Here are key performers and trends for the Indianapolis Colts’ offense at the season’s mid point.
Scott Horner, firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS – “Detroit?” Eric Ebron asks politely while standing at his locker and looking serious — a rare expression for the perpetually smiling tight end. “I don’t want to talk about that today. Not today.”
To anyone who knows the charismatic 25-year-old, the answer would come as a bit of a surprise. In the eight months since signing with the Indianapolis Colts, Ebron has ingrained himself not only as one of Andrew Luck’s go-to targets but one of the local media’s as well. Name a topic and the affable Ebron will usually give his two cents — and it’s almost always worth more.
Whether the self-appointed class clown is calling Luck a lovable nerd or losing his mind over Mo Alle-Cox’s one handed snag against Oakland, Ebron has quickly asserted himself as one of the most popular, reliable faces in the Colts locker room.
But talking about Detroit is different. Detroit isn’t a happy memory.
The short version of a long story is that Ebron was good there — but never good enough for Lions fans. He posted respectable numbers over fours years but battled bouts of dropped passes and immaturity issues and became a popular punching bag in Detroit. Toward the end of his Lions tenure, Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett deemed Ebron the “most hated man in (Detroit) sports.”
In one of his final games in a Lions uniform, Ebron hauled in 10 passes for 94 yards in a 24-21 victory that helped keep Detroit’s playoff hopes alive. When asked if a clutch performance like that might alter Lions’ fans perceptions after four years of vitriol, Ebron responded: “I’ll never make this fan base happy.”
Three months after that, he received word that he’d never have to worry about doing that again. He’d been cut. Later, he’d say that he made his peace with it, but Detroit remains an open wound.
So if he’s going to talk about it, he’ll need to be in the right mindset.
“Next week,” Ebron says. “On an off day. This week is about getting ready for Sunday.”
Key performers and trends for the Indianapolis Colts’ defense at the season’s mid point.
Scott Horner, email@example.com
Flipping the script
If Pro Bowl selections were announced tomorrow, Ebron would almost certainly be making his debut this January. Among tight ends, his 36 catches rank second in the AFC, his 394 yards fourth and his seven touchdowns not only pace everyone at his position but are second in the NFL behind only Antonio Brown.
He is on pace to set career-highs in every meaningful statistical category and he’s built a clear rapport with a fully healthy Luck. In short, he’s been everything Frank Reich hoped he’d be when the Colts signed him a two-year contract that could pay him up to $13 million.
“He’s playing the role that we envisioned him playing,” Reich said of Ebron. “And we are happy with that. Like everybody else, he needs to improve further. I expect bigger things. He’s a really talented guy and so we need to keep utilizing him as much as we can.”
Colts TE Eric Ebron leaps over would-be tacklers
Matt Kryger, IndyStar
Despite the numbers and accolades from his coach, ahead of snagging his seventh touchdown of the season Sunday against the Raiders, Ebron made clear he isn’t about to start feeling too good about himself.
“One week you’re the greatest tight end to ever play football, and the next week you’re the worst piece of … ” Ebron pauses, “thing to ever step foot on a football field. So I’m just staying humble and just want to keep making plays.”
Spoken like a man who’s experienced life at both ends of the NFL teeter-totter.
‘Eric doesn’t suck’
The Lions’ 2014 selection of Ebron — ahead of transcendent players such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald — was reviled by fans from the start. Many believed the Lions had more glaring holes to fill, as the team already boasted a first-round tight end on the roster (Brandon Pettigrew). It surely didn’t need another. Yet then-Detroit General Manager Martin Mayhew opted to give his offensive coordinator, New Orleans import Joe Lombardi, a weapon they believed could decimate defenses. And that’s where the problems began.
“Eric got drafted too high,” said retired quarterback and former Lions teammate Dan Orlovsky. “That’s not a knock on Eric. It’s just a reality that a team took him at No. 10. When teams do that, teams, front offices and fans have an expectation level. That’s unfair to place on a player. He didn’t draft himself 10. The team did.”
Management had big dreams for Ebron. They wanted him to become the next Jimmy Graham, Orlovsky said. Lombardi brought elements of the Saints’ high-powered offense with him to Detroit, and he hoped Ebron could slide right into the Graham role.
One problem, Orlovsky said. Ebron wasn’t Jimmy Graham.
“They wanted Eric to go on the field and understand coverages and to change his routes mid-play and make really difficult catches that were kind of the story of Jimmy Graham’s career. It just didn’t happen. It goes back to expectations. He needs to be this guy and produce like this guy, and if you don’t, then it’s deemed you suck. But Eric didn’t suck. There were drop issues, yeah, but he didn’t suck. But that’s how things sort of went awry.”
Not only did Ebron struggle to live up to those lofty expectations the franchise set for him, he also struggled to live up to the expectations he put out there for himself.
During the pre-draft process, Ebron didn’t hesitate to compare himself to some of the NFL’s most athletic, versatile tight ends, while in the same breath declaring, “I play the tight end role like no one else.”
He was brash. Confident. Young. Those are easy qualities to like in a NFL prospect whom you’re expecting to come in and light the world on fire. But once he doesn’t, once his rookie season consists of a modest 25 catches, 248 yards, one touchdown and a few too many dropped passes, well…
Part of what’s made Ebron so appealing to Indianapolis media is that good game or not, he’s almost always available for interviews where he is both colorful and honest. In Indianapolis, a place where he isn’t saddled with the expectations of living up to his top-10 draft stock, that’s appreciated.
In Detroit, though, many people — both inside and outside the organization — wanted him to shed the swagger and only let his game do his talking. But that’s never been who Ebron is.
“I’m never going to not be me. … I am always going to voice my opinion,” Ebron told IndyStar. “That’s just who I am. Ask anyone in this locker room. They’ll tell you, ‘Ebron is a straight-shooter. He don’t hold nothing back.’ That’s just who I am.”
But early on, Orlovsky says, Ebron was still trying to discover who he was. Consider what it’s like, the now-ESPN analyst said, to be a 21-year old who suddenly has more money that he’s every had before, who was struggling to learn a complex NFL playbook and who was expected to perform like one of the playmakers in football.
Some kids handle that well, Orlovsky said. Others don’t. Ebron struggled a bit in the beginning.
“Everyone was immature at one point of their lives,” said Orlovsky who became both a friend and mentor of sorts to Ebron in Detroit. “I was. You were. It doesn’t have to be negative. It’s just the reality of inexperience and being unaware of how things are done.
“When these kids come to the NFL, there’s all this money and expectations. Meanwhile, you don’t know who you are, who you truly are, deep down in your soul. You’re looking around the locker room going, ‘Oh I like the way that looks and how he lives.’ And you watch another guy and go, ‘Oh I like that, too.’ There’s all these different options for you. You’re watching everyone work, how they live their lives on and off the field, It’s like a Cheescake Factory menu, man. (With so many options), you can get lost in a lot of different ways. … You have to give Eric credit, though, because over the years, you saw him evolve and get more comfortable in himself. That was part of his process.”
Ebron remembers those confusing times. He takes responsibility for them, too.
“I allowed myself to get too comfortable, to get too complacent,” he said. “It showed. My game wasn’t the same. My confidence wasn’t the same. I was just young, man. I got into a world of grown men maybe a little too soon. I had to figure it out and take the long road, but I figured it out.”
Even improvement didn’t help
Even as Ebron matured both off the field and on it — he nearly doubled his catch and yardage totals in his sophomore campaign and those numbers grew even bigger in Year 3 — nothing he did seemed to extinguish the hatred Detroit fans had for him.
By his fourth and final year, it seemed every drop was accompanied by a chorus of boos, while catches were met with Bronx cheers.
Ebron tried not to let it shake him, but following a particularly tough game against the Panthers — one in which a potential touchdown slipped through his fingers — he snapped back at his detractors on social media.
“Some of you wouldn’t know the half,” Ebron tweeted. “Boooo me all u want but pay attention to the whole picture #StayWoke.”
Ebron never explained what exactly “the whole picture” meant, but his teammate helped take care of that a few days later.
It’d be one thing if he were dropping passes or running the wrong routes and didn’t care, wide receiver Golden Tate told the Detroit Free Press’ Carlos Monarrez. But that’s not what’s happening.
“The problem would be, really if any player is messing up consistently but not out here working, not trying to get better,” Tate said. “And you don’t see that from him. He wants this bad.”
That’s why Orlovsky took to him during their years together in Detroit. Early in his career, Ebron would meet up with Orlovsky at 5 a.m on freezing Detroit mornings to dig into the playbook, to get a better grasp of NFL concepts and what exactly the Lions wanted from him.
“I remember that because I had to wake up,” Ebron says dryly. “It was tough, but I wanted to be great. When I first got there, we were running a bit of a complex offense, which to me was different from college. It was just a different scheme. So I wanted to put in the extra work be a better player, get on same page as our quarterback … so I got with Dan and worked on everything. What drove me to do that? Just me. I wanted to be great.”
What Colts fans are seeing out of Ebron this year, Orlovsky said, is the result of all their time together and all of the other work Ebron had poured into his career. It’s also the result of playing for a coach and on a team that understands how best to utilize his skill set.
“The big thing for me this offseason with Eric was not only him getting the change of scenery, a fresh start, but to go to a place where you don’t have to be the premier feature guy,” Orlovsky said. “Jack Doyle is really good. He’s no. 1 in Indy. Eric, whether it’s by skill set or talent level or functionality, is better suited to be the complementary piece. Again, that’s not a knock. That’s his absolute strength. It’s just better for Eric to be the complement rather than the feature.”
“I’ve been as low as I can be”
There aren’t many people in the world who know what it’s like to get booed by tens of thousands of people who are, in theory, supposed to be cheering for you.
“Um. It was cool,” Ebron tells IndyStar while standing in front of a locker with a book titled ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a ****’ poking out. “It’s a little adversity I had to overcome. I don’t regret it happening. I’m happy. It just makes you a stronger person. I feel like I’ve been about as low as I can be at times. But that was cool. Look, man, I’ve been through worse. It made it more challenging, but I like challenging. I got up, dug my way out and I’m here now.”
Ebron confessed that while getting cut by Detroit, it did make him question a lot about himself. He wondered if he’d let himself down, wondered if he could have done more. But after receiving phone calls from Reich, new offensive coordinator, Nick Sirianni, and new tight end coach Tom Manning, he stopped worrying about the past started thinking about his future with the Colts.
“They were all the first people to call me,” Ebron told IndyStar in August. “They wanted me to be a part of what they were building. For them to want me and to be a part of what they were building was such a wake-up call for me, to know what I’m capable of and what I can do to help the team”.
Since then, Ebron has enjoyed nearly every minute of his time in Indianapolis. He loves the franchise’s commitment to success and he’s excited to be part of re-establishing a winning culture for a franchise that had enjoyed one for decades.
“I love it here,” Ebron said. “They have accepted me so well, Colts fans and the city. And my family loves it here. Hey, as long as my wife is happy, I’m happy.”
That said, he’s not sure how long he’ll be here. He doesn’t think about it. If things go well, maybe this stop on his NFL journey lasts longer than his first. Maybe it doesn’t.
Ebron isn’t interested in making commitments. He knows — all too well — the harsh realities of the NFL. Fan bases can turn on you in an instant. Franchises along with them. A long-term contract doesn’t mean much in the NFL these days, Ebron says.
If and when his time in Indy comes to an end, Ebron will be ready for it. That’s the NFL accomplishment he seems to be most proud of it. It’s not the touchdowns or the yards or any other statistic. It’s that he’ll kept fighting. Fighting through those four years in Detroit wasn’t easy. Dealing with getting cut wasn’t easy. Establishing himself as a top target on a new team with a new coach wasn’t easy. But he did all of those things.
That’s the thing he will be most proud to share with his 1-year-old son, Oliver, when he’s old enough to understand.
“No one helped me,” Ebron says proudly. “I did all that on my own. I had to. How am I going to ever go through and show my son how to deal with life if I can’t deal with it on my own? I have to be strong enough to show my son — or whomever is looking up to me to be a leader — how to do it.. He’s going to ask me one day, and I need to have the answer. And I want to have the answer because I’ve been there and done that.
“Things that are challenging in life. I like to go through it, so I can help my son understand it when he goes through it. And I’ll be able to guide him and help him, and hopefully he’ll be a great man and a great person one day. And maybe, hopefully, he’ll look up to me while he’s doing it.”
Follow IndyStar Sports reporter Jim Ayello on Twitter and Facebook: @jimayello.