Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck chose his words judiciously, exercising great caution to show the proper respect for an absent and venerated veteran while simultaneously acknowledging the time-honored NFL tradition of soldering on without making excuses.
Reggie Wayne was gone, and while he did walk through the doors of the Colts' team hotel on Saturday night, he had his streak of 189 consecutive games played snapped on Sunday by the torn ACL he suffered two weeks earlier against the Denver Broncos. Wayne is destined to have his bust placed inside the Hall of Fame in Canton, having labored celebrated years working in concert with Peyton Manning before serving as the security blanket for Luck while Luck made inroads in the league as a ballyhooed rookie last season.
Contributors like Wayne aren't quickly forgotten or easily substituted, but with the Colts eyeing a return atop the AFC South pecking order, replacing Wayne was part of the process to bring those aspirations to fruition.
Wayne did what the revered do in times of need. He huddled his position group together at halftime and challenged someone, anyone, to make a play in his absence.
They took their first step toward accomplishing those dual goals on Sunday night at Reliant Stadium, rallying past the Houston Texans 27-24 with Wayne sidelined and Luck masterfully executing in the fourth quarter like he had done many times previously. When Luck was pressed to explain precisely how the Colts managed such a feat, exactly why they were able to thrive with one of the greatest receivers in their illustrious franchise history unavailable, the quarterback was as measured in his response as he was in dismantling the Texans down the stretch.
"I don't want to over blow it. (Wayne's) not there but it's football," Luck said. "You know, guys get hurt and you've got to get through it. We'll never make an excuse, 'Oh, you know, because he wasn't here we couldn't do this.' Whether it's Vick Ballard or Donald Thomas or Dwayne (Allen), you know, it's always next man up.
"I don't want to over blow it, and again that's not disrespect to Reggie, his quality of play and what he does obviously. But you can't look at it from that perspective."
Perhaps the Colts weren't focused on who they didn't have, but their sluggish first-half performance gave credence to the notion that Wayne was missed. The Colts entered the weekend ranked sixth in the NFL in third-down conversion rate yet went 0-for-6 on third downs in the first half. While the Texans extended to a 21-3 halftime lead, Luck posted a 46.5 passer rating and completed just 3 of 12 attempts for 56 yards. Receiver T.Y. Hilton, the pick to click with Wayne watching helplessly from the sideline, had one catch for six yards before the break.
Then Wayne did what the revered do in times of need. He huddled his position group together at halftime and challenged someone, anyone, to make a play in his absence. Wayne has skins on the wall — 1,006 receptions for 13,566 yards and 80 touchdowns to be precise — so his words carry significant weight. Duly inspired, the receivers embraced the task of filling the void.
Hilton was particularly sensational, posting six receptions for 115 yards and touchdowns of 10, 58 and nine yards in the second half. Hilton had excelled in producing countless big plays while Wayne did the dirty work helping move the chains down the field, but the Texans failed to keep Hilton in check even without Wayne around to provide complementary contributions.
There was a standard of excellence Wayne set that his position group felt compelled to match. It was wise for Wayne to show his face on Saturday, to prod his teammates on Sunday night.
"It was kind of strange without him, but we knew we had to step up and make a play," Hilton said. "We came back in (the locker room at halftime) and 87 got after us. He said, 'Somebody in this group has got to make a play,' And I looked him in the eye and said, 'We've got to make a play someway, somehow.' And that's what we did."
The Clutch QB
Luck, of course, has grown accustomed to making such plays under duress. At some point his ability to lift the Colts from the jaws of defeat will shift from narrative to non-fiction, with his performance against the Texans further cementing his legacy as an unflinching signal caller adept at thriving under pressure and ratcheting up his productivity when the need is most dire.
His tenacity was as valuable as his touch. There is something intangible about the ability to consistently lead when the stress level is most extreme, and Luck possesses that trait. Afterward, after posting a 114.4 passer rating in the second half against the same defense that had him confounded in the first, Luck repeatedly acknowledged that the Texans were "beating our butts" yet expressed the sort of poise reflective of someone that doesn't take such whippings as destructive. When the Colts needed to mount the comeback, Luck was calm and prepared to do so.
There is something intangible about the ability to consistently lead when the stress level is most extreme, and Luck possesses that trait.
At this stage no one should be surprised that Luck engineered this spirited rally with heady play and breathtaking accuracy. The only noteworthy footnote to this comeback was that Wayne wasn't a part of it.
If the Colts took their first step to reclaiming superiority in the AFC South by merely making the playoffs last season, they took a giant leap forward by dispatching the Texans without Wayne there to lead the way.
For Texans fans so familiar with Wayne and his memorable exploits both in Indianapolis and at Reliant Stadium, the Colts' growth without him certainly resonates and portends to a future where Luck and any assortment of capable receivers will be sufficient enough to ride roughshod over this division for seasons to come.
"You do have to make adjustments when you don't have a player of Reggie's caliber out there," Luck said. "But I thought DHB (Darrius Heyward-Bey), T.Y., obviously, LaVon (Brazill) and David Reed did a heck of a job filling up that wideout role. (Coby) Fleener did a heck of a job; running backs did a heck of a job.
"We missed him, of course we missed him; it's Reg. Our story is going to involve him not playing this year, so I think our guys did a great job stepping up."