It was an emotional time for Clark, but also an emotional time for those who played with him, coached him or watched him play. When Clark teared up at the podium, before the speech even started, everybody in the room and watching remotely felt the emotion.
For an iconic tight end of the Peyton Manning era, Clark was a Classic Colt who embodied the spirit of those teams. He was a player who overachieved, whose athletic ability wasn't outstanding. Yet despite what he looked like on paper or at the NFL combine, Clark presented mismatches all over the field, just as those teams did.
Off the field, Clark embodied the best of those teams as well. He wasn't just compliant with the media, he actually enjoyed talking with the press every week. He was charitable, he invested in the community and he represented the horseshoe as honorably as anybody.
There are plenty of stories to be told about Dallas Clark, about what he brought to the locker room as a leader, what he brought to the organization as a person and what he brought to the community as a public figure. I'm not the person to tell those stories.
What I can tell you is how Dallas Clark forever changed the way that Indianapolis fans viewed the tight end position, how he changed how Peyton Manning would use and utilize tight ends for years to come.
His Place in History
When Clark entered the league in 2003, the use of a tight end was nothing new for Indianapolis. We're not even talking about the legendary John Mackey, who tore up the league in the 1960s with five seasons of 600 yards or more. Along with Mike Ditka and St. Louis tight end Jackie Smith, Mackey was one of the first tight ends to ever be a true threat in the passing game.
But Mackey never played in Indianapolis.
Before Dallas Clark, the most prolific tight ends to play in Indianapolis were Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard. Now, that's not to say that Dilger and Pollard were poor players, but their highlight seasons were years that mirrored what Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener have been able to do over the last two seasons.
To say the passing game has changed would be an understatement, of course.
But what Dilger and Pollard were able to do, pre-Clark, was nothing but a shadow of the potential the tight end position had. Tight ends produced because there were no (or very few) good receiving options.
In 1995, Ken Dilger had his best receiving season with 42 catches, 635 yards and four touchdowns. He was the second-leading receiver on the team. Wide receiver Sean Dawkins led the team with 784 yards, while running back Marshall Faulk had 56 catches and 475 yards. Let's just say the receiving corps was a little bare. Dilger was not a tight end to build a receiving game around. He was a complementary piece at best.
In 2001, Marcus Pollard set an Indianapolis record for a tight end with 739 receiving yards, breaking Dilger's record from 1995. That was the last team to rely on Marvin Harrison, who had 109 catches and 1,524 yards. Behind those two was a rookie Reggie Wayne, who scared nobody, and a rapidly declining Ken Dilger, in his final season as a Colt.
Again, Pollard was playing the complementary role on a team that needed another centerpiece. It was the only time in his career that he'd have over 550 yards in a season.
Then there was Dallas Clark.
Clark was the missing link to those mid-2000s Colts teams. He was the final mismatch that the team needed to push to unparalleled heights. Before Clark was drafted in 2003, Peyton Manning's highest single-season passer rating was 94.7. From 2003 until his final season as a Colt in 2010, Manning had just one season where he had a passer rating under 95, and that was 2010, when Dallas Clark was injured for 11 games of the season.
Clark was the X-factor that changed everything for Peyton Manning. He was different. Sure, he could fit in as a complementary piece on those teams from 2003-2006, when Harrison, Wayne and Brandon Stokley were combining for ungodly amounts of receiving yards.
But the difference between Clark and guys like Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger was that Clark could be more than just a complementary piece. He could be another centerpiece. Whether it was third-down catches in the playoffs, fade routes in the end zone or splitting defenses down the seam, Clark was as much a featured part of those offenses as anybody, he just didn't have the targets to put up huge numbers.
It was hinted at in the 2006 postseason, when Clark returned from a sprained right knee to catch 21 receptions for 317 yards in the playoffs. Just nine players have ever had at least 20 catches and 300 yards in a single postseason, and Clark is the only tight end. He could be a centerpiece, and Peyton Manning knew it, per Craig Kelley of Colts.com:
His 2006 playoff run in my opinion will go down as one of the most impressive accomplishments for any tight end. Basically, he was our slot receiver for that entire playoff run when Brandon Stokley got injured. Teams were playing defensive backs and cornerbacks on him, and it didn’t matter. He was still getting open.
He had a couple of huge catches against Baltimore, some huge plays in our comeback win against New England and a couple of pivotal catches in the Super Bowl, all when defenses were keying on him and targeting him.
After Marvin Harrison was injured in 2007, the team didn't need a complementary piece to add to Reggie Wayne. It needed another No. 1 receiver, another centerpiece who could produce despite the defense's attention.
Clark did what no Colts tight end had been able to do before and became the elite possession receiver and occasional downfield threat that the team needed to stay great.
Everything culminated in 2009, when Clark became the first tight end in history to have at least 100 receptions, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in a single season. He remains, to this day, the only tight end to ever accomplish that feat.
The 2007-2009 run was easily the best run by a Colts tight end in history, and can only be matched in significance league-wide by players like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe and Jason Witten.
The only thing that could stop Clark was time. During the 2010 season, Clark had season-ending wrist surgery that was the beginning of what would be a swift decline. Prior to the injury, Clark was on pace for 98 catches, 925 yards and eight touchdowns. But after season-ending surgery, Manning's subsequent injury woes and turning 32 in 2011, Clark never would be the same.
Neither would Indianapolis.
A Different Role
Clark was a perfect fit in the Indianapolis offense, which, in hindsight, was what carried Bill Polian through the Colts' historic run through the 2000s. Polian knew he had to find players who could produce in Manning's system, and he found those players (Clark being one of the more crucial pieces to the puzzle).
In essence, Clark was Manning in a tight end's body. At least, he was everything that Manning wanted in a tight end's body.
He was a country boy, he looked a little goofy at times, but he had the right blend of speed, size, hands, toughness and on-field awareness to be an extension of Manning. When you talk to former members of those teams, it's the flexibility that Clark brought that shaped those offenses. Tony Dungy explained it best to Kelley:
Dallas was the perfect fit for the offense we had. He could play in tight in a normal tight end role, but we could split him out and go in a three-wide receiver look without substituting.
A lot of times, we’d see who opponents would put on him. If they had linebackers on him, we’d split him out and get the mismatch. If they put nickel defenders on him, we’d bring him in tight and run. Dallas was a matchup problem and allowed us to be multiple. That was a big weapon.
The Colts wanted to play fast, cause matchup problems and force the defense to be uncomfortable, and Clark was the piece that allowed them to do so.
But it wasn't just that. Manning wanted perfection from his receivers. He always has. He wanted receivers who would catch every pass that hit them in the hands. He wanted receivers who would take hits over the middle and still come up with the catch, allowing him to thread any window. He wanted receivers who would work tirelessly to know exactly how each route was supposed to be run, how many steps in exactly as many seconds as Manning required.
Clark was all of those things. While he was never among the league leaders in drop rate, his hands were made of glue at times, whether it was one-handed grabs in the end zone or diving catches to ice playoff games. If he could get his fingertips on a ball, there was always a possibility, nay, probability, of him coming down with the catch.
Toughness over the middle? You couldn't have asked for a better example than Clark. Manning led him into more upper-body shots from safeties and cornerbacks than anybody I've ever seen, but Clark never shied away from his role. The whole reason that the Colts offense was successful in the late 2000s was because Clark simply dominated the middle of the field. Safeties couldn't shade over to help against Reggie Wayne or the deep threat of Pierre Garcon with Clark feasting over the middle.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, was the mental connection. Clark and Manning were perfectly synchronized in terms of pre- and mid-play adjustments. If the defense did one thing, Clark did another, and Manning knew where he would be. If the defense lined up a different way, Clark did something else, and rarely were the two on different pages.
For Manning, you couldn't have asked for a better weapon.
After using Clark in that fashion for so many years, Manning just kept on doing it with guys like Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen and now Julius Thomas. The tight end is no longer an accessory, a complement. It's the X-factor, the secret weapon disguised as a mere afterthought.
Clark is the reason why expectations for Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are so high. He's the reason that Manning uses tight ends the way he does today. Without him, the Colts likely don't have a Lombardi Trophy in 2006 and a trip to the Super Bowl in 2009.
He is, without question, a Classic Colt. And it's good to have him home.