Reggie Wayne is back to being his old self.
A little more than nine months after injuring his right knee, the perennial Pro Bowler was finally back on the practice field catching passes from Andrew Luck and working overtime catching balls from the JUGS machine. Yep, things are getting back to normal for the Colts.
"This is what I worked hard for. This is all the two and three-a-days and rehabbing and stuff like that. This is what it's about," Wayne said after hauling in two balls Thursday afternoon. "Today felt pretty doggone good."
Wayne had been the model of consistency until tearing his ACL in the fourth quarter of a victory over Denver and former teammate Peyton Manning last October.
He enters this season with 1,006 receptions, 13,566 yards, and 80 TDs. But the injury ended his streaks of catching at least 70 passes and accumulating at least 960 yards, something he did every year from 2004 through 2012, as well as his streak of 189 consecutive games.
Instead, Wayne was forced into the role of coach and motivator as he and a large group of injured offensive starters worked their way back to health. Running back Vick Ballard, like Wayne, tore his ACL early last season. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw had season-ending neck surgery in October. Starting guard Donald Thomas underwent surgery to repair a torn biceps and a torn quad, and tight end Dwayne Allen had season-ending hip surgery in September. Allen was the only one of the five on the field for offseason workouts.
So when the Colts opened practice Thursday all eyes were focused on the 35-year-old receiver who kept promising he'd be ready for the start of camp. Fans greeted his return with chants of "Reg-gie, Reg-gie" and cheered loudly any time he got near the temporary bleachers at Anderson University.
Wayne had only one complaint: He grudgingly agreed to take some of the practice off.
"That's the thing, we want to stay the course, even if I don't agree to it," Wayne said. "I give Coach (Chuck) Pagano the first round, he won this first round. I wanted to come in and kind of slowly get my way into it. I did more than half of practice. I could have, I wanted to do the whole thing, but he pulled me out and said it was enough."
A year ago, the Colts left camp expecting to build on the success of Andrew Luck's rookie season.
But the injury rash struck hard and fast.
Allen went down with a hip injury in Week 1 and Ballard injured his knee in practice a few days later. Thomas was carted off the field in Week 2, and Bradshaw hurt his neck in Week 3, decimating a ground game the Colts hoped would take some of the pressure off of Luck's right arm. When Wayne got hurt in Week 7, the once formidable-looking lineup was in big trouble.
Luck and the backups spent the next six weeks searching for answers as they alternated wins and losses for six weeks. They closed the season with three straight wins to win the AFC South.
Indy used its first selection in May's draft on Jack Mewhort, a versatile offensive lineman who lined up Thomas' old spot, left guard, in May and June.
T.Y. Hilton completed his breakout season with 1,083 yards and five touchdowns, Da'Rick Rogers emerged as a potential threat and the Colts signed former Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks in free agency.
The Colts now have three running backs vying for the starting job: Trent Richardson, the first non-quarterback selected in the 2012 draft; Bradshaw, who won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants; and Ballard, who led the Colts with 811 yards rushing as a rookie in 2012.
"I've been in this environment before, with Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward in New York," Bradshaw said, noting he's eager to test his body. "I'm a running back, so I'm going to try and not get hit, but like you said, I'm a physical back and I can't wait to get that first hit."
He will have to wait a few more days because NFL rules prohibit the Colts from working out in full pads until Saturday.
By then, Ballard could have a better idea of how he'll fare on his next test.
"I just want to get out there and play fast," he said. "When I'm playing fast, I'll feel like I'm back."
Luck said he thinks things are already getting in sync, and Wayne concurs.
"Not one thing bothered me today, not one time I went out there and worried about my knee," Wayne said. "I'm still trying to get in the flow of everything else. I'm more worrying about if I'm going the right way and running the right route. It felt normal, no problem, felt great and we're just going to build off that."