INDIANAPOLIS – The cold, hard, unforgiving stat sheet insists Marlon Mack’s influence this season has been negligible.
It’s right there in black and white: four carries for 26 yards, three receptions for another 30. Zero touchdowns. A ruptured right Achilles in the second quarter of the opener at Jacksonville ended what was supposed to be a springboard season to financial security.
But in this instance, the stats hardly tell Marlon Mack’s post-injury impact.
As unfortunate as the situation is, he’s made the transition from Indianapolis Colts’ feature back to advisor and sounding board for those who’ve picked up the slack.
Listen to the new feature back. That would be rookie Jonathan Taylor, was in line to be part of the Colts’ “one-one punch’’ in the run game.
“It sucks because going into the season you’re excited to work with Marlon,’’ he said on a Monday Zoom conference call. “I was ready to learn so much from him and once he went down, you didn’t really know how the season was going to turn out as far as the running back room, how we were going to do it.’’
They’ve done it with more than a little help from Mack. This hasn’t been on of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind circumstances.
Mack, coming off a career-best 1,091 yards in 2019 and heading into a contract year before tearing his Achilles, underwent surgery Sept. 18. He continually texted his colleagues – Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins – with whatever insight he could muster, and has been a voice of experience in the meeting room.
“He’s always at the facility but he also shoots me a text message,’’ Taylor said. “I really ask him questions about how he was able to be so effective. Maybe there’s certain runs or certain pass play concepts and I’m asking him, ‘Hey, what’s going through your mind when you hear this?’ Or on this scheme, ‘What are you thinking? How were you able to be so effective?’’’
Mack never hesitates to respond, or be the one who initiates the conversation. That should come as no surprise to anyone who understands Mack’s team-first approach.
He was the unquestioned leader of the pack during training camp, and never once showed a hint of frustration with the arrival of Taylor. Remember, Mack was 24 and in line to secure a lucrative free-agent contract at the end of his fourth season. Taylor, a much-hyped second-round draft pick. was in position to cut into Mack’s reps and production.
Yet when asked about Taylor during training camp, Mack’s assessment was over the top.
“You guys have seen already a few clips that he (does),’’ he said. “He’s going to be a beast and teams should be aware of him.
“Just be ready for him.’’
With Mack facing a long rehab, the running game now revolves around Taylor. But Mack remains a not-so-silent partner.
“I think it just shows what kind of player he is,’’ Taylor said. “He knows that we’re really going to need his advice. We’re going to need to lean on him for support because he was just so effective in this system as a running back.
“We want to make sure we uphold his end and in order to do that, we need to pick his brain. It’s just the type of player he is and knowing that, ‘Hey, the guys in that running back group, I’m still part of that group. They need me.’’’
Running backs coach Tom Rathman routinely shows video of Mack, and with good reason. Over the last two seasons, the 2017 fourth-round pick piled up 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns on 442 attempts (4.5 per carry). He cracked the 100-yard mark in seven of 26 regular-season games and set a franchise playoff record with 148 yards against the Texans in an ’18 wild-card win at Houston.
“One of the biggest things is coach Rathman always pulls up clips of Marlon and how he was so effective at delivering blockers to their defender,’’ Taylor said. “That’s just the biggest thing, watching a lot of tape on Marlon because he’s been so good in this system and trying to figure out how can I take bits and pieces of that and add it to my game.’’
As the Colts come out of their bye, one of their primary objectives is re-establishing their identity as a no-frills running team. After finishing 7th in the NFL a year ago, they’re 28th in yards per game (98.0) and 32nd in yards per attempt (3.6).
“This is our identity,’’ Frank Reich said. “We are committed to the run. Now, we have not been committed to the run as much as we would have liked to.
“But that’s who we want to be. We want to run the football.’’
To do so, they’ll have to lean heavily on Taylor over the final 10 games, starting Sunday at Detroit.
Over the season’s first six games, Taylor has given every indication he’s up to the task. He’s averaging a modest 4.1 yards on 89 carries, but that’s been steadily rising: 4.0 at Chicago, 4.8 at Cleveland, 5.0 against Cincinnati.
Although Taylor wasn’t a threat out of the backfield in the passing game at Wisconsin – 42 receptions for 407 yards in 41 games – he’s already caught 16 passes for 162 yards. He’s had three catch-and-runs of at least 20 yards.
“He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands, so get him in space, let him use his size and speed and I think we’ve done a fairly decent job,’’ Reich said. “We can do better. I think he’s getting better every week, running with more confidence.
“I feel really good about where he’s at and the trajectory he’s on.’’
That objective is always to improve. And that includes the addressing the Colts’ status near the bottom of the league stats.
“You always want to be the best at anything that you do,’’ Taylor said. “When you’re hearing numbers like that, whether you’re second, whether you’re 32nd, you look at the numbers and say, ‘Hey, how can I be No. 1?’
“If you’re not No. 1, you’re always working to be No. 1. You’re always working to try to be perfect.’’
Kemoko Turay remains on the physically unable to perform list while completing his rehab from a broken right ankle, but it’s possible the veteran defensive end could be cleared to practice this week. Once he’s back at practice, the team has a 21-day window to add him to the active roster.
And Reich made it clear the team won’t rush Turay back.
“The plan will be ‘Hey, we’ve got to practice this guy a couple of weeks before we do anything,’’’ Reich said Monday. “He’s going to have to prove he can do it out on the practice field first before we think about putting him back out in a game.’’
Turay suffered the serious ankle injury in week 5 last season at Kansas City. In 18 games, the 2018 second-round draft pick has collected 5.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits while forcing two fumbles.
“He’s making good progress,’’ Reich said.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.