"Don't forget The Griffer"
Nov. 10, 2015
Throughout training camp, Andrew Luck frequently fielded questions about this bigger, faster, stronger new group of wide receivers. We were enamored by Duron Carter’s hands, Andre Johnson’s catch radius, Phillip Dorsett’s speed.
One day, Luck paused after another round of testimonials, smiled and said:
“Don’t forget The Griffer.”
Three months later, while those other guys have faded from view, The Griffer is proving to be pretty unforgettable.
The Griffer, of course, is Griff Whalen, who joined the Colts as an undrafted rookie the same year his Stanford roommate was the No. 1 overall pick and has spent most of the four years since with bags packed. Every year, players with far superior physical gifts are brought in to render the 5-11, 190-pound Whalen obsolete. Every year, they nearly do.
He has been cut three times but keeps coming back, overcoming his relatively modest athletic ability and even his own mistakes (a recent botched fake punt comes to mind) to establish himself as not only one of the most popular players in the locker room, but one of the most valuable on the field.
“I can’t control how big or tall I am, anything like that,” Whalen said. “I just do the best I can, work as hard as I can every day to try to be consistent and make every play that comes my way.”
And now, suddenly, Whalen is making all kinds of plays. In the last two games he has caught 10 passes (on 11 targets) for 121 yards, converting three third downs and one fourth down along the way to keep critical drives – and possibly this tumultuous season – alive.
“The truth of the matter in the passing game is every quarterback has a receiver or a tight end they just feel it, they get him,” said Matt Hasselbeck. “I had that relationship (in Seattle) with Bobby Engram. Peyton Manning had it with Brandon Stokley. Tom Brady had it with Deion Branch. There’s definitely a rapport between Andrew and Griff that goes back a long, long time and he just has a confidence in him.
“Those catches that he had he was not the primary guy, he really wasn’t, the internal clock’s going off and ‘where’s Griff?’ There’s value in that … That is just true in the passing game, you get on a roll, you feel a guy and you feel you can trust him and that kind of thing. That’s a compliment to Griff.”
The ultimate compliment, however unintended, came from Luck after the Colts beat the previously undefeated Broncos 27-24. In his postgame radio interview (heard live on 93.5 FM and 1070 the Fan) with Matt Taylor, Luck was asked about Whalen’s contributions.
“Look at the film, look at the highlights,” Luck said. “He’s the guy that makes f***ing plays.”
Luck quickly apologized for the slipup but, frankly, none was necessary. He was exactly right.
When the going gets toughest, Luck goes to The Griffer.
This past Sunday, the Broncos quickly rallied from a 17-0 deficit to tie the game, and it appeared momentum had swung. The Colts were teetering on the brink of another debilitating loss. But on the first drive after the Broncos tied it, Luck turned to Whalen. On third-and-one from the Colts 42, Luck found Whalen on a quick out for four yards and a vital first down.
Three plays later, however, came the monster. On third and seven from the 49, Whalen lined up in a stack behind Donte Moncrief, broke to the left sideline and beat linebacker Lerentee McCray deep for a 38-yard gain to the Denver 10. Three plays later Luck hit Ahmad Bradshaw for the critical go-ahead score.
Leading 27-24 with six minutes left, the Colts’ offense took the field and did not leave until the clock was drained, and Whalen once again made one of the biggest plays. On third and 10 from the Denver 34, Luck stood tall in the face of blitzing linebacker Von Miller and threw a strike to Whalen, who found space in the middle of the Denver defense for an 18-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
“What you guys are seeing now is what we have been seeing the past three years, four years,” said Coby Fleener, another former Stanford teammate. “It’s kind of exciting for us as his teammates to finally let the whole world see it. On the other hand, it’s a little bit frustrating that it hasn’t been until now. I’m excited for him, the opportunity he’s gotten and making the most of it.”
Whether it was desperation or inspiration doesn’t matter. Whalen is fully involved now.
Perhaps it was coincidence, but Whalen wasn’t involved as the Colts fell behind the Panthers 23-6 last Monday night. But he made his presence felt in the fourth quarter, catching five passes as the Colts scored 17 points to force overtime. The biggest came on fourth-and-10 of the final drive, when Whalen went down for a low throw from Luck, kept his arms between the ball and the turf and picked up 12 critical yards.
“If you ask any of the guys on our defense what they think of Griff Whalen, he’s probably converted 100 out of 110 third-downs against them running other teams’ plays just because he’s that type of route-runner, he has that type of ability to get open, to catch the football,” said Dwayne Allen. “I’m happy to see him finally getting the opportunity to do that for us on offense.”
A quarterback and defensive back at Sylvania (Ohio) High, Whalen walked on at Stanford, where he was converted full-time to wide receiver. He had a strong senior season, leading the team in 749 yards and four touchdowns, and was a finalist for the Brandon Burlsworth Trophy, given to the top former walk-on in college football. The player it was named for was a former Arkansas lineman killed in an auto accident 11 days after the Colts made him a third-round pick in the 1999 draft.
When he arrived in the NFL, Whalen realized he would have to find and exploit every possible edge to overcome his modest physical gifts. He stopped eating junk food and fast food. In fact, he stopped eating meat altogether, becoming a vegan.
After spending 2012 on injured reserve, he made nine appearances including three starts in 2013, catching 24 passes, most down the stretch after injuries thinned the receiving corps. He was back on the bubble last year, waived in November, signed to the practice squad three days later, and making most of his on-field appearances as a punt and kick returner.
The writing appeared to be on the wall this past offseason when the Colts used a No. 1 pick on Dorsett, invested in veteran free agent Johnson and brought in Carter from the CFL, where he had been a star. But Whalen somehow beat the odds and earned a roster spot.
And now? He’s gone from emulating Julian Edelman on the scout team to playing like him in games.
“I think Andrew and I have a lot of trust between each other and it’s kind of the way it’s worked out that there’s been some opportunities for us to take advantage of,” Whalen said. “I think all the guys that we’ve got now have a pretty good comfort level with Andrew and vice versa but every once in a while you never know when something’s going to creep in where we’ve been down that road before and can kind of figure out what the other one’s thinking and what we need to do to execute the play. …
“There’s definitely been some tough patches just from a mental standpoint, being up and down and stuff like that. I’ve had a lot of support, the coaches here have been awesome, the players on this team have been awesome, very encouraging the whole time. That’s been really helpful.”
He’s well on the way to making sure no Colts fan will ever forget The Griffer.