By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — Darrius Heyward-Bey's first need was patience.
He was open Saturday night inside the Cleveland Browns' 5-yard line, but there was enough of a crowd in the vicinity to require a little extra focus. Any one of those fingers could jump out at a moment's notice and alter the flight the ball.
If he committed too early, that might cause the redirected pigskin to bounce off his own hands. And then the questions would begin again.
But the pass made it to him cleanly. He leapt and began to cradle it to his chest. At about the same time, Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden crashed into Heyward-Bey from behind and appeared to at least briefly get a hand on the ball.
The wide receiver absorbed the blow, fought off Haden's last-ditch effort and came down with the reception at the 3-yard line.
It was just one soon-forgotten play during the second quarter of a game that didn't count. But it said a lot about the strides the fifth-year receiver has made in his first five months with the Indianapolis Colts.
He signed as a free agent in April, bringing along a reputation for dropped passes based primarily on his rookie season with the Oakland Raiders. The late Al Davis reached to draft Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick in 2009 — infatuated by his size (6-foot-2) and speed (4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash) — and the Maryland product spent the next four years fighting to live up to the hype.
He caught 140 passes for 2,071 yards and 11 touchdowns in Oakland but never seemed to satisfy those lofty expectations. His Raiders career was filled with a rotating cast of quarterbacks, head coaches and offensive systems. And a lot of losses.
Oakland finished 25-39 during Heyward-Bey's tenure, and he was released in March as part of the franchise's ongoing search for salary cap relief. He said he followed his heart to Indianapolis, where he believes a rising young quarterback and history of success can help get his career back on track.
So far, so good.
With seven catches for 75 yards in his first three preseason games, Heyward-Bey slowly is erasing the doubts.
"Ever since I was about 1 year old, I've had confidence," he said Monday at the team's practice facility. "Each and every day, I just got to remind myself that I'm a good player and I can be good at what I do as long as I keep working. I got to wake up with that confidence. That's what I just got to remind myself."
Anyone who saw Heyward-Bey in training camp wouldn't think of questioning his work ethic.
He came out early before each afternoon practice — wearing a t-shirt and sporting headphones — to put in extra work on the JUGS machine. Sometimes quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen would join him, pulling at his shirt or tugging at his arms as Heyward-Bey attempted to focus on the football.
When he'd had enough reps, Heyward-Bey hopped on a golf cart to return to the locker room and get ready for practice.
Veteran teammate Reggie Wayne — a future Hall of Fame candidate — spent much of the summer raving about the receiver known by his initials as DHB. Wayne believes Heyward-Bey has the physical tools to match some of the game's top wideouts — guys like Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Houston's Andre Johnson.
But there have always been questions about Heyward-Bey's hands. They've been the asterisk to his career thus far and part of the reason he's so willing to put in so much work.
Wayne said whatever happened in Oakland can stay in Oakland, and the Colts have welcomed DHB's fresh start with open arms.
"Anybody in here would tell you he's a great teammate, great personality and he works his butt off," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "His work ethic is very impressive. I think obviously Reggie sort of sets the tone in the wide receiver meeting rooms in terms of work ethic and preparation, and DHB fits right in. I think every day we've gotten a better connection, and he's done a great job so far."
The specter of dropped passes re-emerged early on in training camp, but Heyward-Bey quickly righted the ship. He finished work at Anderson University on a good note and has carried that momentum into the exhibition games.
Though new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has yet to unleash him on a deep route, DHB has proven to be effective on screens and intermediate passes. He's shown the toughness to fight for extra yards and even carried the ball once for 6 yards on an end-around.
There's a lot of work yet to be done before the reclamation process can be declared a success. But nobody's arguing with the early returns.
"I think his comfort level, obviously, with the quarterback and the offense and terminology helps, and then his confidence is skyrocketing," head coach Chuck Pagano said. "So it's great to see him making the progress that he is. He's got to be a big-time player for us this year."