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The New York Times
February 7, 2010
Peyton Manning’s Case for Being the Best Ever
By JUDY BATTISTA
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Indianapolis Colts were trailing Houston, 17-0, when the Texans rookie linebacker Brian Cushing glanced up to see Colts quarterback Peyton Manning looking in the direction of the defense’s huddle. In those few seconds of quiet before the chaos at the line of scrimmage, Cushing saw Manning nodding his head. Up and down. Up and down.
“He was sizing us up,” Cushing said. “I had that feeling right then that he was locked in and that might be it.”
It was. Manning threw a 20-yard completion to start that drive and a touchdown pass to finish it, igniting a comeback that resulted in another Indianapolis victory.
Others might not have noticed the precise moment that Manning dissected their defenses and took over a game, the way Cushing did in November, but almost every other opponent in the N.F.L. has known the feeling.
Two weeks before Cushing’s epiphany, New England Coach Bill Belichick felt it so acutely that he made the most controversial call of the season, to try for a first down on fourth-and-2 with two minutes left because he knew that if Manning got the ball back, the Patriots would lose. Like Cushing, Belichick was right.
The Colts enter Sunday’s Super Bowl as favorites over the New Orleans Saints because Manning is not just the league’s most valuable player for the fourth time, but also the dominant player of his generation.
He has led Indianapolis to at least 12 victories in 8 of his 12 seasons, but this season may have been his most extraordinary. With the league’s lowest-rated running game and two inexperienced receivers, Manning threw for 4,500 yards, only 57 off his career high, and completed 68.8 percent of his passes, the highest accuracy rate of his career, while being sacked only 10 times, the fewest of his career.
Each season, Manning inches closer to the most gilded pantheon in sports: the best quarterbacks in history. The background music of this Super Bowl has been the water-cooler conversations about Manning’s ranking. Top two? Better than Tom Brady? Is Joe Montana No. 1?
Gil Brandt, the former Dallas executive who squired the Cowboys great Roger Staubach through the media center here, said Manning was the best quarterback ever. So did Tom Moore, the Colts’ offensive coordinator, who also coached the Steelers Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.
The defenses Manning faces — with exotic blitzes and liberal substitutions — are far more complex and difficult to master than those in the past, Brandt said. And the Colts run a no-huddle offense almost exclusively, so Manning has just a few seconds to decipher the defense at the line of scrimmage, change the protections for the offensive line, adjust the routes for his receivers, then call the play, producing his familiar conductor-in-cleats performance art before the snap.
Manning, 33, is nowhere near the end of his career. The Colts’ owner, Jim Irsay, promised last week to give him the biggest contract in N.F.L. history, so it seems inevitable that Manning will reach the top of the list, if he is not already there. The only remaining hurdle for Manning has been the number of championship rings on his fingers. Brady has three with the Patriots, but Manning has eclipsed him in every other way, particularly in the last two years.
“I thought he should be up at the top three years ago,” said Tony Dungy, a former Colts coach who is now an analyst on NBC’s “Football Night in America.” “The championships are fickle and fragile, Dwight Freeney gets hurt and maybe someone else gets hurt and you don’t win a championship. Does that take away from where he is in the scope of the league?
“If two championships will solidify that in peoples’ minds, great. He’s been as much of a factor on this offense as any quarterback in the history of football. He has dominated his era, like no one except maybe Otto Graham.”
Graham played 10 seasons of professional football and took his team to the championship game each season, winning seven of them. He is known as one of the greatest winners in pro sports history. It is not by accident that Manning is compared to him. Manning’s drive is so great that his quarterbacks coach, Frank Reich, who backed up Jim Kelly in Buffalo, says he wonders when Manning lets his hair down. But even as a child, a son of the Saints’ beloved quarterback Archie Manning, Manning was intensely focused on success.
“The first time Peyton played on an organized baseball team, it was coach-pitch,” Archie Manning said. “They were getting beat pretty bad every game. But the coach would always tell them they tied. I’d be driving him home, and Peyton would say, ‘This coach must think we’re stupid, we’re getting beat so bad.’ From that day, I thought Peyton doesn’t like to lose much.”
Each off-season, Manning and his coaches watch tapes of the entire season, and he takes notes on what he needs to work on. By the beginning of the next season, Manning’s command of the offense is complete. At the beginning of a game week, he leads the meetings with his coaches — he arrives with a plan for the meetings, Reich said — and doles out assignments to find plays to help confirm or refute his impressions of the opponent from hours of rigorous film study on his laptop.
Those meetings are conducted with as much as urgency as there is in a game, as if a wasted moment, like a wasted play, could undermine the entire enterprise. Manning often sends texts messages to Reich, alerting him to plays he thinks are useful. Manning has a network of football confidants, Reich said, including the injured backup Jim Sorgi, center Jeff Saturday, the offensive line coach Howard Mudd and Moore.
“We are the research-and-development team,” Reich said. “He’ll come out early in the week and say: ‘Here is what I’m seeing. Here is how I envision this.’ ”
Of his thirst for film, Manning said: “I knew that’s where I was going to try to gain some type of edge. I knew I wasn’t going to run away from guys or throw through three guys. My idea was to try to have a good sense of where they were going to be. I never left the field saying, ‘I could have done more to get ready for this team.’ ”
For each snap on game day, Moore suggests three options to choose from — two passes and one run — but Manning has the final say. Offensive tackle Ryan Diem estimated that 95 percent of the time, Manning makes at least one change to the call at the line. Manning is often compared to Dan Marino, a Miami Dolphins Hall of Famer, who had the power to call his own plays in the two-minute offense. “We got hand signals, but not 95 percent of the time,” Marino said. “He’s doing more of that than anybody has ever done.”
In this year’s A.F.C. championship game against the Jets, Manning ignored Moore’s suggestions — Moore, who said it was a privilege to coach him, did not seem to mind — and called the plays for a touchdown drive.
Manning is the most aggressive player Reich has ever seen, wanting to throw deep on every play. Between series, Manning is continually adjusting — looking at pictures of the defensive alignments, asking his receivers what routes they think they can run. In an era when coaches dictate the play selection via a headset in the quarterback’s ear, Manning turns the traditional roles for game planning on their heads.
“Most of it is his,” Reich said. “His mind is always going, he’s formulating a plan, synthesizing all this information that he is hearing, seeing, studying from other people. He’s listening, but he’s going to call the shots. There might not be another one like him, who does it like he does it.”
Dungy said he suspected that from his first regular-season game as the Colts’ coach in 2002. He had watched all of the tape of Manning coming into that season, and he observed him during camp. But on the first drive of the season, against Jacksonville, Manning took the Colts 96 yards for a touchdown, his play elevated from the preseason. His passes were sharp and crisp, as if “everything was on fire,” Dungy said.
In the years since, Dungy said, he often sensed what Cushing, Belichick and the Jets experienced this season — that Manning had figured out the defense and the game was over. For Dungy, that feeling reached its zenith in the 2006 season’s A.F.C. championship game as Manning led the Colts back from a 21-6 halftime deficit against the Patriots. That game is often considered the turning point for the Colts and Manning, when they toppled their greatest rivals and seized N.F.L. supremacy.
But on that day in Jacksonville, Dungy had seen enough. He turned to Moore and gave voice to what will be said about Manning for years to come:
“This guy is really good.”