By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Maybe Anthony Gonzalez is just a quick study.
How else can one explain his accelerated ascension?
The numbers from Gonzalez's first 1 1/2 NFL seasons may not look that impressive until you realize Gonzalez has already achieved something that took twice as long for Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark -- finding a comfort zone in Indianapolis' offense.
"I think the same thing holds true in this job as any other job, provided you're doing well and not poorly," Gonzalez said Thursday. "So yes, I am more comfortable in it this season."
When the Colts drafted Gonzalez in the first round last year, they expected it to take some time for him to become a major contributor. Wayne and Clark have both said it took about three years to get fully acclimated to all the audibles, hand gestures and play calls at the line of scrimmage.
Gonzalez didn't want to be quite so patient, but he had no choice.
The NFL kept him out of the team's first minicamp because he was one of 35 rookies scheduled to attend a trading card shoot. Then an early-season hand injury cost him time in practice.
It put him behind, but Gonzalez, a Rhodes Scholar candidate at Ohio State, refused to make excuses. He studied, watched extra film and spent as much time as possible trying to develop that special rapport with Peyton Manning at practice.
Gonzalez finished with 37 catches for 576 yards and three touchdowns -- better than Wayne or Clark had in their rookie seasons, which were both marred by injuries.
So Gonzalez went back to work. With a full offseason to integrate himself in the training program, more time to learn about reacting to NFL defenses and all that extra time to work with Manning, Gonzalez was determined to make a bigger impact in 2008.
Has he ever.
In eight games, Gonzalez has 34 catches for 409 yards and two TDs. Manning has looked for him more frequently, and on Sunday, he was the difference against New England.
Twice, Gonzalez created windows for Manning when he ran perfect routes to the side of the end zone. Those catches accounted for the Colts' only two touchdowns.
And when Manning needed a first down on third-and-9 in the fourth quarter, it was a wide-open Gonzalez who caught a 24-yard pass across the middle to set up Adam Vinatieri's winning field goal.
Even Manning was impressed.
"He's like, I think, most guys in their second year in the system would feel," Manning said. "The more you get a sense of what the audibles are and what the defenses are, the more you recognize things better. Gonzo did a great job with that the other night."
But Gonzalez also provides the Colts with additional versatility.
With three reliable options in Clark, Wayne and record-setting Marvin Harrison, Manning now has a fourth player who can stretch defenses. Gonzalez has played outside, in the slot and has demonstrated his penchant for making big plays when they matter most.
"He's learned a lot about what we do, and what makes it work," coach Tony Dungy said. "It's easier to understand those little adjustments now, and the fact that he's in there on third downs says a lot about him."
For Gonzalez, it's just a start.
If he follows the trend line of Wayne and Clark, Gonzalez can expect a slightly better second half and perhaps a breakout season in Year 3.
Then again, it may not take that long.
"I think it was about my third season when I really felt like it was more remembering instead of still learning," Clark said. "You still make mistakes, you still learn; that's a constant battle in this offense. But the thing with Gonzo is, I think, he's a little quicker because he's a little smarter."