Colts fans, you see, hadn't seen a physical specimen at the receiver position like Heyward-Bey since, well, ever.
Unfortunately, Indianapolis has learned, as Oakland did, that physical traits don't mean much when you can't put them together for production on the field.
Not only has Heyward-Bey not been anywhere near the ceiling some fans wanted to believe he had, but he's actually been worse than Donnie Avery was last season for Indianapolis, when Avery was one of the worst starting receivers in the league.
I admit, after the preseason & first game, I could 'see' what the team saw in Heyward-Bey. At this point, however, his signing is a disaster— Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) November 18, 2013
Heyward-Bey's lack of production isn't just a void that has to be filled by someone else. His presence on the field has actually been a negative thing for the Colts, who have seen Heyward-Bey drop passes in critical situations and fail to be a viable target in countless others.
Football Outsiders has Heyward-Bey with a -25.2 percent DVOA for the season, 82nd out of 88 qualifying receivers. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) currently has Heyward-Bey graded at -9.4 on passing plays, the worst of 112 qualifying receivers. It got so bad that Heyward-Bey was kept out of the second half of the Titans game completely, although the Colts coaches would later say he tweaked an ankle.
It all starts with Heyward-Bey's hands. His drop problems were well-known when he was signed. Heyward-Bey dropped at least 12 percent (about the 20th percentile for starting receivers) of his "catchable" targets in three of his four years in Oakland, according to Pro Football Focus. But Heyward-Bey has been even worse than usual this year, dropping over 23 percent of his catchable targets and ranking 90th out of 91 qualifying receivers.
It's not that Heyward-Bey's drops always come on critical third downs or anything like that, but they often cost the Colts first downs and put them in poor situations that could have easily been avoided.
Take this drop against Tennessee, for example.
The Colts are down 14-0 in the second quarter and need a big scoring drive to get back into the game. It looks like it's going to happen, as the Colts are driving and have a first down on the Titans' 35. But, on first down, Luck goes for Heyward-Bey down the middle of the field.
Now, the pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, and so it doesn't hit Heyward-Bey in stride, but it was thrown hard enough so Heyward-Bey doesn't have to dramatically change direction. It's a touch high, but Heyward-Bey has both hands on it. It's a very catchable throw, but Heyward-Bey simply can't come down with it.
As a result, the Colts face a long second down, exacerbated by guard Mike McGlynn's false start, and are stopped on the series, forced to kick a long field goal rather than having a first down in the red zone.
Heyward-Bey's drop issues are even worse than Avery and T.Y. Hilton's were last year, and Heyward-Bey doesn't have anywhere near the production that those two had.
Specifically, we look at Avery, whom Heyward-Bey was supposed to replace this season. Avery managed 60 catches, 781 yards and three touchdowns. Heyward-Bey is on pace for just 37 catches, 386 yards and two touchdowns. Now, the Colts' new offense and its lack of downfield passing impacts those numbers, but there's no question that Heyward-Bey has underproduced.
At the beginning of the season, you could argue that Heyward-Bey was being poorly used. The Colts tried to establish him as a deep threat early in the season, even though he's never excelled in that role. Even with his legendary speed, Heyward-Bey's strongest suit has never been the deep ball, at least, not in the NFL.
Where he has found success in the past is in roles designed to get him the ball in space, giving him the opportunity to get yards after the catch. As the season has progressed, the Colts have used Heyward-Bey more in this role, looking to target him on slants, curls, screens, etc. Unfortunately, Heyward-Bey simply hasn't been able to catch passes consistently for Luck to trust him on such routes, especially in critical situations.
Of course, he's struggled to get space against press coverage as well, which doesn't help matters. When you watch tape with the All-22 angles, it's astounding how often Heyward-Bey is blanketed by receivers, which leads to his low target rate. Heyward-Bey averages just five targets per game, the same as Griff Whalen did.
Now, that sounds like a decent number, but take a minute to digest that. Heyward-Bey, who has a $2.5 million contract and is the Colts' starting receiver, is targeted as much as the undrafted free agent (who the Colts just cut) was. If Heyward-Bey were catching these targets, it would change things, but as we've discussed, he's just not.
Until Heyward-Bey starts to catch passes, there's simply not much the Colts can do schematically to get him in better positions. He's getting easy looks, and I really have no issues with the way the Colts are using him. It's all up to Heyward-Bey at this point.
The Colts will likely try others in Heyward-Bey's role, as they have for the past two weeks, namely LaVon Brazill, David Reed and Da'Rick Rogers. Brazill and Reed haven't been able to make an impact, and Rogers has yet to be active in a game. The Colts' receiving corp desperately needs an upgrade, but that's not coming this year.
Somebody has to step up and fill Heyward-Bey's spot if he isn't going to perform. T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener can't carry the Colts' passing game by themselves, at least, not during a playoff run.