WESTFIELD – A noted philosopher nailed it. Sorta.
Ninety percent of the game is half mental.
Yogi Berra might get an argument from Alec Pierce and Reggie Wayne. One of Yogi’s legendary malapropisms might actually have undervalued the cerebral aspect, at least as it pertains to playing wide receiver in the NFL.
The closer to being 100% locked in mentally, the better.
“For sure,’’ said Pierce, the Indianapolis Colts’ 2nd-round pick in the April draft. “It definitely helps to not be out here trying to think and figure out what you’re doing.
“It allows you to play confident.’’
It allows Pierce – every player – to play fast. Even a half-tick of hesitation could mean failure on any given play.
Early in the offseason, quarterback Matt Ryan would call a play in the huddle, and Pierce would immediately run through the playbook in his mind.
“I’m more comfortable,’’ Pierce said. “There’s less thinking involved with the playbook. It kind of allows me to go out there and look at the defense a little more and be comfortable and less in my head thinking about what I’ve gotta do, where I’ve gotta line up.
“It’s slowing down for me.’’
Wayne has noticed the gradual acclimatization.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “When he came in he wasn’t able to run 100 miles per hour because he was still thinking, and he was trying to understand if he was doing the right play or not, trying to learn where he’s supposed to be in the huddle.’’
Wayne, remember, has been there, had to deal with that. He’s Pierce’s first-year position coach, but in 2001 he was the Colts’ top pick – round 1, 30th overall – who had to get the playbook down and get up to speed ASAP. Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison already were well on their way to being the NFL’s most lethal quarterback/receiver tandem.
Until a wideout has a workable grasp of what he’s doing, it’s difficult to play at full speed.
“Very much so,’’ Wayne said. “It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just that you won’t play fast. You know the guy can run, but he’s not running fast like you know he can.
“I’m like, ‘What’s going on? Why you not running?’ He’s like, ‘Just making sure I’m running the right route.’’’
Being precise with assignments is the objective of Wayne and every position coach. If Pierce runs the wrong route, Ryan might suffer the consequences with an incompletion, or worse, an interception.
There have been occasions during training camp when Pierce ran a route, Ryan missed him by 5 yards and the two quickly huddled. It seemed apparent Pierce wasn’t where Ryan expected him to be, on that “spot.’’
Until any receiver finds his comfort zone with the playbook, Wayne demands his group goes about its business full tilt.
“That’s my thing,’’ he said. “I want you running fast all the time, right? If you do screw up, at least you’re screwing up 100 miles per hour. It’s no different than if we’re blocking. ‘You’re blocking the wrong dude. All right, that’s a problem.’ But if you’re blocking the wrong dude aggressively, I’ll take that.
“It’s a give and take. You can’t run the wrong route running slow. That’s definitely a no-no. Whatever you do, give it 100 miles per hour, and we’ll figure out the rest.’’
Pierce’s development throughout training camp has been obvious, which has led to increased productivity. It’s also led to an occasional highlight clip.
During the joint practices with the Detroit Lions last week, Pierce fought tight coverage from cornerback Amani Oruwariye along the left side of the end zone. There was jostling as Ryan’s pass arrived, and, somehow, Pierce came down with the football for a touchdown.
“Still trying to figure how he caught that,’’ Wayne said, smiling.
Pierce has three catches for 36 yards in two preseason games, and one was notable. On a third-and-9 against the Lions, he ran a crossing route, secured a Ryan pass that was short of the line to gain, but turned upfield and powered his way for a 9-yard gain and the first down.
The Colts need Pierce to make an immediate impact.
Michael Pittman Jr. is Ryan’s no-doubt go-to guy – that was obvious from day 1 of camp and has increased with each passing practice – but there’s uncertainly behind the 2020 2nd-round pick: Parris Campbell (injury history), Ashton Dulin (premier special teamer, but just 18 receptions in three seasons), Dezmon Patmon and Mike Strachan (young and promising, but four catches between them) and Keke Coutee (84 career receptions, but only one in two games with the Colts in ’21).
Pierce’s deep speed could help take defensive focus off Pittman, as will his toughness in running routes and winning those 50-50 balls.
Listen to Wayne.
“The kid is tough, and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand,’’ he said. “He’s tough, and that’s what I like about him.
“Another thing people sleep on is he can run, you know what I mean? I guess people look at him and say he’s a white boy out there. They don’t think he can run. He’s fast.’’
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Pierce ran a 4.41 40. That was tied for 9th-fastest among wideouts.
Wayne was asked if Pierce is as fast as was Brandon Stokley, one of Manning’s top targets from 2003-06.
“Oh, he’s faster than Stokley,’’ Wayne said with a smile. “Absolutely. Not even close. Not even close.’’
Stokley would disagree. He brought 4.4 speed to the explosive Manning-led offense.
Not a lot of Atta boys
Wayne brings unique experience to the receivers room: 14 seasons, a Colts’ record 211 games, 1,070 receptions, 14,345 yards, 82 TDs. He’s been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in each of the past three seasons.
His style is more harsh than soothing when dealing with his wideouts.
“Absolutely. No moral victories, bro,’’ Wayne said. “That’s when we give all our kids ribbons and stuff in Pop Warner. Can’t do that here.
“Atta boys go out there and lose you the game. Whenever you’ve got paychecks and stuff involved, that’s a different world.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.