Clark emerges as key player for Colts

Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne may be Indianapolis' best-known offensive stars.

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Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark turns up field after catching a pass against the New England Patriots during the AFC Championship on Sunday. The Colts take on the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI on Sunday, Feb. 4, in Miami.

The Associated Press

Defenses can forget about tight end Dallas Clark at their own peril.

The fourth-year tight end has given the Colts a different dimension over the middle — one that creates nearly as many mismatches for linebackers and safeties as it does scoring chances for the Colts.

"That's the position you want to be in," Clark said after Sunday's AFC championship victory. "You want to be the guy getting Peyton time, running routes and making plays."

As usual, Clark produced his share against New England.

He led all Colts receivers with six catches for 137 yards, and his 52-yarder deep down the middle set up a crucial late field goal that tied it at 31. Indy eventually won 38-34.

Not surprisingly, Clark's postseason emergence has paralleled Indy's success.

On a team with two Pro Bowl receivers and a two-time MVP, Manning has exploited the soft underneath routes by repeatedly throwing to his tight ends. The result: Clark has a team-high 17 receptions for 281 yards in three playoff games with a Super Bowl still to play.

Yet he's often overlooked on an offense that has five Pro Bowl players in Manning, Harrison, Wayne and offensive linemen Jeff Saturday and Tarik Glenn.

Indianapolis understands how important Clark, who sometimes lines up as the Colts' third wide receiver, has become to this offense.

He's strong enough to block effectively on the line, agile enough to play the slot and quick enough to burn linebackers and safeties that dare challenge his speed. At times, Clark looks awkward catching balls on his knees or jumping for overthrown passes, but if he gets a chance to run, he's tough to catch.

Those were the assets that intrigued team president Bill Polian enough to make Clark the Colts' first-round draft pick in 2003, and he's been pleased with Clark's progress.

"This may be a better offense than what we had in Buffalo because we have Dallas Clark, who really is a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end," Polian told radio listeners Monday night.

If Clark has found it difficult to earn his Pro Bowl status, it's not his fault. The AFC has three of the league's most dominant and highly publicized tight ends in Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, San Diego's Antonio Gates and Baltimore's Todd Heap. Unlike them, Clark is not the featured receiver in Indy, either.

But the Iowa native with the infectious smile, good old boy approach and fun-loving personality couldn't care less about going to Hawaii. He'd rather be preparing for one more meaningful game.

"It's a great feeling," he said of the Colts' first Super Bowl berth in 36 years. "It's great for the organization and for Coach Dungy. This is huge."

Clark's impact in Indianapolis can even be measured in simpler terms. When he's played this season, the Colts are 14-1. When he missed four games with a sprained knee ligament, the Colts lost three times.

Initially, the Colts thought Clark tore the anterior cruciate ligament — an injury that would have ended his season and devastated Indianapolis' postseason hopes, especially since Brandon Stokley had already sustained a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury.

Fortunately, for Clark and the Colts, it wasn't as bad as first feared.

Clark made it back for the season finale against Miami, a game that seemingly got him prepared for the playoffs.

Others around the league do understand how much Clark means to the Colts.

Three years ago when Clark missed the AFC title game at New England after breaking his leg in a regular-season game against the Patriots, Polian said other general managers told him they thought Clark's presence would have changed the outcome of that 24-14 loss.

The next year, with Clark, New England beat Indy 20-3 in the divisional round.

On Sunday, Clark proved the difference in the Colts getting past their old nemesis. When Manning couldn't go deep, he looked underneath and found Clark for several key catches — just as coach Tony Dungy drew it up.

"We knew they were going to do some takeaway on our outside receivers," Dungy said after winning Sunday night. "So we thought the running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field would have a chance for a good game, and they did."

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