In order to be explosive in their passing offense, a team needs three quality receivers. Last season, the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals had one of the most explosive pass offenses in recent memory and they had three receivers go over 1,000 yards in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston.
Although they didn't pass the ball as much as the Cardinals or Colts, the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII with a triumvirate of Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Nate Washington. Though Washington caught only 40 passes in 2008, he was an important part of the third-down offense and the Titans considered him to be good enough to offer him a $27 million contract in the offseason.
The Denver Broncos failed to make the playoffs, but they finished third in the NFL in passing and had three solid options in Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, and steady slot performer Brandon Stokley. Houston, which finished fourth in passing, had Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter as their primary options, with rookie running back Steve Slaton catching 50 passes and tight end Owen Daniels finishing third on the team with 70 receptions.
Stokley, now with Denver, set the standard for a slot receiver in the Colts' offense
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
New Orleans, which finished first in the league in terms of passing yardage, was one of two teams in the top five to have with five players with at least 45 receptions each. The other team on that list? The fifth-ranked Indianapolis Colts. Now, it can't be assumed that equitable distribution of receptions is the way to lead the league in passing, as Indianapolis had only two players with 45 or more receptions in 2007 and finished sixth in passing.
But, as far as Indianapolis is concerned, 2007 can be taken as a benchmark for passing success, since introducing too many other teams introduces too many variables. Differences in system, personnel, and tendencies are too varied between NFL teams, considering that the top three players for the Saints in terms of receptions were a running back (Reggie Bush) and a tight end (Jeremy Shockey) and that Pittsburgh had the fewest pass attempts of every team considered so far.
From 2004 through 2008, the system, personnel, and tendencies for the Indianapolis Colts remained largely unchanged, with the third receiver being the only variable — Stokley held the position from 2004-2006 and Anthony Gonzalez entered 2007 as the third receiver and filled that role for much of 2008.
Even though he struggled through most of last season, Marvin Harrison still managed to rank third on the team with 60 receptions. Gonzalez was close behind with 57 catches, but still ranked fourth.
If we consider the following two statements as fact, it helps to put the upcoming season into perspective.
1. The team has been lacking a steady player at third receiver since Stokley departed following the 2006 season.
2. The third receiver has, historically, been the third option in the Colts' offense at the slot position.
Looking at Stokley as the third option in 2004 and 2005 and discounting 2006, since he was injured for 12 games, his numbers actually compare to what Dallas Clark did as the third option in 2007 and 2008.
Stokley averaged 55 receptions for 810 yards (14.7 yard average) and six touchdowns in 2004 and 2005. Clark averaged 68 receptions for 732 yards (10.7 average) and nine touchdowns in 2007 and 2008, working primarily out of the slot.
As the third option, the only area in which Clark was inferior to Stokley was in yards per catch. So really, Indianapolis already has a solid third "receiver" in third option Dallas Clark.
Now, in 2004 and 2005, the second option (Reggie Wayne) in the Colts' offense averaged 80 receptions for 1,133 yards (14.2 average) and nine touchdowns, while the second option in 2007 (Gonzalez) and 2008 (Harrison) averaged 44 receptions for 606 yards (13.7 average) and four touchdowns.
The Colts are counting on continued development from Gonzalez in 2008
AP Photo/M.J. Sanchez
It may be asking too much for Gonzalez to match the production of a player of Wayne's stature, but for the offense to be successful in 2009 and return to its heyday of 2004-5, he must come closer than he has.
This is not to say that the third receiver position is irrelevant, because it's far from irrelevant. However, most of the attention heading into 2009 has been placed on the third receiver and not on how Gonzalez will fill the production gap that has existed the past two years when he has not previously shown the ability to do so.
As the fourth option in 2004 and 2005 — also as a young player still in development — Clark averaged 31 receptions for 456 yards (14.7 average) and five touchdowns. If a first time contributor — which is what Taj Smith, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, or Roy Hall would be at this point — that is far less to ask.
Provided that Clark is able to continue to produce and Gonzalez is able to step up, the third receiver position will not be the end-all-be-all position that most analysts — myself included — have made it out to be.
Expectations need to be realistic for the coming season. And, if any of the young men currently up for the slot job progresses in 2009, the passing attack could be extraordinarily dangerous in 2010 with three solid receivers and Clark.
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