Indianapolis Colts' Reggie Wayne evolving as coach

INDIANAPOLIS -- Reggie Wayne loves everything about his South Florida lifestyle. He lives for the poolside cigars, the year-round sun and lazy days on the beach.

All of that makes it understandable that the former Indianapolis Colts All-Pro receiver resisted the urge to embark on a coaching career for so long after retiring following the 2015 season. It also makes it surprising that he turned down a chance to resume that sun-kissed lifestyle, even after a rocky first season coaching Indianapolis' wide receivers in 2022 -- a season that included just four wins and the firing of the coach who hired him, Frank Reich.

And, yet, Wayne very much wanted another shot.

"I had some unfinished business," Wayne said. "I really felt like I underachieved as a coach, and just felt like I can do better."

That's why when Shane Steichen was hired as the Colts' new head coach in February, Wayne welcomed the opportunity to share with Steichen his vision for how he could contribute -- so long as the new coach would have him.

One day, as Steichen was assembling his new staff, he summoned Wayne for a chat.

"He said, 'Hey, let me talk to you,'" Wayne recalled. "It was two hours later and I was like, 'Was that an interview?' I really didn't know at the time. I said, 'I hope I aced this.'"

Turns out, it was, indeed, an interview. And Steichen heard just what he needed. Now Wayne is one of just two holdovers from Reich's staff among the eight offensive assistants under Steichen. The other holdover, quality control coach Brian Bratton, is, effectively, Wayne's assistant receivers coach.

The new staff is credited with helping the Colts (7-5) climb into playoff contention. The Colts won their fourth straight Sunday, beating the Tennessee Titans 31-28 in Nashville. The game featured Michael Pittman Jr. (105 receiving yards) and Alec Pierce (100) becoming the first pair of Colts pass-catchers to eclipse 100 receiving yards in the same game in the last 10 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last pair of Colts pass-catchers to do so was Donte Moncrief (134) and Coby Fleener (127) against Washington in November 2014.

Pittman is the third player in franchise history to record at least 10 receptions and 100 receiving yards in consecutive games. He joins Hall-of-Famers Marvin Harrison (two straight in 2002) and Raymond Berry (two straight in 1959).

"It's a whole different transition from being a player to a coach," Steichen said. "Just the different operations, the daily operations. You can see the growth from Reggie."

Wayne, a four-time finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a semifinalist this year, needs no introduction as a player. His 14,345 career receiving yards rank just behind Harrison's 14,580. Wayne's extraordinary postseason accomplishments make him one of the all-time playoff performers, ranking in the top 10 in postseason receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.

"When a guy has had that much success in this organization as a player, that carries a lot of weight," Steichen said.

But none of it guarantees success as a coach. And Wayne didn't know what he didn't know until he took the plunge.

"I got [hired] a week after the combine [in March 2022]," said Wayne, 45. "They didn't give me no damn template. They didn't give me nothing. They said, 'Here you go. Here's some film. Go evaluate these [prospects] and we'll talk about it later.' I'm like, 'Um, all right.'"

That abrupt immersion was followed by a chaotic season. The Colts finished 4-12-1, Reich was fired and former Colts center Jeff Saturday -- plucked from the ESPN's studios where he was working as an analyst -- was stunningly installed as the interim head coach. Wayne's head was left spinning.

He took some time off after the season and pondered his future. The 2001 Colts first-round pick played his college ball at Miami and has made South Florida his forever home. Wayne spent his post-NFL days relaxing in the sun and immersing himself in an ever-growing classic-car collection. Returning to it all wouldn't have been the worst thing.

But through it all, he felt like he could see indications of his impact. He helped Pittman to a career-high 99 catches last season despite playing with three different starting quarterbacks. And tutoring young players like Pierce a rookie last season, reminded Wayne of why the job appealed to him in the first place.

Pierce had the biggest day of his career on Sunday, catching three passes for 100 yards, including a 55-yard reception to set up the game-winning touchdown. It was a timely performance that came after months of Wayne imploring Pierce to stay patient despite the slow start to his career. Wayne even recalled his own experience as a player when counseling Pierce, recounting how Harrison was targeted an astounding 205 times in 2002, leaving precious few opportunities for Wayne.

"He was saying, '[Harrison] would get 15 targets a game and I might get three or four,'" Pierce said of Wayne. "So, he understands how it is, and it's been great having him in my corner to kind of talk through things."

Cato June, a former Colts linebacker and, now, the team's assistant linebackers coach, had a unique perspective on Wayne's predicament. June went into coaching soon after his career ended and has worked his way up from the high school ranks to college ball to the NFL. He's been a close friend of Wayne's for years and became a sounding board for Wayne as he began considering the idea of coaching.

Football, June said, becomes a major part of your identity when you play at a high level. Coaching, for those who are built for it, allows you to stay connected to the game in a way that few roles can.

"[Football] is a part of your whole entire life and makeup," June said. "And then when you're out of it, that's the adjustment... I think getting back into it is the easy part. Now, you're able to affect the game, but in a different way."

And Wayne is getting that chance in a broader fashion this year. Among the appealing things Steichen said was that he'd allow Wayne to have a greater voice. Wayne is happily leaning into that. That was evidenced, for example, by his strong advocacy for the Colts to draft receiver Josh Downs. The team selected him in the third round and Downs has emerged as one of this season's top rookie wideouts.

Of course, if things hadn't worked out between Wayne and Steichen, Wayne had a decent backup plan. But he's hardly disappointed that Plan A worked out.

"I just wanted him to help elevate my value," Wayne said of Steichen. "And if that wasn't part of his plan, hey, I'm going to go back and get on my boat. I just wanted to become a better teacher and I wanted him to help me with that.

"All around, I think I'm a better coach."