Nyheim Hines can't stop gushing about Matt Ryan, who is helping him find himself again
INDIANAPOLIS - After the final practice of the Colts' offseason, Nyheim Hines was peeking over his shoulder and beaming at Matt Ryan.
He just can't help himself.
Take that throw in practice the day before. Hines, the running back, receiver and punt returner squeezed into a single 5-foot-9 body, lined up as the far wide receiver for a play. He glanced back at his new quarterback and exchanged a wink. Ryan snapped the ball and waited as Hines flew down the right sideline until he had Brandon Facyson covered by his shadow.
Hines flipped his head and beamed then, too, because the ball was already on its way. A tight spiral flew with a rainbow's grace into his outstretched palms for a 40-yard touchdown.
"Incredible throw," Hines said.
A day later, he's stealing glances over at Ryan, who is waiting to take his spot for interviews. He's not sure whether his new quarterback can hear him or not.
“We’re not dating yet," Hines said. "We’ve gone on a couple dates and he’s let me come back a few times. We’re building the chemistry, and that takes time.”
Hines tosses out a few different dating metaphors in this conversation. It's humorous but also a coping mechanism after he finished last season with a broken heart.
In a span of seven games, the Colts fell from the highs of wins over the Bills, Patriots and Cardinals to a place so low that they could barely stay on the field with the 2-14 Jaguars. As the fourth-year chess piece of Reich's offense, and having just signed a three-year extension, Hines lived at the center of a passing attack that caved in, with Carson Wentz averaging 169 yards per game during those seven games.
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If the playoffs are the place where relationships move to the next level, the Colts were left banging on the door in the pouring rain, their luggage spewing into the drains and getting splashed on by passing cars.
“Honestly, it was like a bad breakup," Hines said, adding that he thought about it every single week. "It was just tough. Even when I first got back, I felt it a little bit.
"But then I started working around Matt."
This is what a quarterback who is experienced, accomplished, vocal and energized can do to a franchise in the dark. After trading Wentz to the Commanders, the Colts were looking for their fifth quarterback in five seasons after two decades of Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson went to other teams, leaving the Colts as a franchise with seven Pro Bowlers hamstrung by the one position it couldn't find.
And then there was Ryan, thrusting the door open to ask if they wanted to come in from the rain.
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Since the four-time Pro Bowler and 2016 MVP arrived in Indianapolis in March, he's been trying to master an offense and create bonds at the same time. On a roster of nearly 100 players, that wasn't easy.
It was with Hines. The 25-year-old calls his position "3-in-1" for its mix of rushing, receiving and punt returning, and he's certain no other NFL running back checks those boxes. Hines must memorize every route and protection in Reich's offense, and since he knows the rules, he's also aware of when and how to break them.
He's a vessel for a 37-year-old quarterback to experiment. In the process, he becomes an extension of his brain, a shortcut for his arm, a rage against his mortality.
He lets Ryan know that age is just a number.
"I've been really impressed. He’s got incredible work ethic," Ryan said of Hines. "He’s a serious guy. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go."
Ryan said that in 14 years, he's never played with anyone quite like Hines.
"That's one of the nicest things I've heard in a while," Hines said.
Soon enough, Hines was asking the coaches if he could work as a wide receiver for the offseason practices, and they called it a plan.
No, that plan does not involve moving him to a full-time slot receiver. Coaches are adamant that he'll still operate from the backfield, where a 196-pound player can catch the ball in space while also providing a rushing alternative to Taylor, the NFL's leading rusher. Hines averaged 4.9 yards on 56 carries last year.
By starting in the backfield and motioning to wide, Hines will often join four receivers or tight ends all 6-3 or taller. At 5-9, Hines is like a fox lurking among the trees.
“When we get a certain defense, we know Matt is going out there to try to kill," Hines said. "He makes the tight throws when he needs to. He’s not missing the layups."
Colts general manager Chris Ballard said he felt like Wentz missed too many layups last year, and many of those were to Hines. It's one of many reasons the Colts had no answer when defenses played too many defenders to block against Taylor.
Ryan is here to be the answer.
"It’s all on the quarterback," Hines said. "Quarterback play is everything. We’re going to have great quarterback play this year. When the box is stacked, he’s going to see it and make the reads to get out of it. When it’s not stacked, he’s not going to be scared to hand the ball off.
"Matt has the keys, and we’re going to go as far as he goes."
Hines runs these routes at hyper speed, past half-speed veterans. He can't hide the butterflies in his stomach. Ryan is behind the wheel, and though Hines isn't always sure yet where he's looking to go, he likes that he's been to places the rest of the starters can only dream of, like the Super Bowl.
It's his fifth quarterback in five years, but Hines knows by now that some connections build faster than others.
“Every year, it’s all dependent on what the quarterback likes, his accuracy," Hines said. "Matt is checking all the boxes. It’s been like playing with Andrew (Luck) or Philip (Rivers)."
Hines caught 63 passes from each of those two before dropping to just 40 last year with Wentz. He's hoping for a career year out of 17 games with Ryan, who has a 65.5% career completion rate and produced 53 catches with a gadget player in Cordarrelle Patterson last year.
“If I was going to be in a fantasy league," Reich said, "I think I’d pick Nyheim this year."
It's all fantasy right now. That's why they're working so hard to make it real.
Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts: Nyheim Hines sees a relationship building with Matt Ryan