Contributor Nick Pease checks in with this piece on Blair White.
As we grow closer and closer to Saturday night's rematch of last season's AFC Championship game, questions remain.
However, maybe one of the most important questions to ask is this: who will step up and provide the spark, the big hit, or the big play the Colts need? Who will be the X-factor? Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney and the stable of stars will have to perform. But if the onus is on any one player to step up and help this team win Saturday night, that player is wide receiver Blair White.
In a season plagued by devastating injuries to the receiving corps, the Colts find themselves heading into the playoffs without key targets Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, and Anthony Gonzalez. This Grand Canyon size void will allow the Jets secondary, including Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, to focus on Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon. If the Colts want to be able to move the ball against the Jets defense, and then move onto the second round of the playoffs, White will have to be an integral part of making that happen.
Plucked off the practice squad and thrust into action early in the season, White has had quite the interesting rookie campaign. In 13 games he has compiled 36 receptions for 355 yards and five touchdowns. Not stellar numbers by any means, but not terrible for an undrafted wide receiver out of Michigan State
White was thrown into the mix in week three at Denver, and in his first career game he hauled in three passes for 27 yards and a touchdown. In that match up White actually had the guts to tell Manning he could beat his guy and get open in the end zone. And that's exactly what he did. After the Denver game, there was a drop off in production as Collie, Gonzalez, and Garcon all worked there way back into, and out of, the lineup. Over the next six games White caught only 6 passes for 81 yards.
He came back with a vengeance in week 11 on the road at New England. White caught five passes for 42 yards, including two touchdowns in a furious comeback attempt that fell just short. Over the final six games of the season, White caught 22 passes for 205 yards, including touchdowns against San Diego and Oakland. His five touchdowns finished third best on the team and 24 of his 36 receptions went for first downs.
Along with the successes, there have certainly been miscues along the road as well. The learning curve for any Colts receiver is steep, and White is no exception despite posting a 3.89 GPA and being named an Academic All-American.
His inexperience with Manning's inexhaustible supply of audibles was on full display in week 14 at Tennessee. Lined up just short of the goal line, Manning called out the changes, but White misunderstood and dove in front of pass intended for Reggie Wayne, who happened to be standing wide open in the back of the end zone. There have also been misreads where Manning has thrown deep while White broke for the sideline. Common mistakes in a difficult and layered offense, but mistakes none the less.
Despite the overall solid contribution, the drop off from Collie to White is still significant. Quite significant. Collie was emerging as a favorite target for Manning and as a Pro Bowl caliber receiver. In only 9 games Collie racked up 59 catches for 649 yards and eight touchdowns. It would be more than wishful thinking to believe that White could fill in as an undrafted free agent and produce those types of stats in his rookie season.
White has excellent hands, seems to run solid, crisp routes (most of the time), and has football smarts. But he doesn't have the speed or quickness that Collie has and doesn't have the ability to stretch the field vertically. To make matters worse, Collie was a key component in carving up the Jets defense during last year's AFC Championship game. On that night Collie had seven catches for 123 yards, for a 17.6 average, and an impressive touchdown catch.
So the question is clear, along with the answer. Can Blair White match the production of Austin Collie? No, he can't. Add the season long train wreck of injuries that has been the Colts offense and the task becomes that much more difficult. Can Blair White fill the void left by Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark? Most certainly not.
But one thing is for sure, if the Colts want to win this weekend's Wild Card game against the Jets and then move on in the playoffs, White will have to produce. Can we win without him having a huge game? Absolutely. But White will have to play tough, find the open space and make the difficult catches to keep the chains moving. That much is vital.
So then, just one question remains: can Blair White step up this Saturday night and give Peyton Manning the spark he needs?