By Jason Cole, Yahoo! Sports
Trent Dilfer spent 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, is married to his college sweetheart and has three daughters.
Yet he can only dream about the relationship quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison have developed over the past 11 years. Sadly, that relationship may be nearing the end of its record-setting run as the NFL playoffs are set to begin.
For the 36-year-old Harrison, his days with the Indianapolis Colts may be coming to a quiet close. As injuries have slowed his ability and turned him into an afterthought in the Colts offense, his legacy as one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL has faded just as fast.
Soon, it may only be a memory.
The Colts open the playoffs Saturday at San Diego in an AFC wild-card matchup. Between Indy’s final contest this postseason and the start of free agency, Harrison could become a salary-cap casualty, his $6 million base salary for next season becoming too much for a man with so little impact on the offense.
To Dilfer, now an analyst for ESPN, that will signal the end of something the NFL has rarely seen and may never see again.
“In today’s version of football, it’s almost unimaginable to think of it happening again,” Dilfer said. “You look around the league at young quarterback-receiver combinations and I just don’t see it happening. You have Matt Ryan and Roddy White in Atlanta, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson in Houston, but I can’t even see those guys getting to where Peyton and Marvin got in their career together.
To Dilfer, that’s the ultimate level of trust. “After the hundreds of thousands of reps they took together, all
the throws in practice, in games, in critical situations, it’s just unreal,” Dilfer emphasized. “At their peak, I can’t think of a more unique quarterback-receiver combination in the history of the league. [Joe] Montana-[Jerry] Rice or [Steve] Young-Rice is the only thing close and I don’t think even those guys had this level of trust.
It’s really just trust. Peyton learned to trust every little body movement that Marvin made and Marvin learned to trust when Peyton was going to throw based on what Peyton was looking at. It’s amazing.”
The statistics bear that out. Manning and Harrison have set records for the most career completions, yards and touchdowns ever between a quarterback and receiver.
“They’re really good at being able to work together and react to what you do,” said New England coach Bill Belichick, who has faced the pair numerous times the past decade. “The most important thing is that for nine or 10 years now, they’ve always been out there. Until recently, they weren’t even on the injury report.
“When you have that kind of continuity, you learn to work together so well. You may play certain defenses to take them away, show them a different look to slow them down, but they can figure it out pretty quickly. And when they do figure it out, they’re going to hurt you.”
That changed drastically in the 2007 season when Harrison suffered a knee injury that limited him to five games and only 20 catches. Then there were questions regarding his presence and availability in training camp following a shooting incident near one of his commercial properties in his hometown of Philadelphia.
This year, he had 60 catches for 636 yards and five touchdowns, third best on the team. His impact steadily declined over the season as ‘07 first-round draft pick Anthony Gonzalez played an increased role (57 catches for 664 yards and four touchdowns).
In fact, in Manning’s best game of the season, a 31-24 comeback victory at Jacksonville in Week 16, Harrison didn’t even play. Manning still managed to complete 29 of 34 passes for 364 yards and three touchdown passes because he has made the transition away from Harrison out of necessity.
“Basically, they’ve gone 18 months without really being able to throw to each other on a regular basis,” Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said following the Jacksonville victory. “So that’s obviously had an impact on Peyton and how he has adjusted over last season and this season.”
That adjustment will help the Colts as they deal with the unfortunate reality of salary-cap statistics. Harrison’s contract for next season features a $6 million base salary and an overall cap number of $13.4 million. The Colts can save the $6 million by letting go of Harrison.
That money will be vital as the team works to re-sign players such as center Jeff Saturday or cornerback Kelvin Hayden, or go after a free agent such as wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh or defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.
Regardless of what the Colts do it’s a simple reality that everybody understands. In the NFL, every great player relationship must come to an end.
“Marvin knows that this is probably going to happen,” said a source close to Harrison. “I don’t think he’s happy about it, but he knows. He’ll accept it. He doesn’t have a lot of choice.”