By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Anthony Gonzalez walked into his first NFL training camp with bright eyes and big hopes.
Then his head started spinning.
The rigors of learning Indy's extensive playbook, the no-huddle offense and, of course, all those uncanny audibles Peyton Manning makes was frustrating -- even to a self-proclaimed fast learner.
But in the past two months, Gonzalez has settled in and settled down, emerging as an increasingly important cog in the Colts' offense and becoming a vital part in what the Super Bowl champions hope is a playoff run to defend their title.
"Anytime you do the same thing for 16 weeks, you start to get more comfortable," Gonzalez said. "For me, personally, it just took some time to get comfortable with this offense and like I tell everyone, I've still got a lot of work to do."
At first glance, Gonzalez considered Indy (13-3) a glamorous situation.
He relished the thought of making big plays, scoring touchdowns, playing with two Pro Bowl receivers and catching passes from a two-time league MVP. Not to mention playing with a Super Bowl team. What receiver wouldn't like the script?
But the reality is that slow starts have always been part of the learning curve for Indy's receivers.
Marvin Harrison caught only 59 passes in the first season Tom Moore took over as offensive coordinator before reeling off four straight 100-catch seasons. Part of the explanation then was that it was also Manning's rookie season.
Two-time Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne caught 27 passes as a rookie and 49 in his second season, before breaking out in his third year. And tight end Dallas Clark had 29 catches in his first NFL season, in 2003, before a leg injury cost him the final six games.
The common thread was that all three were first-round picks, like Gonzalez, who seemed destined to follow a similar trajectory after catching 15 passes for 207 yards and no touchdowns in his first 10 games.
Everything changed Thanksgiving night, when Gonzalez caught six passes for 105 yards at Atlanta.
Suddenly, his season got a jump start. During the next four games, he caught 16 passes for 264 yards and three TDs, producing a second 100-yard game and suddenly emerging as a solid fill-in for the injured Harrison.
"Probably the toughest thing for me was not a football thing," he said. "I was still getting used to the lifestyle, living in the city, all the things that most people struggle with when they take a new job."
The Colts drafted Gonzalez to add a slot receiver after releasing the oft-injured Brandon Stokley, and to find a potential replacement for Harrison, now 35.
But when Harrison went down with a left knee injury in September, Gonzalez was forced into action and the early results were mixed. He caught seven passes for 71 yards when Harrison missed the Tampa Bay game, then caught just two passes over the next three games including a touchdown pass that was ripped away by New England.
That's when the Colts decided to start giving Gonzalez the expanded version of the offense by letting him line up outside more frequently.
"I think his biggest strides have been learning the entire offense and how he fits in it," coach Tony Dungy said. "A lot of that came when he started moving around. That's what he's really done is learned the whole thing and become a lot more relaxed."
Gonzalez's playoff debut could change the equation again.
If Harrison returns for next week's divisional-round game, as expected, Gonzalez will likely find himself back in the slot where the Colts think he can cause matchup problems for opponents and give Manning yet another capable outlet in the receiving game.
Given his recent play, the experience and knowledge he's gained and the comfort level he's finally achieved, it could be just what the Colts need to win another title.
Or at least help Gonzalez continue to master his craft.
"The feedback hasn't changed," he said. "Peyton has always given me a lot of feedback and told me things I needed to know. What's hard is that I know what it takes to be successful consistently, and that's what I have to continue to get better at."