ‘Oh wow.’ Some of those catches in traffic and the consistency of doing it year-in and year-out was impressive.
“You start to think, ‘Yeah, this really is what Hall of Famers do.’’’