FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Marvin Harrison is far from the biggest NFL receiver. He’s certainly not the fastest. But Harrison has been the best receiver for years because he’s a driven perfectionist.
“Marvin’s so driven to do his trade correctly, that a hook route be a perfect hook route, that short in be a perfect short in,” said Clyde Christensen, his position coach the last five seasons. “Most guys are trying to get out of practice. With Marvin, you’re trying to pull him out. I tell him to shut it down and the next thing you know he’s in the front of the line. If you’re running routes against air and Marvin’s going to get five of them and he drops the first one, he’s going to redo that one. The Thursday before we left for here, he dropped a ball and sure enough, he gets in line behind the rookies and runs it again.”
Harrison has been running those routes so precisely for 11 years that with one more typical season (93 catches, 1,245 yards, 11 touchdowns) in 2007, he’ll rank second to the Jerry Rice in all three categories.
“It’s just my competitiveness more than anything … regardless of how many catches and yards I have, I just try to look to see what I can improve on,” Harrison said.
Even though Harrison will be 35 in August, he’s not slowing down. His 95 catches and 1,366 yards this season were his most in four years despite playing alongside fellow Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne. Harrison scored 12 times and his 14.4-yard average was a tenth of a yard behind his personal best.
“I think Marvin’s running faster than anytime I’ve coached him,” Christensen said. “He’s quicker than he’s ever been and his hands are better. I think the guy is still ascending physically right now. He could play another five, 10 years.”
The latter might be an exaggeration, but Rice’s records (1,549 catches, 22,895 yards, 197 touchdowns) are starting to look not quite so unreachable.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate calling Marvin a teammate,” said All-Pro Peyton Manning, Harrison’s quarterback for nine years. “In my opinion, he’s the best receiver of all time.
“I can’t say enough about how hard Marvin works. Every catch you see out here, he’s made 10 times those catches with one hand, with eyes closed on the practice field.”
Harrison’s eyes aren’t the only body part that is closed. The Colts have been astounded watching Harrison answer questions from the Super Bowl media for hours, given that he speaks to reporters about as often as the Colts advance to this stage and doesn’t talk to teammates that often either.
“Marvin’s a mystery,” Christensen said. “Peyton will always say at the Pro Bowl, ‘I’ll give $100 to anyone who can spot Marvin anywhere other than practice.’ No one ever sees him even in Hawaii. He’s the same in Indy. Players will play with Marvin for eight years and say they’ve never seen him around town. Marvin speaks to you on a need to know basis. But he’s always listening. [In a receivers; meeting] I’m saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve got to do on our hook routes,’ and Marvin’s looking down. You’ll think he didn’t hear you, but all of a sudden it will show up in his play. Marvin misses nothing. He’s a very bright guy.”
But not a flashy one. Harrison not only isn’t a loud-mouthed, modern “look at me” receiver like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson, he the antithesis of them.
“When you do things, you try to do [them] with class, regardless if it’s on the field, off the field or if you’re just checking into a hotel,” Harrison said. “That’s the one thing I take pride in myself with. If you’re going to do something, just do it right.”
No combination has ever been more right than Manning to Harrison.
“It’s just something special with Peyton and Marvin,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “Marvin really thinks like a quarterback. He was a quarterback in high school. He understands when he sees a certain coverage what the quarterback is looking at, where the ball is likely to come, where to gear down, when to change things a little bit. And Peyton and Marvin have tremendous recall, so that helps. It’s really, more than anything, hard work of throwing those same routes over and over and over. They’ll be out an hour before the Super Bowl working on routes that they’ve thrown for nine years.”
It took Manning all of three plays in his preseason debut in 1998 to start forging that bond with Harrison. The No. 1 pick in the draft was so nervous that he had practiced being tackled by falling on the bed in his hotel room before the team buses left for the game. After two handoffs gained 4 yards, Manning dropped back for his first NFL pass on third-and-6.
“I throw a 6-yard pass to Marvin and he runs 50 yards for a touchdown,” Manning recalled. “You think, ‘That’s a good idea. Maybe I ought to keep doing that.’ ”