INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Marvin Harrison is about to go down.
Blame Michael Thomas.
The next step in Thomas’ relentless pursuit of Harrison’s long-standing NFL record for catches in a season – 143, in 2002, when Thomas was 9 – comes Monday night in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, somewhat appropriately against Harrison’s Indianapolis Colts.
The finish line is either Dec. 22 in Nashville when the Saints meet the Tennessee Titans or a week later when they close the regular season at Carolina.
Thomas is immersed in his fourth season and, and it’s been epic: 121 receptions and 1,424 yards. Both are NFL highs, and the receptions are 28 more than the league’s second-busiest wideout (DeAndre Hopkins with 93).
Thomas needs 23 catches in three games to eclipse Harrison’s mark, and the fewest he’s had in a three-game stretch this year is 24. Thomas has had at least 10 catches in seven of 13 games.
This seems as inevitable as Lamar Jackson being named MVP.
“He’s going to get it because of their offense and the fact they’re going to need these games,’’ offered the coach who had a front-row seat for Harrison’s record-setting season. “I don’t see any way he doesn’t get it unless he gets hurt.’’
Tony Dungy was in his first year with the Colts. He inherited an offense teeming with dazzling talent: Harrison, Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Marcus Pollard.
Week after week – catch after catch – Harrison was front and center.
“It’s really pretty crazy,’’ Dungy said. “Marvin’s year just blew me away because back in that day, 100 catches was a great year and 115 was really rare.’’
Herman Moore set the record with 123 in 1995, eclipsing Cris Carter’s mark of 122 established the previous season.
Harrison’s 2002 assault on Moore began and ended against Jacksonville. No. 1 was a 16-yarder in the opener while No. 143 was a 2-yarder in the regular-season finale. The record-breaker – No. 124 – came in the bitter cold in Cleveland in game 14. It was an otherwise ho-hum 5-yarder had it not been for the historical ramifications.
The record never was an objective as the Colts headed into the season.
“It really just happened,’’ Dungy insisted.
Tom Moore agreed. He has the distinction of being the offensive coordinator in Detroit when Moore reset the bar to 123 and in Indy when Harrison shoved it to 143.
“We set out to win games and whatever happens, happens,’’ he said. “I remember Marvin’s great line to one of you guys in the media. Someone asked him if he knew how many catches he had. He said, ‘I don’t count ‘em. I catch ‘em. You guys count ‘em.’
“That was Marvin.’’
Moore’s approach has never changed during an NFL coaching career that spans five decades; he’s now Bruce Arians’ offensive consultant in Tampa Bay. Put players in position to do what they do best, and don’t overthink it. Unlike today’s NFL where ultra-productive wideouts are moved around in formations to make it more difficult for defenses to focus on them – the Saints do that with Thomas – there never was a question where Harrison would be.
“He was always on the right and Reggie was always on the left side,’’ Moore said.
Dungy laughed at the simplicity of Moore’s approach with his elite receivers. Harrison is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016. Wayne is in his first year of eligibility.
“That was the crazy thing,’’ Dungy said. “Marvin played on that outside right. Everybody knew where he was. People did try to take him away and he still was super-productive.
“To me that was phenomenal. Everybody knew where he was and if you wanted to try to take him away, you could try. We saw defenses try and that year he still week after week made the catches.’’
Harrison’s record has withstood previous challenges. Antonio Brown and Julio Jones finished with 136 catches in 2015. Brown piled up 129 in ’14 and Thomas had a Saints-record 125 last season.
Dungy describes Thomas’ pursuit as something of a perfect storm.
The former Ohio State standout is working in tandem with Drew Brees, a 40-year old QB who blends aggression with accuracy, and is the undeniable focal point of the NFL’s No. 8-ranked passing game. Even though the Saints are 10-3 and have locked up the NFC South, they’re still in contention for one of the top 2 NFC seeds and a first-round bye. Also, today’s NFL is conducive to throwing early and often, and a difficult environment for defensive backs to do their job.
“It’s a completely different game now with the rules,’’ Dungy said. “If I was coaching, I think I would throw it, too . . . the protection the receivers have, the protection the quarterbacks have now in the pocket. You have to throw more.
“They’re going to pump the ball to him. That’s part of their attack. Even in the games where they get ahead, they continue to move the ball by throwing it and throwing the slants to him.’’
That being said, Thomas’ accomplishments are, well, historic.
“Michael Thomas has been unbelievably consistent,’’ Dungy said. “Like I said, it’s a little bit different of a game now, but it’s still hard to do. You have to be on it every game. You can’t have a down game where you have 2 or 3 catches one week.
“Everybody’s focused in on taking you away and you’re still getting 8, 9, 10 catches every week. It’s just pretty crazy.’’
Perhaps that craziest aspect of Thomas is his ability to catch whatever’s thrown in his neighborhood. He’s amassed his 121 catches on just 147 targets, which translates into a ridiculous 82.3 catch percentage. And that’s a shade off his catch rate last season (85 percent).
Harrison’s record 143 catches came on 205 targets (69.8 percent), although, again, it was a different NFL in 2002.
“It’s not like they’re throwing Michael Thomas 500 passes to get him his hundred-plus,’’ Dungy said. “He’s catching eight out of every 10 balls that come to him.’’
Moore is surprised Harrison’s record has lasted as long as it has, but added, “records are made to be broken.’’
If (when) Michael Thomas grabs No. 144?
“That doesn’t take away from Marvin’s greatness,’’ Moore said.
Speaking of records
Thomas isn’t in position to break Harrison’s record Monday night, only get closer to it.
However, Brees could eclipse Manning’s all-time NFL record for TD passes. Manning piled up 539 during an 18-year career with the Colts and Denver Broncos. Brees sits at 537, one ahead of New England’s Tom Brady.
In six games since returning from surgery on his right thumb, Brees has 15 TD passes, including at least 3 four times.
And it’s worth mentioning the Colts defense is coming off a game against Tampa Bay that saw Jameis Winston pass for a 456 yards and four TDs.
Brees already owns all-time records with 76,577 yards and 6,792 completions, and his 67.5 completion percentage is tops in NFL history. In fact, he owns the top three completion percentages and five of the top seven. The record: 74.4 percent last season. He’s at 73.6 percent this year.
Frank Reich insisted Brees playing at an elite level in his 19th season “is great for the game. I don’t always like going against it. I still remember years ago – probably five or six years ago – watching some kind of sports-science video of him and his accuracy.
“I just think that he has really set the standard as far as accuracy.’’