Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Colts' offense runs through Dallas Clark

By Jim Corbett

December 22, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS — Dallas Clark is no longer overshadowed by Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.

The fifth-year tight end has become a game-breaker in his own right and has teamed with Wayne to help pick up the slack during Harrison's nine-game absence this season, courtesy of a bruised left knee.

ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Ron Jaworski says Clark "is as good as it gets at the tight end position."

He is having a career season with 51 catches, including nine touchdown receptions. He has 551 receiving yards, also a new career high.

Clark is even challenging some venerable marks in the Colts' record book. His nine TD grabs tied Hall of Famer John Mackey for the most by a Colts tight end in a single season. And with five more receptions, Clark would surpass Mackey's 40-year-old mark for catches in a season by a Colts tight end.

But his breakout really began last January.

His emergence as an invaluable and trusted weapon for quarterback Peyton Manning started during the Colts' four-game playoff run that culminated in their 29-17 Super Bowl XLI victory against the Chicago Bears.

Clark returned to the lineup just in time a year ago after a Nov. 26, 2006, knee injury against Philadelphia, an injury some believed would end his season.

He not only returned to play but also proved to be the Colts' offensive playoff MVP, leading all receivers in the 2006 postseason with 317 receiving yards. His 21 playoff receptions were nine shy of his 30 catches (for 367 yards) during 12 regular-season games in 2006. And only teammate Joseph Addai, who caught 22 passes, had more receptions in the postseason than Clark.

It should have come as little surprise — Clark's per-game career production in the playoffs doubles his regular-season output see chart. More important, by working the seams and underneath opposing coverages, he's been able to exploit defenses that choose to devote their resources to blanketing Harrison and/or Wayne.

A growing rapport was cemented when Clark and Manning roomed together during training camp this summer, giving Clark an even greater appreciation for all Manning does as the maestro of a complex, no-huddle offense.

"Maybe that instilled a little more trust in me by Peyton," Clark says. "I think a lot had to do with last year's run to the playoffs, and I was able to get a lot of catches. Peyton just looked to me a lot, and it's carried over to this season.

"I feel like I'm finally on that level that Reggie and Marvin have with him.

"Now I feel like we're on the same page. I know my job and feel like we're reading the same coverages with Peyton.

"I feel like I'm there."

Clark likens his ascent to reaching the highest level of a difficult video game.

It took the better part of four years to grasp all the nuances and complexities of offensive coordinator Tom Moore's diverse scheme, an approach Manning has raised to an art form with his pre-snap audibles and clinical diagnoses of defenses.

As a flexible weapon who can line up tight to the line or spread out on either side as a wide or slot receiver, Clark is the most versatile X-factor in Moore's offense.

With Harrison sidelined, Clark has been as valuable this season as he was last postseason. Twenty-eight of Clark's 51 catches have come during the eight-time Pro Bowler's absence.

"He's put up better numbers this year than in the past," Colts president Bill Polian says. "He's just gotten more opportunities because Marvin's been down a while and (rookie slot receiver) Anthony Gonzalez naturally is still developing.

"Dallas has had more opportunities, and he's made the most of them. He's a great receiver, great route runner, good blocker and has great hands."

With defenses increasingly double-teaming Wayne, Clark's versatility has become even more critical to creating matchup advantages.

Put simply, these Colts would be lost without Clark.

"Their offense runs through Dallas Clark," Jaworski says. "That doesn't mean he's getting the ball every play, or that Peyton looks to him all the time.

"(But) Dallas is so versatile. … He's used No. 1 as a tight end and is a very solid blocker in their run game. They flex him out and he gets clean releases as a wide receiver and creates matchup problems against linebackers and safeties in the slot.

"Or he can be an H-back in the run game. He can catch and block, he can go deep. He's intelligent. He reads the blitzes and knows when to be the hot receiver. He's a complete tight end."

Manning believes the Colts likely would not have raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy without Clark's gutty and timely return from a sprained knee just in time for last year's Super Bowl run.

The 6-3, 252-pound Clark came up big when Manning needed him most, too, catching six balls for 137 yards, including a 52-yarder, in the Colts' 38-34 AFC Championship Game comeback against the New England Patriots, a contest the Colts trailed 21-3 in the second quarter.

"There is no doubt in my mind, if he doesn't get himself healthy, take it upon himself to not have surgery on his potentially season-ending knee injury, rehab, get back for the game against Miami (in the regular-season finale where Clark had four catches for 56 yards) where he gets the four-week rust off, and get back for the playoffs, I don't think we win the championship," Manning said during training camp.

"There is no doubt in my mind that's the case. It's a true credit to him for sacrificing his body and getting ready to come back and help us. In the postseason he was huge."

And Manning couldn't help but gush about Clark's ability as a mismatch wherever he lines up.

"He's extremely dependable, makes great catches. He is a nuisance for the defense, and the fact that who do you put on him?"

"Do you put a defensive back on him and sacrifice your run defense? Or do you put a safety or a linebacker on him and sacrifice your pass coverage?"

"Whatever it may be, it's nice having a guy that causes problems for the defense.

"We would not be the same offense without him."

The crucial salary-cap question Polian must figure out this offseason is how to keep both Clark and hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders with both former Iowa Hawkeye teammates in the final year of their deals. Especially since, at 35, Harrison may be starting to wear down.

"With age and now the injury to Marvin, Father Time does catch up to everyone," Jaworski says. "When you have a Bob Sanders, who is the heartbeat of that defense, and a Dallas Clark, who that offense runs through, you have to find a way to keep both those guys long term."

The good news for the Colts is that they have proved they can win without Harrison and, as a result, he has received extended time in the regular season, and a first-round bye if he needs it, to allow him every chance to return for the postseason.

"They've weathered the storm and increased their depth," Jaworski says. "Anthony Gonzalez is no Marvin Harrison. But he's valuable as a slot receiver."

Says Polian of the hopeful return of Harrison: "It'll make us better, because Dallas will go back to tight end, and we won't have to play him in the slot."

Clark credits former teammate and current Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley with showing him the nuances of running out of the slot when Stokley suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury last season. Stokley's tutelage helped Clark reprise his role in the playoffs.

"Brandon is the best slot receiver in the league," Clark says. "I love the way he plays. He's a great guy, great friend, great player. I was very fortunate to watch him practice every day.

"He was just really good at getting defenders off, using his hands really well and setting guys up."

Now Clark is the multi-pronged threat the Colts would be lost without. His nine touchdown catches tie Wayne for the team lead even though the tight end has 31 fewer catches.

"It's a combination of Dallas learning more about the game and being more experienced in our offense and the opportunity coming," coach Tony Dungy says.

"Same thing with Reggie. Reggie has grown every year as a receiver. He's worked on some part of his game every year to be better. Now because of Marvin being out these games, he's getting the opportunity to demonstrate how he's grown. He probably could have been the same player with less balls thrown to him, but we wouldn't notice it as much.

"Both of those guys have gotten opportunities to show how they've grown and they're playing great."

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