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Colts going deep — on the roster

By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 21, 2010

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INDIANAPOLIS — The class for advanced beginners is given every Thursday after practice, with Professor Peyton Manning presiding.

“We do a little extra meeting together with some of these young guys,’’ he said. “I’m at least 14 years older than everybody in the room, I think. I feel very old with Javarris James and Blair White and Brandon James.

“It’s a little Colts school. It’s fun. We talk about the basic fundamentals, but you can’t take those things for granted. Some of these new guys just haven’t been playing.’’

Ordinarily, the quarterback can assume that everyone in his offensive unit is familiar with the essentials — the audibles and the hand signals and the rest of the Indianapolis instant-messaging system that customarily has been part of Mr. Manning’s Magic Show. But these are not ordinary times.

Dallas Clark, the Pro Bowl tight end, went down for the season last month with a wrist injury that required surgery. Receiver Anthony Gonzalez is sidelined for the duration with a knee injury. Joseph Addai, the squad’s top running back for five years, has missed the last three games with a neck injury. Short-yardage specialist Mike Hart has been out two weeks with a bum ankle, and Austin Collie is recovering from a concussion.

That leaves receivers Reggie Wayne, who has caught nearly 6 miles’ worth of balls over the past 10 seasons, and Pierre Garcon, who has been a diminishing presence recently. Plus Jacob Tamme, the third-year tight end whose previous assignment was to play on special teams and watch Clark collect pigskin. And a few guys who either moved up from the practice squad or were picked up from somewhere else.

“There’s only so much the coaches can do to prepare new guys, so you do try to spend time with them afterwards,’’ said Manning. “Make some calls, maybe do a mock drive of a game to give them a little feel for what it’s going to be like on Sunday.’’

Professor Manning, whose weekly tutorials are mandatory, has to teach his pupils out of a special handbook, the one that’s restricted to those with a game jersey.

“We don’t let the practice squad guys know what the signals are because somebody else could sign them to their active roster,’’ says Manning. “So once they get signed, you got me and Collie and [Curtis] Painter doing full-court sign language tests with these guys, teaching them the signals and the tests and the audibles.’’

Javarris James spent a month with the Patriots’ practice squad before the Colts brought him back after cutting him in camp. Now that his number is being called — he had 10 carries in last week’s 23-17 victory over the Bengals and has scored three touchdowns in the last two games — he has to know the secret code. So do receivers Brandon James, Blair White, and Chris Brooks, who weren’t active at the beginning of the season.

The extra cram sessions are time-consuming but critical in order to keep wires from being crossed at inconvenient moments.

“You have to be patient, understanding that there’s going to be some adjustments,’’ Manning said.

He understands that the Magic Show is non-operational until further notice and that it’s highly unlikely that he’s going to have any 300-yard, three-touchdown days for a while.

“You just try to get a little bit better each week, understanding that things might not be picture-perfect,’’ he said. “It may be a 2-yard gain here or a 5-yard completion there that you have to be happy about and be able to accept.

“It doesn’t mean lowering your expectations. It does mean that we’re in somewhat of a transition process with some of our new players and just really working hard trying to get on the same page so you can still have some offensive production.’’

Being realistic Manning’s numbers in recent weeks predictably have dwindled along with his options. After throwing nine touchdown passes in the first three games, he has had only seven in the last six and none in two of them. His passing yards dropped from 433 in the opener to 185 last week. His passer rating, which was over 100 for the first three games, was 89.9, 65.7, and 69.8 for the last three.

Indianapolis, which once was the NFL’s full-throttle speedboat, has been having engine problems. Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz called the Colts the football equivalent of the Carnival Splendor cruise ship. Against the Bengals last weekend, 9 of the 23 points came from field goals by Adam Vinatieri and 6 were contributed by Kelvin Hayden’s to-the-house interception.

“To think that we’re going to go and blow somebody out may not be as realistic as much as saying, find a way to hang in there and make a play in the fourth quarter to get a win,’’ said Manning.

This year, the Colts have been living not just week-to-week but day-to-day, which makes drawing up a game plan an iffy proposition. Last week half a dozen skill-position players either were on injured reserve or inactive.

“We’ve not only had major injuries to guys like Dallas but even some of the replacements have been injured,’’ said Manning. “The challenge is getting on the same page and not necessarily knowing who’s going to be available to play that week. But you have to do it, and guys are stepping up at different times.’’

That’s the Indianapolis mandate. If you’re on the practice field, even as the 61st man, you’re expected to be game-ready at all times.

“We don’t have time to worry about who is not out there, who is not available,’’ said Wayne, who hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. “There is always somebody behind somebody. We’re all on scholarship. There are no walk-ons right now. Whoever is out there is going to have to perform like they’ve been a starter from Day 1.’’

If there’s a benefit to battlefield promotions, it’s that backups, rookies, and practice-squadders have been getting a windfall of experience.

“We look at it as an opportunity more than anything else,’’ said coach Jim Caldwell. “We can develop our depth a little bit because we’ve had injuries early in the season. A young guy had to step in by necessity more than design, developed, and then when the other individual came back at that position, we felt really good because now we had two guys who could perform well.

“We always talk about embracing adversity and coming out of the back end of it stronger.’’

Element of surprise Not that the Colts wouldn’t rather have their entire varsity ready for duty. But the impromptu nature of the Indianapolis offense these days can make it tricky for rival defensive coordinators who have become accustomed to preparing for the same folks for years.

“I’d rather have them have to prepare for us with Clark and Addai and some of those guys,’’ said Manning. “But there is some unknown there, because every time we play the Patriots, they’ve always had something for Dallas.

“Now he’s not in. What does that mean? Do they transfer that package to Jacob Tamme? Do they take it to Reggie Wayne? Do they take it to somebody else? Who knows?’’

Even the Colts don’t know. Addai and Collie were practicing last week and could see action, as could White, who missed the Cincinnati game with a shoulder injury. Hart eventually should return, too. Until then, the quarterback will work with whomever is in the huddle.

“Certain guys are hard to replace,’’ he said, “but you have to adjust and find a way to get a win.’’

So school stays in session until everybody has the hand-jive down. Professor Manning is hoping it won’t go through the holidays.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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