Join insiders Joel A. Erickson and Jim Ayello as they discuss the Colts upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs 19-13.
Clark Wade, Clark.Wade@Indystar.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A star is emerging in Indianapolis, even if the rest of the country is only starting to notice its light.
To be fair, he’s not the red-carpet, sound-bite type, the kind of guy who finds the spotlight as soon as he walks into the room.
Marlon Mack is quiet. Unassuming. Overlooked, at least by the national media, a group that spent the offseason saying the Colts need to replace him. The rare running back who gets less publicity than his offensive line.
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Five games into his third season, it’s time for the rest of the NFL to realize what the city of Indianapolis has been watching this season.
Mack has developed into one of the best young running backs in the NFL.
“He may not get the recognition that a lot of these other guys do,” Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. “One thing they do know is that when 25 has the ball in his hand, it’s special.”
Mack heads into the bye week ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing at 470 yards, right there among former first-round picks like Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Josh Jacobs and Ezekiel Elliott.
The Colts found Mack in the fourth round, and it took some time for him to develop.
“From the beginning of last year to this point right now, he’s really come a long way just in everything he does,” Colts running backs coach Tom Rathman said. “It usually takes a guy about a year to develop everything that you try to teach. He’s right on target.”
One by one, Mack has been eliminating the knocks on his game.
Draft analysts considered him a complementary back, a player who couldn’t carry the load as a lead back, and after Mack missed six games in his first two seasons, there were some who said he wasn’t durable enough, even though running back is one of the NFL’s most physically-demanding positions.
Mack has worked hard to stay on the field. After a hamstring injury cost him four games last year — and likely his first 1,000-yard season — Mack began getting a daily massage, a “flush” designed to loosen up his legs and protect his hamstrings. When he first came into the league, Mack didn’t realize how important the massages could be; he didn’t get many at all as a rookie.
“I didn’t know how important it was,” Mack said.
He knows now.
And he’s been tough enough to play through pain. The ankle injury Mack suffered against the Raiders was serious enough that he traveled to Kansas City unsure if he’d be able to play; he headed out to the field at Arrowhead Stadium early on Sunday, a legitimate game-time decision.
Mack ran, tested out the ankle, then headed back into the locker room and told the Colts coaching staff he was ready to go.
Indianapolis responded by putting the game on his back, handing him 29 carries and three receptions in a tour de force performance on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
“It was pretty banged up, but you’ve got to have mental toughness,” Mack said. “You’ve got to go out there and fight for your team.”
Mack’s always had the burst, always had the speed.
The key is that he knows when to hit the afterburners now. Mack has become one of the most patient runners in the NFL, adept at both setting up the blocks of his offensive linemen and buying time until the hole opens. Mack averages 3.09 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, the second-most in the league, trailing only Cowboys backup Tony Pollard.
Mack sometimes waits so long to make a move that he makes the other Colts running backs nervous.
“I’m like, ‘Dang, is he going to cut it up?’” Nyheim Hines said. “And then he kind of waits, pauses, comes around the corner and (gets) tackled for like seven and a first down.”
Watch the longest run Mack broke against the Chiefs on Sunday night.
Mack takes the handoff on Brissett’s left. Hops forward. Takes a half-step right, sees something to his left, course-corrects back up the middle. Two Chiefs linebackers are waiting for him. A hole opens in Mack’s peripheral vision. Slides two steps to the left. Darts through the hole. Steps through a tackle, feels space to his right and hits the burners through the secondary for a 30-yard gain.
And then NBC color analyst Cris Collinsworth starts crowing about the block of left guard Quenton Nelson, the breakout star of the Colts running game, a player who gets far more recognition than Mack.
Collinsworth wasn’t wrong. Nelson has been fantastic, along with the rest of a Colts offensive line that is capable of overpowering just about anybody.
There have also been a lot of runs this season where Mack has created his own room, has looked into a jumbled mess at the line of scrimmage and found a crease, or juked his way past a defender in the backfield, or powered his way forward and pushed the pile for a first down.
Running backs aren’t always known for their decision-making; Mack’s has been remarkable.
“I think that’s really helped him skyrocket,” Hines said. “The line’s really great, but Marlon’s starting to figure out reads and how things should go.”
The Colts have responded by handing Mack more carries than any back in the NFL other than McCaffrey.
For Frank Reich, this is something of a new development. At most of his previous coaching stops, he’s directed running-back-by-committee approaches, and Indianapolis still finds ways to use Hines in a third-down role and give Jordan Wilkins a chance to make big plays in relief of Mack.
But Mack has earned the right to handle a lead back’s workload.
“We all have a preference for great players, right?” Reich said earlier this season. “I’ve just mostly been in systems where it’s been a little bit more by committee.”
If anything, Indianapolis might need to dial back Mack’s workload as the season progresses, take a few more carries off of him in order to help him stay healthy for games like Sunday’s showdown against the Chiefs.
Mack had no problem with his workload in Arrowhead. He knew he’d have time to rest.
“Ice it up, we’re heading into the bye week,” Mack said. “Treat my body well, relax a little bit and get ready for the week after that.”
If he keeps it up, Mack might even start to get the attention he deserves.
Follow IndyStar Colts Insider Joel A. Erickson on Twitter at @JoelAErickson.