INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL’s rookie wall. Fact or fiction?
“It’s real,’’ Reggie Wayne said. “Absolutely.’’
And it doesn’t differentiate.
“There’s even a coach’s wall. A wall for everybody,’’ Wayne laughed. “I hit mine about two weeks ago.’’
Wayne experienced the rookie barrier as a player in 2001. He was the Indianapolis Colts’ top draft pick – round 1, 30th overall – who was thrust into a potent, diverse offense that featured three future Hall of Famers: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison.
Round 2 involves Wayne as a rookie assistant coach. He understood there would be long days/nights at the office, but nothing could have prepared him for the past month: head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady fired; quarterback Matt Ryan discarded, then embraced once again; Jeff Saturday trading his ESPN analyst gig for interim head coach responsibilities.
“Different,’’ Wayne said.
But the experience with how best to deal with the rookie wall has given Wayne keen insight when dealing with another of the franchise’s top draft picks. That would be wideout Alec Pierce. He was their first selection in the April draft – round 2, 53rd overall – and, counting training camp and the preseason, is four months and 15 games into his rookie season.
How is Pierce dealing with the invisible-but-oh-so-real impediment faced by every rookie?
“You know what? Pretty darned good,’’ Wayne said. “Better than most.
“It seems like he’s into it, still running around like a baby deer. That’s great. That’s the way it needs to be.’’
That’s not always the case.
“Sometimes you see guys in meetings where they’re kind of like a deer in headlights,’’ Wayne said. “The eyes are big, but they’re not focused, they’re not locked in. Body starting to wear on them a little bit, you know?
“But (Pierce) is doing pretty good. We actually talked about that a couple of weeks ago, and he told me, ‘I haven’t felt anything different, yet.’’’
Like many players from established collegiate programs, Pierce is accustomed to long seasons. Cincinnati played 14 games in 2021 and ’19, 10 in ’20 and 13 in ‘18.
“We’d still be going until the start of January,’’ he said. “My body feels good.’’
The biggest college-to-pros transition has been dealing with the mental grind. During Pierce’s four years at Cincinnati, the Bearcats finished 13-1, 9-1, 11-3 and 11-2.
“It’s a little different for me with the losing and all that,’’ he said. “You’ve got to find a way to bring your own energy because you’re not getting all of that excitement from the team.
“But it’s really not an issue, at least not for me. I realize this is a blessing, and this is something I’ve dreamed about my whole life, so I’m going to make the most of it every chance I get.’’
That’s one reason the rookie wall seemed pertinent with Pierce. As his season has unfolded, those chances have diminished. Consider:
- 38 targets, 24 receptions, 373 yards and one touchdown in his first seven games. He had at least 61 yards four times and at least 80 twice.
- His stretching 14-yard catch with less than 2 minutes remaining was instrumental in the 20-17 comeback win over Kansas City in week 3, and his 32-yard TD with 17 seconds remaining was the difference in the 34-27 week 6 win over Jacksonville.
- 14 targets, four receptions, 51 yards in his last four. He’s failed to catch a pass twice, including Monday night’s loss to Pittsburgh.
Those disparate sections have little or nothing to do with how an NFL season can tax a rookie, according to Wayne.
“That’s just the way the season has went,’’ he said. “We had Matt, then Matt’s gone for a couple of games, and now Matt’s back. Playcaller’s gone, and there’s another playcaller.’’
The Colts viewed Pierce as a wideout capable of playing multiple positions – split out wide, working from the slot – but then-coach Frank Reich believed it was prudent initially to allow him to get comfortable on the outside. Pierce possessed the size (6-3, 211 pounds), speed (4.41 in the 40) and athleticism to do damage down the field. He was adept at coming down with contested passes.
However, protection issues – a league-high 43 sacks allowed – have conspired to limit those chunk-play opportunities.
The Colts are averaging 6.6 yards per pass attempt, tied for 6th-worst in the league. They’re averaging 9.8 yards per reception, tied for 3rd fewest. They rank in the middle of the pack with 33 receptions of at least 20 yards, but have just two that have picked up at least 40. Only Pittsburgh and Arizona (one each) have fewer.
Pierce’s 47-yarder against Washington is the Colts’ longest reception of the season. Only the Steelers have a shorter big-strike in the passing game (45 yards).
“The type of player he is, Alec is a down-the-field guy more than anything else right now,’’ Wayne said, “so we’ve just got to give him more opportunities.’’
How many deep shots have been directed at Pierce?
“Not enough,’’ Wayne said. “Whatever the number is, it’s not enough. We’ve had to adjust to do so many things, not to get into all that.
“Hopefully these last five games we can get more of it. You know me, I think we should take a shot at least once a quarter. The more shots we get, the more honest we can keep those defensive backs.’’
Pierce remains unfazed through it all.
“I’ve got to stay patient,’’ he said. “I try not to think individually. I’m usually a lot more upset when the team loses than I am (with individual stats). There have been games where maybe I had a lot of yards or more catches than I’ve had the last couple of weeks, but maybe I didn’t think I played that well that week.
“I try not to get too caught up with the numbers. There are things I can’t control.’’
Tale of the tape
Two decades separate them as players, but the rookie stats of Wayne and Pierce are similar.
Wayne: 13 games, 49 targets, 27 receptions, 345 yards, no touchdowns.
Pierce: 11 games, 52 targets, 28 receptions, 424 yards, one TD.
Smith, Moore out
The difficultly of the task ahead against Dallas increased Friday. Right tackle Braden Smith (illness) and cornerback Kenny Moore II (ankle) have been ruled out of Sunday night’s game.
Interim head coach Jeff Saturday declined to name a replacement for Smith, who has been the Colts’ top offensive lineman. The options are Matt Pryor or Dennis Kelly.
“I’m going to keep that to myself,’’ Saturday said. “But yeah man, losing Braden is huge. He’s a fantastic player for us, very consistent.’’
Also, it’s not out of the question the Colts place Moore on the injured reserve list. He’s dealing with a high ankle sprain and wearing a protective boot on his right foot.
“We’ll continue to talk about it,’’ Saturday said. “He’s week-to-week right now. We’ll see how his progress is and as he continues to heal, what it looks like.’’
Kwity Paye’s return should be a boost to the defense. The second-year end has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
“Kwity had a good week of practice,’’ Saturday said. “Excited for him.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.