Stokley is rewarding Colts with return on investment

Indianapolis' faith in WR is paying off in playoffs

January 14, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

When most of the NFL doubted Brandon Stokley - including Stokley himself - the Indianapolis Colts believed.

They believed enough to give a two-year, $2.9 million contract to Stokley in March, when he was hobbling around on crutches. They believed enough to stick with him as their No. 3 receiver despite constantly being sidelined by a foot injury, a pulled hamstring and a concussion.

The payoff has come in the playoffs: Stokley has produced eight receptions, 201 yards (a 25.1 average) and a team-best three touchdowns as the Colts head into Sunday's AFC championship showdown with the New England Patriots.

"Other teams said they wanted me, but the Colts were the only ones to put their money where their mouth was," said Stokley, who was briefly courted by the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers. "When the foot was still a problem in training camp, they told me, `We didn't sign you for August. We signed you for December and January.' That meant a lot to me."

While quarterback Peyton Manning has become the poster boy for this year's playoffs, Stokley is the one being called "Mr. January" in the locker room. The only Colt on the active roster with a Super Bowl ring, Stokley is 7-1 in the playoffs, totaling 17 catches, 330 yards and four touchdowns.

In Sunday's 38-31 win in Kansas City, he scored the game's opening touchdown for the second straight week and then converted third downs on his other three catches.

Clutch plays and injuries have marked Stokley's five-year career.

With the Ravens, Stokley will be remembered for two of the biggest catches in team history: beating New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn for the Ravens' first touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV and ending the team's five-game touchdown drought in 2000 on his second career catch.

The problem was Stokley missed 31 of 64 regular-season games for the Ravens primarily because of injuries. That's why the Ravens only offered him a one-year deal worth the league minimum ($530,000) as a free agent.

Stokley, 27, said the Ravens would have been his first choice if they would have come close to the Colts' offer.

"We hated to see Brandon go but given Brandon's injury history - which has again stayed true this year - and the price Indianapolis was willing to pay for that just wasn't prudent for us to do that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But we would have loved to have Brandon back."

Stokley, a former Ravens fourth-round pick, was sidelined the last seven games with the Ravens last year when two bones separated in his foot.

That injury forced him to miss all of the Colts' minicamps and lingered into training camp, where Stokley practiced just five times. It was at that point when he began questioning himself.

"There was a time when I thought I wouldn't come back from the foot," Stokley said. "Retirement was a serious thought for me."

After missing the first six games because of the foot, Stokley was sidelined the month of November from a pulled hamstring and a concussion that occurred when he finally did get back on the field. As a result, he played in just three of the team's first 13 games and totaled five catches for 44 yards.

It wasn't until Week 15 that he started finding a niche in an offense that features Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne and Marcus Pollard as the primary weapons.

Over his past five games, he has 25 receptions, 368 yards and six touchdowns.

"It was tough getting my timing down with Peyton, but he makes it easy," Stokley said. "If you get open, he'll find you. I just try to get open, and I know the ball is going to be there.

"I now feel like I belong here. I feel like I can make plays here. I would like to think that this is my permanent new home."

Said Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage: "It goes to show that when he's healthy, he's a terrific player."

Although Stokley's time with the Ravens makes him Indianapolis' voice of playoff experience, he said this postseason run is totally opposite of the one he made three seasons ago.

"In Baltimore, we played smash mouth and knew we could win the game if we scored 14 points," Stokley said. "Here, it's put up 50 if we can."

The only carry-over from the Ravens for Stokley has been pain and a penchant for producing in the playoffs.

"It's been a tough trip to get here," Stokley said. "But the last couple of weeks have been a great ride."

Coming on strong

After battling injuries this season, Brandon Stokley is healthy and giving the Colts a productive No. 3 receiver.

Rec. Yds. Avg. LG TD

Gms. 1-12 3 34 11.3 20 0

Gms. 13-16 19 177 9.3 37 3

Wild-card 4 144 36.0 87 2

game

Divisional 4 57 14.3 29 1

game

NFL playoffs

Sunday's conference finals

Indianapolis at New England (-3), 3 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Carolina at Philadelphia (-4 1/2 ) 6:45 p.m., chs. 45, 5

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