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Colts' Harrison, 35, facing questions on his future

INDIANAPOLIS - It was a powerful and revealing, if relatively innocent, comment that surely could creep under the skin of the man who has caught more passes than all but three players in NFL history.

The NFL is a young man's game, and Philadelphia native Marvin Harrison will turn 36 in late August. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The NFL is a young man's game, and Philadelphia native Marvin Harrison will turn 36 in late August. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)Read more

INDIANAPOLIS - It was a powerful and revealing, if relatively innocent, comment that surely could creep under the skin of the man who has caught more passes than all but three players in NFL history.

"I guess I'm Marv now," Reggie Wayne said last weekend.

If Wayne, the Indianapolis Colts' eighth-year wide receiver, who had his best season in 2007, is now "Marv," where then does that leave Marvin Harrison, the 35-year-old Philadelphia native with more than 1,000 catches in 12 seasons? On the downhill arc of his career? As the "other option" in the Colts' offensive arsenal? One more tweak away from becoming Mr. Irrelevant? A successful rehabilitation away from regaining his status as The Man?

As questions about Harrison's possible connection to an April 29 shooting near his garage and car wash on 25th and Thompson Streets in North Philadelphia linger, there, too, are plenty about his football future, and not just where Wayne is concerned. No matter his physical prowess or unique speed, Harrison has reached the age of diminishing returns. The NFL is a young man's game, and Harrison, who will turn 36 in late August, is closer to 40 than 30, much less 20.

While Harrison sat out 11 games last season with a nagging knee injury, the Colts' offense didn't seem to notice. Peyton Manning still threw for 4,000 yards. The team still won 13 regular-season games, still dominated the AFC South, still got a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

No, Indianapolis didn't win the Super Bowl - or a playoff game, for that matter - but it's fair to say those shortfalls were more because the Colts missed defensive end Dwight Freeney and free safety Bob Sanders than because they missed Harrison.

Which raises the question: Regardless of what happens with the police investigation in Philadelphia, how much more does No. 88 have left?

At the first sniff of controversy, the Colts' organization went into lockdown. Forget for a moment that pinning Harrison down for an interview is tougher than getting team secrets out of Eagles coach Andy Reid. At least Reid is available.

Last weekend at their mandatory minicamp, the Colts first tried to bar a Philadelphia reporter from attending - a violation of the NFL's media policy - and only after the league intervened did the team acquiesce. There was a major caveat: no access to Harrison, or team president Bill Polian, or owner Jim Irsay. Even the locker room was closed for the first time anyone in the Indianapolis media could remember.

Harrison continued to rehabilitate from off-season surgery to clean out his right knee and wasn't on the practice field when local reporters - and only local reporters - were allowed to watch. He didn't enter the team's media work room where interviews took place, and was careful to enter and exit the practice facility away from the camera lenses.

Meanwhile, team officials issued a statement and instructed players and coaches not to answer questions about Harrison's off-the-field issue in North Philadelphia. His football status was fair game.

Harrison is coming off his least productive season in the NFL, one derailed by an injured left knee suffered in Week 4 that he could never get right. The typically durable Harrison, who had played in at least 15 regular-season games in all but one season since entering the league in 1996, played in just five games and made 20 catches for 247 yards.

The Colts expect Harrison to be ready for their season opener against Chicago, although probably not in time for the start of training camp. When he does return, he'll have to contend with this fact: Even before last season, Harrison's downward turn in production could be directly linked to Wayne's escalated output.

From 1999 through 2002, Harrison averaged a blistering 117.3 catches and 1,580.5 yards per season. He never missed a regular-season start, and had 52 touchdowns, including 15 in 2001.

With a draft pick acquired from the New York Giants, the Colts selected Wayne out of Miami in the first round in 2001. Wayne moved into the starting lineup in 2003, and Harrison's production dropped, from 1,722 receiving yards in 2002 - a career high - to 1,272 in 2003.

Wayne's reception total has climbed each season he has been a full-time starter, while Harrison's has dropped, except for a spike in 2006 when Indianapolis made its Super Bowl run.

With Wayne playing opposite him, Harrison averaged 89.3 catches and 1,224.3 yards from 2003 through 2006, while Wayne averaged 78.5 catches and 1,103.3 yards.

By 2006, Wayne and Harrison had become as formidable a receiving tandem as there was in the NFL, although Harrison was quietly suffering the blow to his ego. In an interview in November 2006, Harrison said the thing that impressed him most about himself was his newfound "patience" with his job. He wouldn't elaborate, but coach Tony Dungy admitted that Harrison had to adjust to sharing the football.

Wayne, of course, views their on-the-field partnership as a plus. The Colts' offense was virtually unstoppable in 2006.

"He was healthy, I was healthy, and we went to the Super Bowl," Wayne said. "Our offense was potent. So the closest I can have him to 100 percent, I think the better off I'll be."

But with Harrison sidelined last season, Wayne had the best year of his career, with 104 receptions for 1,510 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Asked what he was most proud of from last season, Wayne said: "Shutting up the critics. There was always talk about, Could I do it? A lot of times I would hear I'm good just because of Marvin, which I am because he's helped me get better. But at the same time, I know what I can do, and I was able to prove it last year."

Said Dungy: "Reggie's gotten better every year since I have been here - just little fine points, little details, getting more opportunities, but really understanding the game, how we do things, and making those plays. He made a ton of big plays for us, was very consistent all year, but not a whole lot different than he's been maybe the last three years."

Harrison will never catch Jerry Rice. No one could, and no one will. But when Harrison's career is over, he will go down as one of the top three or four receivers to play the game. His numbers - fourth all-time in catches, fifth in yards, fifth in touchdowns - are that strong.

But how much those numbers continue to grow this season will depend on several factors:

How does the situation in North Philadelphia play out? The police have said that Harrison isn't a suspect, and there is no incident report or filed charges, but the police have said his gun was used in the shooting.

How do Harrison's knees hold up?

How much do Dungy and by extension Manning get Harrison the ball?

"I remember a time when people thought Jerry Rice was on the downhill side when he left San Francisco, and he played quite a while after that," Dungy said.

"Marvin is like Peyton in a lot of ways," he said. "I think it's going to be mental with him, how much longer he wants to put in that grind of staying at the top, and practicing, and working to stay at that elite level. Physically, I think he can do it for a number of more years."

One thing you know: If Harrison can't be Harrison, there's another player on the Colts' roster who can.