Sunday, October 3, 2010

Eyewitness to Greatness

by Dennis Hardin

Since the Associated Press began giving out the award in 1957, 43 players have been named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Three players have won the award twice. Another three have won the award three times. Only one player has won the award four times, and his football career is far from over. His name is Peyton Manning.

In November 1969, I took a train ride with my family to Jackson, Mississippi to see a football game. My father was a rabid fan of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. Every member of my family, including myself, was a graduate of UT, and, in case you didn’t know it, football is a religious ritual in the South. In 1969, the Vols were unbeaten in 7 games and ranked #3 in the nation. They were strongly favored to defeat Ole Miss. It didn’t turn out that way. An upstart junior quarterback named Archie Manning led the Rebels to a 38-0 victory. It was as long a day as my father ever spent in a football stadium. All I remember is hearing my father and other UT fans repeating the words “Archie Who?” as we walked out of the stadium. Archie Manning went on to become an All-Pro quarterback for the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League.

25 years later, in 1994, Archie Manning’s son, Peyton, a top high school quarterback prospect, stunned the football world by choosing to play for the University of Tennessee instead of his father’s alma mater. He chose UT over Ole Miss for one reason. He had studied the rosters of the two schools and decided that the Vols had better receivers. When Ole Miss appeared on the UT schedule in 1996, Peyton led the Vols to a 41-3 victory. Well aware of the Manning family saga and the famous “Archie Who?” game of November 15, 1969, Peyton handed his father a game ball in the locker room and said, “This one was special.”

At UT, Manning was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar athlete, and was not only named a first team All-American but an Academic All-American. He became the first quarterback in Vol history to throw for more than 3000 yards in a single season, breaking his own school record. He holds 28 Tennessee single game, season and career offensive records including career passing yards and completions. He was the first UT quarterback to defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide—UT’s greatest traditional rival--three times. He became the SEC’s third all-time leading passer. Since he left, UT has renamed the Vols’ locker room and a nearby street in his honor. He was a runner-up for the Heisman trophy, losing to Charles Woodson, now with the Green Bay Packers. He is one of the most celebrated athletes in UT history.

Manning was the number one overall draft pick in 1998, going to the Indianapolis Colts. Before they chose him, he reportedly told the Colts: “If you don’t take me, I’m going to beat your ass twice a year every season.” Within days, he had memorized the entire Colts’ playbook. In his rookie season, he passed for 3,739 yards and 26 touchdowns, setting five different NFL rookie records, including most touchdown passes in a season. He was named to the NFL All-Rookie First Team. In 1999, he had his first 4000 yard passing season and was named to the Pro Bowl—the NFL’s annual All Star game--for the first time. He was on his way to becoming one of the top NFL quarterbacks of all time.

There were a few low points along the way. On November 25, 2001, after a devastating loss to the 49ers, the head coach of the Colts, Jim Mora, berated his team for its poor performance. "That was a disgraceful performance. We threw that game. We gave them the friggin' game. In my opinion, that sucked. It was pitiful, absolutely pitiful." And: "Ah-- Playoffs?! Don't talk about... playoffs?! You kidding me? Playoffs? I'm just hoping we can win a game, another game." Mora specifically blamed Peyton Manning’s career high 4 interceptions for the loss, prompting his father, Archie, to come to his son’s defense in the national media.

In 2002, Tony Dungy took over as head coach of the Colts. The next year—2003—Manning led the league with 4,267 passing yards and threw 29 touchdowns. He led the Colts to the AFC Championship game, but threw 4 interceptions against the New England Patriots’ top-ranked defense and lost 24-14. He was named the AP NFL co-MVP along with Titans’ quarterback Steve McNair. He won MVP honors again in 2004, as the the Colts finished the season with a 12–4 record and their second straight AFC South title. Manning threw for 4557 yards, had a record 121.1 passer rating and an NFL record 49 touchdown passes (since broken). Once again, however, the Colts’ season ended with a play-off loss to the Patriots in Foxborough.

In 2005, Manning’s quarterback rating of 104.1 was the highest in the league for the season, but again the Colts lost an AFC divisional play-off game, this time to the Pittsbusrgh Steelers. Manning drove the Colts to the Steelers’ 27 yard line in the waning moments, but a field goal attempt that would have tied the game went awry. Despite being named First-team All-Pro for the third consecutive year, some critics were beginning to suggest that Manning could not win the big game.

All that changed in 2006. Manning led the Colts to a come-back victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, despite being down 21-3 at the half. Then Manning led the Colts to a 29–17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI and was voted Super Bowl MVP. It was an unforgettable moment in a glorious professional career.

In 2007 and 2008, despite having one of the least productive rushing offenses in the league, Manning’s passing game enabled the Colts to remain one of the top teams in the league. Both seasons ended with losses to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC playoffs.

In 2009, Manning led the Colts to 14 straight wins and a potential undefeated season before their new coach, Jim Caldwell, decided to sit his starters during the two final regular season games. Manning had five consecutive 300-yard passing games. In week ten, trailing 31-14 to the New England Patriots in the 4th quarter, Manning led the Colts on three touchdown drives for his 32nd 4th quarter comeback victory. He threw a 1-yard winning TD pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds remaining. A fourth quarter play call by Patriot coach Bil Belichick got a lot of play in the media for the the degree of respect it demonstrated for the opposing quarterback. Belichick elected to go for it on 4th down on his own side of the 50 yard line rather than punt the ball to Manning’s Colts. If Belichick had been facing any other quarterback, he probably would have punted. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. The Colts held, and Manning led the Colts to the winning score. For the game, Manning had 4 TD passes and 327 yards passing,

The Colts made it to Super Bowl XLIV but lost to the New Orleans Saints, 31-17. Manning led the Colts to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but the Saints came back to score the go ahead TD with 5:42 left. With a chance to tie the game, Manning moved the Colts to the Saints' 31 yard line, but his third down pass was picked off by Tracy Porter, who returned it 74 yards for a touchdown.

Manning is regarded as one of the most intelligent quarterbacks to have ever played the game. His work ethic is unmatched. His success is a testimony to the rewards of relentless, persistent effort. He is known to call rookie recievers and insist that they meet for practice within days of signing with the team. You can observe Manning's cerebral mastery of reading defenses in his signature pre-snap routine, one of the most distinctive spectacles in the NFL. Prior to each play in a football game, the offensive team typically pauses to huddle. Manning and the Colts frequently skip the huddle, utilizing a hurry-up offense with Manning calling out numerous audibles at the line of scrimmage. The complexity of his offensive signals leaves defensive teams dreading the day when Manning comes to town.

His four MVP awards reflect that fact that so much of the Colts' success is directly attributable to one player. In addition, Manning holds NFL records for consecutive 4000 yard passing seasons and the most 4,000 yards passing seasons in a career. Manning holds the third-highest career passer rating (95.6) behind only Steve Young (96.8) and Phillip Rivers (95.8). He holds Colts’ franchise records for career wins, career passing yards, pass attempts, pass completions, and passing touchdowns.
Before he is done, he has a chance to break every significant all-time record for NFL quarterbacks. He is currently third behind Dan Marino and Brett Favre in career touchdown passes and completions. He is now third in career passing yards, having just eclipsed John Elway on Sunday, October 3, 2010.

Stefan Fatsis of Slate magazine calls Manning a “genius.” In 2009, he was listed by The Sporting News as the No. 1 player in the NFL today and Fox Sports named him player of the decade. Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, thinks Manning might deserve a bit more credit. "When he retires,” says Sabol, “he'll go down as the greatest quarterback of all time."

If you want to see true greatness in action, he is playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.

1 comment:

Ted Keer said...

Thanks, Dennis, that was masterful and thrilling to read.

You leave me in what I would not normally consider the unenviable position of being an Eagles' fan.