Reggie Wayne’s Loss Will Hinder Andrew Luck’s Development, Limit Colts’ Offense

Reggie WayneAndrew Luck was too hard on himself after the Colts’ big win on Sunday night, blaming his own bad pass for the injury that forced Reggie Wayne from the game. Now, the young quarterback’s greatest fear has been realized.

The Colts confirmed on Monday that Wayne tore his ACL on that fourth quarter play, leaving Luck devastated and the Colts’ offense without a true No. 1 receiver. Luck shouldn’t beat himself up over the unfortunate injury, even though it likely means other teams will be beating up on him more frequently.

Wayne has been the top target in the Colts’ offense since even before Marvin Harrison retired in 2009. He was Peyton Manning‘s reliable third-down weapon for nearly a decade and became Luck’s trusted target almost immediately last season. Now, the budding superstar quarterback has been stripped of his top receiver, and he’ll likely struggle for it.

Since Luck took over the offense as a rookie last season, Wayne has been the third most targeted receiver in the NFL with 252 in 23 games — only Calvin Johnson (268) and Brandon Marshall (262) have more. He also has the sixth-most receptions in the NFL during that time period with 144 — Marshall (164), Wes Welker (162), Andre Johnson (160), Calvin Johnson (155) and Jason Witten (145) each have more. But Wayne hasn’t just been one of the most productive receivers in the league during that time, he’s also been far-and-away Luck’s favorite target.

Luck has targeted Wayne on just a hair under 30 percent of his passes (252 of 851) and the 12-year veteran has caught better than 30 percent of his completions. Donnie Avery saw the second most targets from Luck last season with 125 — around 19 percent of his total attempts, catching just 60 of them (17 percent) and he doesn’t even play for the Colts anymore.

The reliance on Wayne hasn’t been quite as evident this season, as Luck has taken a liking to second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton was third on the team with 91 targets (14 percent) last season, making 50 catches, and has seen that figure increase in 2013. Luck has targeted Hilton much more this season, looking his way 54 times, which is almost even with Wayne’s 58, but the production hasn’t been the same as Hilton’s caught just 27 balls on the year in comparison to Wayne’s 38.

With Avery off catching passes from Alex Smith in Kansas City, tight end Dwayne Allen on injured reserve and Wayne headed that way, Hilton is now the only remaining option of Luck’s top-four targets from 2012. Hilton is good and new addition Darrius Heyward-Bey has been serviceable so far, but, even if both play well beyond their current levels, there’s just no replacing Wayne.

Wayne is one of the best route runners in football. He understands defensive schemes and coverages better than most other receivers. And he had already developed an almost impeccable chemistry with his young quarterback. They were consistently on the same page on adjustments at the line of scrimmage and showed unwavering trust in one another even after mistakes. That sort of confidence isn’t easily earned and is very hard to come by midway through the season, even for pre-established receivers.

As much as Luck’s own personal development will be impacted by Wayne’s absence, so will the Colts’ offense. The Colts are going to miss Wayne’s leadership both on the field and in the locker room, and his production isn’t something that can’t easily be replicated either. There will undoubtedly be some growing pains as the season wears on, which isn’t something a 5-2 Super Bowl contender can really afford.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a call for panic in Indianapolis. Luck isn’t going to suddenly drop off the face of the earth, and the Colts will still be contenders come playoff time. But replacing a Reggie Wayne is damn near impossible, and it will present serious challenges that both Luck and the Colts will need to overcome.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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